Xauv (pronounced So), translates into lock. We wear a lock around our necks during New Year celebrations and wedding ceremonies for many reasons. Xauv(s) are made completely out of steel, held together with small chain links and intricately designed pieces, mostly flowers and hearts. As a child I never cared much about the xauv, but as I grew older, I began to question the purpose of wearing such heavy necklaces and why we only wore it for special occasions.
I have heard of two different reasons as to why it is called a “lock.” First, in the Hmong culture, we are deeply rooted by the belief in shamanism and spirits. The xauv is used as a symbol of protection and “locking” down the good spirits as you go through heavy spiritual activity. For example, during a Hmong wedding, when a woman is leaving her family to join her husband’s ancestral line, it is important that they both wear traditional clothing which includes the xauv for good luck.
The second reason I’ve heard why we call it a “lock” is because when Hmong people were enslaved by the Chinese, chains would be wrapped around the necks of Hmong prisoners where they were to be seen as animals and non-human. After liberation, the Hmong people came back to take this scarring moment to say that it was theirs. Hmong people would no longer fear this imprisonment and this “lock.” We were able to take this ugly moment in history and claim it as a true sign of freedom.
When I learned about this darker meaning behind our precious xauv(s), I began to have a greater appreciation for not just this piece of jewelry, but all of our pieces of clothing. I took a closer look at our hand woven skirts that require months to complete, our shirts that are perfectly fitted to one’s liking, and our different hats and turbans that sit on top of our heads to differentiate the areas we come from. Traditional Hmong clothes is not easy to put on and in fact, most of the time you need another person to dress you in order to complete the outfit. This heavy necklace that use to weigh down my neck so much when I was younger was no longer heavy because I now know the stories behind it. The stories that represent freedom, security and safety.
Of course I’ve considered wearing a xauv with my “American” clothes. Aesthetically, it would add a nice accent to my everyday wardrobe, but as a sign of respect for what the necklace is used for and the meaning behind putting it on, I’ve decided otherwise. Recently, I came across a video of one of my favorite YouTube fashionistas, Jenn Im, on her channel, clothesencounters, where she featured a necklace that looked similar to a xauv.
Jenn Im is a very influential Korean-American YouTuber who I looked up to so I had mixed feelings when I saw that a necklace that looked very similar to a xauv was featured. Kathrin Kissau and Uwe Hunger discusses “The internet as a means of studying transnationalism and diaspora” and they state:
Using the internet to enable — and simplify — contact with their country of origin is a central motive for many of the questioned users, suggesting that their individual online sphere and online activities are influenced by their migratory experience.
I did some research on the distributors of this necklace to see if the designer knew of its similarities to the xauv. Jenn mentioned that she purchased the necklace from Urban Outfitters who have been in the news recently for their clothing controversies. Navajos have protested against Urban Outfitters for their cultural appropriation of the Navajos’ customs and designs.
I began to think, if Urban Outfitters is so willing to take these cultural details from the Navajos and appropriating them, what is stopping them from taking a meaningful piece from other cultures and mass manufacturing it just to sell it off as their own? It’s not clear whether or not Urban Outfitters were inspired or influenced by the designs of the Hmong Culture for this specific necklace, but it would be heartbreaking because that would mean they decided not to credit the culture. The only way we can stop these clothing companies from appropriating and making money off of the customs of different cultures is to stop supporting them.
Cintra Wilson, when being interviewed about her book, Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style, states:
“Just see value where it is. I mean, it doesn’t — you don’t have to pay $365 for an army jacket unless you need to for that, you know, conferred status of brand magic.”
The xauv is a very important piece of jewelry that holds many different meanings to the Hmong community. Many people spend months hand crafting and putting together this intricate necklace in celebration of good spirits and as a representation of the Hmong people. Hmong people are free people, and although we love sharing our customs and culture, it would be a shame to only be exploited by western clothing companies.