Featured Photograph

Lost and Found

I arrive late to my first hu plig, awkwardly schlepping my bags of camera gear through the front door of an aging tract home in southeast Fresno. I step over dozens of shoes that clutter the narrow entryway, adding my own, conspicuously large runners to the jumble. The ceremony is already underway; two young women sit in the middle of the kitchen facing an altar covered in shiny gold paper and adorned with candles, Chinese herbs, water buffalo horns, incense, a black dagger, and an assortment of prescription medicine bottles. Behind them a dead pig lies belly-down on the floor, legs splayed out from its sides. Hours before the ceremony, in the pre-dawn darkness, the pig was slaughtered, dipped in boiling water and thoroughly scraped, leaving its naked skin the color of a newborn baby. A rope is tied loosely around the two women and then to the pig, connecting their souls. An older, barefoot woman wearing a black hood slowly circles them, beating a gong and chanting in low, musical tones. Next, she picks up a large, iron saber with a heavy blade and drags it behind her, tracing the same circle on the linoleum floor. Cradling a small bowl of water, rice, and a cooked egg in both hands, she positions herself behind the pig. She shouts an incantation, takes a mouthful of water from the bowl and sprays the two women. After repeating this twice, she unties the women, who are now free to go.

The Hmong believe that if you become ill, experience bad luck, or suffer any kind of loss or hardship, it is because your soul has either wandered away from your body or been kidnapped by the Dab ("Da"), spirits which can be either good or bad, depending on the circumstances. The purpose of a hu plig ("hoo plee"), or soul calling ceremony, is to return the soul to its owner. This involves the sacrifice of at least one animal, whose soul is bartered for the missing person's soul in the spirit world. The Hmong believe that pigs, chickens and cows are always reincarnated as other pigs, chickens and cows, so that their souls are only borrowed for the ceremony. Like American families, who pay someone else to kill a turkey for their Thanksgiving dinner, the Hmong invite all of their relatives for a feast following the ceremony. No part of the animal is wasted.

The two young women for whom the hu plig is being performed are actually mother and daughter, separated in age by just 15 years. In a hu plig ceremony like this one, the nature of the person's malady determines the size and quantity of the animals to be sacrificed: in this case the shaman has prescribed one pig and two chickens.

After the two women leave the kitchen, the shaman sets a small pile of "spirit money" on fire and chants softly as it bursts into flame then quickly disintegrates into ashes that fall to the floor. Fortunately, the battery in the ceiling-mounted smoke detector has long since died. Next the shaman lowers the black hood all the way over her face and goes into a ua neeb ("wa neng"), or blind trance, filled with intense musical chanting, wild exhortations, and talking in tongues. She beats out a steady rhythmic accompaniment with a pair of high-pitched finger bells. The energetic performance goes on for more than two hours as complacent family members casually saunter into the kitchen for a cold drink and then go back to the living room to watch Hmong bullfight videos from Laos. The intensity of the hooded shaman's trance builds as she begins jumping up and down on the bench, occasionally leaping to the floor and then back up again. Her sonorant vocalizing weaves a long narrative, part memorized, part improvised, that takes her back through many generations of her family's history, revisiting the births, deaths, marriages, sorrows, and unpaid debts of her ancestors.

For the Hmong, the wooden bench in front of the altar represents a horse which the shaman rides into the spirit world in order to negotiate the return of the missing soul. The Hmong were once an equestrian people, riding small, sturdy horses with thick, bristled manes throughout the mountains of southern China and, later, northern Laos. Very few of these animals are found today in either country, as motorbikes, sawngthaew and other conveyances have made them nearly obsolete.

After more than two hours of extreme physical and emotional exertion, the sweat-soaked shaman steps off her wooden horse, pulls off her black hood, mops her brow and joins nearly fifty relatives for a feast of barbecued pork, chicken soup, rice, boiled vegetables, a congealed blood dish, and assorted cooked entrails. She examines the two chickens that her sons have killed and cooked during the ceremony, breaking into a satisfied smile. The translucent craniums and curved tongues of the boiled fowl are auspicious signs that the souls of the two women have come back. She gives the young mother a new, secret name, in order to trick the Dab into thinking that she is another person so they will not steal her soul again.

– Joel Pickford

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