Dreams of the Hmong Kingdom: The Quest for Legitimation in French Indochina, 1850–1960

Paperback, 401 pages, 6x9, English
by Mai Na M. Lee
ISBN: 978-0299298845

A pioneering, landmark history of the Hmong people and their complex relations with Southeast Asian states and the French in the colonial era

Countering notions that Hmong history begins and ends with the “Secret War” in Laos of the 1960s and 1970s, Dreams of the Hmong Kingdom reveals how the Hmong experience of modernity is grounded in their sense of their own ancient past, when this now-stateless people had their own king and kingdom, and illuminates their political choices over the course of a century in a highly contested region of Asia.

In China, Vietnam, and Laos, the Hmong continuously negotiated with these states and with the French to maintain political autonomy in a world of shifting boundaries, emerging nation-states, and contentious nationalist movements and ideologies. Often divided by clan rivalries, the Hmong placed their hope in finding a leader who could unify them and recover their sovereignty. In a compelling analysis of Hmong society and leadership throughout the French colonial period, Mai Na M. Lee identifies two kinds of leaders—political brokers who allied strategically with Southeast Asian governments and with the French, and messianic resistance leaders who claimed the Mandate of Heaven. The continuous rise and fall of such leaders led to cycles of collaboration and rebellion. After World War II, the powerful Hmong Ly clan and their allies sided with the French and the new monarchy in Laos, but the rival Hmong Lo clan and their supporters allied with Communist coalitions.

Lee argues that the leadership struggles between Hmong clans destabilized French rule and hastened its demise. Martialing an impressive array of oral interviews conducted in the United States, France, and Southeast Asia, augmented with French archival documents, she demonstrates how, at the margins of empire, minorities such as the Hmong sway the direction of history.


Author. Photo credit, NameMai Na M. Lee is an associate professor of history and Asian American studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She was born in Laos and came to the United States when she was a teenager. She was the first Hmong in the United States to earn a PhD in history.





“Provides insight into historic Hmong desires for autonomy, describing the Hmong relationship to a sequence of Chinese, French, Japanese, and Laotian governing authorities.”

“The messianism of the Hmong rebellions, the fractiousness of the Hmong clans, and the opportunism of Hmong relations with other forces mystified colonial powers and have puzzled historians. . . . But Lee, herself a member of the Hmong diaspora, makes sense of these behaviors as she deciphers the community’s myths, symbols, lineage ties, sexual politics, and rituals, with the combined skills of a historian and an anthropologist.”
Foreign Affairs

“No other scholar has tracked this one-hundred-year narrative in such detail. The rich oral histories and presentation of Hmong perspectives make this a welcome work of unimpeds light on clan lineages, gender, orality, and belief systems.”
—Geoffrey C. Gunn, Nagasaki University, emeritus

“This is a mature and sophisticated work, showing a huge knowledge of the region and its peoples, and is also highly readable. In its blending of oral with written accounts, it should have a considerable impact in historical studies.”
—Nicholas Tapp, Australian National University