hmong art

Nia Ngao Zhua Pa: Paragon of Hmong Femininity

The legend of Nia Ngao Zhua Pa is supposed to serve as a code of conduct for Hmong girls, providing a story of a “good girl” versus a “bad girl.”

The end result, at least to non-Hmong ears, is a lot stranger than that.

The core story across all variations of the NNZP story (and there are many – the book I found spent 100 pages on just NNZP stories) is one of those “I’ve made a huge mistake” stories. In all versions, it starts with the male lead, Orphan Boy (who is not the world’s worst Mega Man villain, but instead the anonymous protagonist of many Hmong stories) meeting and romancing the titular Nia Ngao Zhua Pa. In each version, she demonstrates that she’s awesome in a way befitting traditional Hmong femininity:

  • Most often, she makes food and a house virtually out of thin air.
  • In one, she proves she can find clean water in the Orphan’s filthy hovel by following a duck.
  • In another, she teaches the Orphan how to transform into a 12-horned buffalo in order to wrestle with her father, who is a dragon.

You may notice that one of these things is not like the other. That’s Version 3. Version 3 is special.

Inevitably, after showing that she’s awesome, she settles down with the Orphan – who, by this point, has only shown his character by either helping an old lady, startling NNZP’s horse, or burning down a village (hello, Version 3!). They live a pretty nice and comfortable life, until a fly in the ointment appears. This is Nia Ngao Kou Kaw (NNKK).

NNKK is the classic pretty girl. She’s thin, wears fancy clothes, and has soft skin, while NNZP’s somewhat more muscular and has rougher hands from all her hard work. NNKK, seeing the Orphan’s now-baller house, worms her way in by telling the Orphan that NNZP secretly drinks sheep blood. Like, a lot of it. Nine bowls, in fact. In some versions, NNKK even smears her own menstrual blood on NNZP’s sleeping face in order to frame her. Eugh.

The Orphan – who, it must be mentioned, is never mentioned to be a smart man – immediately kicks out the otherwise angelic NNZP. This is not a quick process. You know how fairy tales like to repeat things three times? Cue NNZP telling the Orphan, at length, in triplicate, that he’s a god damned idiot and will regret his actions. Good ol’ Orphan Boy replies, “get out of here, I’m banging a new chick now!” three times, until she’s gone, like an inverse Beetlejuice.

Oh, and in about half the stories, she has a baby at this point. Nice going, Orphan.

NNKK, of course, turns out to be terrible. She’s lazy, burns rice, and lies around like an opium addict (a fact which the narrator harps on a *lot*). In Version 3, she is so lazy that, while chopping a tree, she actually climbs inside of the part she’s chopped up, so she can take a nap – and lays there so long that the tree grows around her and swallows her whole. This woman is Garfield’s god.

By this point, the Orphan has realized he done goofed, and sets out to win back NNZP. Except by this point, NNZP is in the clutches of a dragon, at the bottom of a lake, in a baller house. In most versions, she met and married the dragon after being dismissed by the Orphan. And because she is better off by virtually every conceivable metric, the Orphan sets out to liberate her from her life of peace and tranquility.

The Orphan, being unable to breath underwater, enlists the help of some nearby frogs to drain the lake. They promise to do so if he doesn’t laugh at them as they swell up to gargantuan sizes from swallowing water. The Orphan laughs anyways, because he is kind of a jerk, and causes the frogs’ bellies to burst open repeatedly. Eventually they get it done, but the Orphan is not very helpful in this regard. Or almost any other.

After he meets NNZP on bent knee and begs for her to take him back, she tasks him with a secret mission. He’s to make 9 tubs of water, whose reflection he can use to see her flying around in the sky at night with her dragon beau. If it’s meant to be, she says, he can reach up and grab her from her flying horse, and she’ll be his forever.

