More than 200 Mien refugees from across California poured into south Sacramento on Saturday to hear from the man they hope will save their ancient language.
Herbert Purnell, an American missionary and linguist, spoke of his 26-year journey to compile the comprehensive Mien-English dictionary, an 855-page compendium of more than 5,600 words, 28,000 phrases and 2,100 cultural notes laced with myths, poetry and ceremonies.
Dozens of Mien seemed in awe that the 78-year-old scholar could speak their language. They shelled out $32 apiece for the hard-bound volume and lined up to have him sign it at the Iu-Mien Community Services office in the Lemon Hill neighborhood.
They hope it will become the Bible of a culture they say is fading fast in the United States, where their children and grandchildren are steeped in English and western ways.
"Thank you for devoting your life to the Mien people," said translator Koy Saephan. "Identity is not stable in the face of assimilation. I don't think our culture will last beyond this generation."
For centuries the Mien, who originated in central-eastern China and migrated to Southeast Asia, passed on their history and beliefs orally. They fled Communist Laos and settled in the United States in the 1970s and '80s after the Vietnam War. But they've struggled to hang on to the language and traditions, including animist beliefs that rely on shamans, or spirit healers, to cure ailments of body and soul, and guide spirits into the afterlife.
Chiem-Seng Yaangh, one of the first Mien to earn a doctorate, said he and his wife speak Mien to their three teenagers, "but it's a losing battle. They talk English to us, we talk Mien to them, but eventually we forget."
Yaangh is one of several Mien scholars who helped Purnell compile the dictionary. He said "it's one piece of the puzzle to preserve the Mien language worldwide."
In introducing Purnell, Yaangh said: "Here's a non-Mien who's dedicated his life to the Mien as a labor of love. Join me in keeping the Mien language alive. It's not hopeless. It's a glimpse of what's possible."
The Mien – often Iu-Mienh in their own language – "will tell you they are the original Chinese, dating back 4,000 years," said Yaangh.
They originated around the city of Nanjing, but according to legend were forced to leave when drought ravaged China.
"To survive, the Mien people crossed the sea in seven boats, and during our exodus, we were so hungry we tore up the Mien books to eat, and that's how we lost our written language," Yaangh said. "It's a story we've told for centuries."
In about 1400 A.D., the Mien sailed down the Chinese coast to Guongdong province, then spread across China and into Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, Purnell said.
The Mien were able to preserve their spoken language "because we lived in isolation in the mountains of Laos," Yaangh said.
But during the Vietnam War, the Mien, along with the Hmong, were recruited by the CIA's jungle army to battle the Communists. When Laos fell, thousands of Mien fled to Thai refugee camps. About 35,000 crossed another sea, Yaangh said, to start over in the United States.
Today about 12,000 Mien live in the Sacramento area, Yaangh said, making it the Mien capital of the United States.
In the 1950s, a linguist, William Smalley of the American Bible Society, worked with other missionaries in Southeast Asia to create the first romanized Mien script, Purnell said.
"That script was used by a small community of Mien Christians, but other Mien weren't interested," he said.
In 1982, 80 Mien leaders met in Portland, Ore., to create a new romanized, nonsectarian Mien script to help the Mien become more literate, said Purnell.
There are more than 1 million Mien in China, so one of the Portland leaders wrote a letter to Mien in China, Purnell said. He didn't know where to send the letter, but as luck would have it, he bumped into a woman at the post office who was headed to China and agreed to take it.
The woman went to Beijing's minorities university, stopped a Hmong woman and showed her the picture.
"The Hmong lady shook her head 'no' but pointed to a nearby apartment where the woman found professor Bienh, the foremost Mien scholar in China," Purnell said. "He invited four Mien from the U.S. to work on it, and they brought me as their linguist."
For 26 years, Purnell worked on the dictionary. At one point, he lost everything in a fire, but two of his Mien consultants still had drafts.
The dictionary contains terms such as ling daan ndie – a magic herb the Mien thought could restore a corpse to life – and baac-baac, an adverb that means deliberately.
The Mien alphabet is based on English letters, but isn't pronounced the same, so the dictionary has a pronunciation key. The next step is to create an English-Mien dictionary.
The existing dictionary was published by the Center for Lao Studies in San Francisco, which sold 150 copies at Purnell's appearance. A dozen were purchased by Randy Saechao and his wife, Nai, of the Mien First Baptist Church of Oroville. Tzeng Saechao, who works for the Merced City School District, bought eight copies.
The Iu-Mien Community Services agency purchased copies for its free Iu Mien classes on Monday and Tuesday nights.
Fay Saechao, a UC Davis graduate who co-chairs the Iu Mien Student Conference, said: "It's not only a dictionary, it's a history of who we are. I hope to keep this book forever and pass it on to my kids someday."
For information on the free Mien language classes, call (916) 383-3083.