Over centuries, Hmong people have moved from mountain to mountain, home to home, country to country, crossing rivers and valleys in search of an escape from oppression. The Txiv Xaiv (Plig) ritual and chant has survived serial exodus and diaspora that Hmong people have experienced. This ritual encodes Hmong historical and cosmological understandings as an oral text, passed down from master to student, and performed at funerals to apply that understanding in the management of souls--ultimately to send them home. The Txiv Xaiv (Plig) serves as a glue, connecting the past generations to the generation of today and the generations of tomorrow. A funeral without a Txiv Xaiv is like a tree without its roots. Its ability to preserve Hmong history, morals, and traditions is unparalleled, but the dispersion of Hmong communities across a now global diaspora threatens the vitality of this oral text. An ethnographic film constitutes a critical and central empirical element of this thesis. This film, entitled Returning Home, draws on the affordances of visual and sonic mediums to both depict this oral text and the practices associated with it, and to unpack the cosmology of personhood encoded in the text, which Hickman (2014) calls "ancestral personhood". The film centers on a particular form of the Txiv Xaiv Plig that was preserved by a paramount Master, Shong Ger Thao, who passed down a critical version of the ritual to the director of Returning Home (and author of this thesis) before he passed away. This version of the ritual has the unique capacity to manage the soul of a person who did not receive a complete funeral and proper burial when they passed away, such as the post-1975 exodus from Laos, when Hmong families had to flee for their lives and many people were killed in the jungle along the way. By fate or coincidence (most Hmong would err on the side of fate), the first time that the director of this film was called upon to perform this Txiv Xaiv Plig was for an ex-post-facto funeral for Master Shong Ger's wife, Kia Yang, who had passed away during the lock-down phase of the Covid-10 pandemic, when large gatherings (necessary for a proper Hmong funeral) were not permitted. This film draws on this poetic circle of the passing down of knowledge and putting it into practice, in order to demonstrate the value of the knowledge that Master Shong Ger had preserved, specifically through the use of that knowledge to manage his own late wife's soul, thus completing the circle from one generation to the next in Master Shong Ger's family. This project--the written thesis in conjunction with the film--advances a "Hmong Oral Knowledge" approach that is critical to both understanding and preserving Hmong cosmology. This approach puts Hmong cosmology and philosophy into dialogue with scholarship being produced about Hmong communities across the world which tends to treat Hmong ideas as mere data-to-be-analyzed. The thesis focuses on the substance of Master Shong Ger Thao's philosophy (derived from Hmong oral ritual), in order to "look" and not just "see" (MacDougall 2019) human experience from a Hmong theoretical perspective. Given the primacy of oral and physically performative ritual practice, this thesis employs the medium of film in order to engage with Hmong ritual knowledge and practice in its own terms. The film provides a 'thick depiction' of these practices, and seeks to explicate the cosmology of the 'three souls' model of personhood that underpins these practices, while also focusing on the legacy of Master Shong Ger Thao, who cultivated and preserved the details of this cosmology and the oral texts that encode it.



College and Department

Family, Home, and Social Sciences; Anthropology



Date Submitted


Document Type





Hmong cosmology, three souls, ethnographic film, anthropology of ritual, indigenous research methodologies, mortuary ritual, intellectual history, oral knowledge