So what does the Orphan do? Makes the tubs, sees her flying, and starts grabbing at the god damned water. Yes – this is a person so stupid that he cannot grasp the concept of reflections, and instead of looking up, just keeps confusedly hitting the water with his fists. In several versions, NNZP says “peace out,” drops their baby’s cap, and that’s the end of the story.

Version 3 is a bit more awesome, though. In that one, the Orphan, after far longer than necessary, realizes his stupidity, and manages to grab onto the tails of NNZP’s apron. This leads to the dragon-folk chasing them through the sky as the Orphan hangs on helplessly. NNZP fixes this scenario by using her weaving shuttle to shoot lightning at the dragons. This has led to some Hmong to say, upon seeing lightning, that “Nia Ngao Zhua Pa is weaving.”


My roommates can attest that this one was more difficult for me to draw than most. Given the huge number of things going on in this story, paring it down and making a single image – and figuring out how to portray NNZP – proved really difficult. I created a ton of different concepts and none really spoke to me. But I had a deadline, and several folk kept asking for a Hmong princess, so here you go.

  • NNZP is seen here frustrated as hell at the Orphan’s rampant idiocy. She is so exasperated that she’s crushing the hand of her new beau, the dragon (whose hand is coming out of the water - in Hmong mythology, dragons can easily change form to humans).
  • The Orphan is, of course, slapping a tub full of water, next to some overly-full frogs. The hut in the background is not a traditional Hmong structure, but gets at just how run-down his filthy hovel was before NNZP showed up.
  • NNKK is reclining like an opium addict, wiping off some blood in the lake. Doing anything in rural lakes like this is a huge no-no to traditional Hmong, as they believe dragons live in said lakes. So she’s being pretty dang stupid here.
  • The duck that helped NNZP find water is here also helping her find a good man.
  • There’s a bunch of dragons in the sky around the bolt of lightning.
  • This isn’t even nearly a comprehensive overview of all the variations. I’ve left out subplots involving the Orphan being a messenger for a dragon; said dragon’s son accidentally killing a baby and starting a riot; the Orphan asking for a dead burnt cat from NNZP’s dragon parents (hello Version 3!); parables about how various animals got twisted or curved horns; the Orphan getting a mouse and a snake to kill NNZP’s new husband; and significant amounts of arson. Suffice to say, it’s a pretty wide-ranging folk tale.


Dab Neeg Hmoob: Myths, Legends, and Folk Tales from the Hmong of Laos by Charles Johnson and Se Yang (thanks to my brother for getting this for me – it was hard to find!)


Taking a week to patch things up on the website and introduce a couple features, not the least of which is bringing back the “next week” guesses. Will put out a hint next week and have a new entry up in two weeks!

*HERE IT IS.* A POC space for folks to share their stories–fiction, non fiction, poetry, prose, art, comics, photos–on the unique experience of growing up brown with a white father. This is a compilation where those of us have experienced erasure in so many spaces can speak on what is like to be a person of color, while your father stands on the other side of privilege and patriarchy in a colorist society. Open to all POC with white dads (mixed race, adopted or otherwise). Check out the page for more info and feel free to reach out with questions.



This gave me an immense, uncontained smile seeing this today.

8 yr old Hmong American dancer, Aidan Prince Xiong, killing this choreography! Shout out to this little bundle of greatness! 


We hear from Hmong artisans who explain the batik and indigo process, show us the meaning behind some of their traditional patterns and then give us insights into the challenges they face in accessing new, international markets with their products. The Hmong artisan interviewed speaks in Vietnamese for the interview but briefly sings a lullaby song in her native Hmong tongue later in the film.

Among all the minorities in Asia, only the Hmong know the technique of batik. This method is used to create colors and design on white hemp skirts.  The dye used is indigo, so Hmong women trained in batik dye often have hands stained blue. These days, only a few Hmong women have the skills for batik dye.  It is a time consuming task, but the demand for authentic batik-dyed hemp skirts means, that the art form will at least continue to thrive for a little longer.