Hmong Meaning, History and Origins Explained As Sunisa Lee Wins Gold at Tokyo 2020

Team USA scored another Tokyo 2020 win on Thursday, with Sunisa Lee bagging a gold medal in the women's gymnastics all-around final.

Lee, whose parents emigrated from Laos, is the first-ever Hmong American Olympic gymnast, as well as gold medalist.

As the country celebrates Lee's historic win, we take a closer look at the history and background of Hmong people.

Hmong Meaning

The Hmong American Center, a nonprofit based in Wisconsin, explains that the Hmong are defined as an ethnic group of people who originally came from China. With a history spanning over 4,000 years, Hmong have a unique culture and language.

Sunisa Lee at Tokyo 2020 final.
Sunisa Lee at the women's gymnastics all-around final at Tokyo 2020 on July 29. Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Hmong in the U.S.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau published by the Pew Research Center based in Washington, D.C., the Hmong population in the U.S. was reported to be 327,000 in 2019.

The U.S. Hmong population has been rising from the year 2000, when it was reported to be 186,000.

According to a 2010 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, from the country's 20 metro areas with the largest Asian population, Hmong are among the three Asian groups with "the highest alone-or-in-any-combination population in 1 metro area each."

The report stated: "The Hmong population was the largest detailed Asian group in two states (Minnesota and Wisconsin).

"The Hmong population (64,000) was the largest detailed Asian group in Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI," according to the report.

Hmong History and Origins

The Minnesota Historical Society explains the Hmong originated near the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in China, as suggested by oral tradition and evidence from archives and archaeology.

For centuries, they lived autonomously in China's remote regions and retained their unique culture amid an ongoing conflict with Imperial China.

Hmong farmers are credited with being among the first people to "cultivate rice and to spread this staple throughout Asia," according to the MNHS.

Following "major uprisings" in China, which "occurred when Chinese rulers used military might to suppress the Hmong and other ethnic minorities," according to the MNHS, many Hmong people migrated to the mountainous regions of southeast Asia. These areas are known today as Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and Vietnam.

The Hmong American Center says that some Hmong people migrated to the aforementioned southeast Asian countries in the early 1800s "as a result of land expansion by the Chinese government."

Hmong women harvesting tobacco in Asia.
Hmong women in traditional costume harvesting tobacco in Asia. Hmong are an ethnic group of people who originally came from China. pressdigital via iStock/Getty Images Plus

Hmong and the Vietnam War

During the early 1960s, some Hmong were recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to help the country fight a "secret war" in Laos against the North Vietnamese and the communist Pathet Lao.

The Hmong American Center explains: "The Hmong played many critical roles under the directions of the U.S. CIA, including harassing the communists on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, providing intelligence about enemy operations, guarding U.S. strategic radar installation, and rescuing down American pilots.

However following the war, Hmong were "singled out by the victorious communist governments of Laos and Vietnam," the center notes. "The Hmong were hunted down, taken to concentration camps, put into hard labor and persecuted. Their villages were sprayed with chemical weapons and bombed with napalm."

According to the Hmong American Center, it is estimated that over 10 percent (35,000) of the Hmong in Laos "died as a result of the war and its aftermath." Many of those who survived "suffered physically, mentally and emotionally until this day," the center said.

Since 1975, after the U.S. pulled out of South Vietnam, thousands of Hmong left Laos, seeking asylum in many European and Western countries, such as the U.S. and Canada as well as Australia, France and Germany, the Hmong American Center says.

Rice fields in northwest Vietnam.
Rice fields in the Mu Cang Chai district of northwest Vietnam. VichienPetchmai via iStock/Getty Images Plus