White Hmong Kinship - Hmong Kinship

Terms and Structures

Hmong World, 1, Yale University Southeast Asian Studies, 1986



  1. Common Kinship Terms

  2. Discussion

  3. Conclusion

  4. References


According to Graburn (1971: 2), a society structures its members into positions based on a number of principles. The many persons to whom an individual may relate are classified into categories which determine their behaviour expectations towards one another and maintain them together as a group. The totality of these expectations and culturally determined relationships forms the group's social structure. Thus, an understanding of a society's structure necessitates the examination of the ways in which its members form themselves into social groups, the relationships between the groups, and between individual members, as well as the types of ideal and actual behaviour found among them.

Kinship is one of the principles by which human societies develop their social structure. As defined by Murdock (1960:92), kinship is a "structured system of relationships in which individuals are bound one to another by complex interlocking and ramifying ties". However, unlike other forms of social organisation such as the family or the village community, the interpersonal relationships of a kinship system do not in all cases lead to the formation of localised social aggregates closely associated with one another. This is despite the fact that kinship ties are based on affinal (marital) relationships between a husband and his wife, and on consanguineal (biological) relationships between parents and their children who form the nuclear family, "the basis for kinship in nearly all societies" (Schusky, 1972: 7).


These mutual relationships are usually differentiated by the terms used by members of the system to address, or to refer to, one another. Such kinship terms are essential guides to social behaviour, placing people into categories and assigning them statues and roles. In the words of Fortes (1969: 54), a kinship term "is a package of definitions, rules and directions for conduct... a store of information but also a tool of action". It forms an intricate part of what Murdock (op. cit.: 97) recognises as the reciprocal behaviour characterising every relationship between kinsmen.


Although many ethnographic accounts exist on the Hmong, little attention has been paid to Hmong kinship terminology, despite its importance in understanding Hmong kinship behaviour and social structure. Graham (1937: 13-71) and de Beauclair (1956: 20-35), in their writing about the Ch'uan Miao (Hmong) and the Red Hmong in South western China, concern themselves mostly with customs in such areas as marriage, funerals, economy and religious beliefs. Geddes (1976) in his recent book on the Green Hmong of Northern Thailand discusses at length their social relationships and groupings, but does not touch on kinship terminology. Bernatzik (1970: 48 60) and Heimbach (1969: 493-97) give a list of the most common terms without elaborating on them, while Copper (1978: 297-320) explains Hmong social categories with only a few terms mentioned. Only Lemoine (1972a: 173-181) and Ruey (1960: 143-155) have attempted to analyse kinship terms used among the Green Hmong of Laos and the "Magpie Miao" of Southern Szechuan. The literature on the White Hmong so far concentrates on marriage and funeral customs, or on shamanism only (Bourotte, 1943; Grossin, 1926; Moréchand, 1955 and 1969; and Mottin, 1975). A tentative discussion of White Hmong kinship terms will be done in this article in the hope of filling this void.


Common Kinship Terms


The kinship terms given below are mainly reference terms with a few address terms. For members of a nuclear family, the terms expected to be employed are shown on Chart I, which represents a polygynous household with only primary-degree relationships.


Terms for Members of a Family


  • Parents











In a polygynous household, the co-wives are referred to or addressed by the husband, their children, any third party, or by one another as:


  • niam hlob for the first wife. In the case of the children, the term applies only to those who belong to the other wife or wives.

  • niam nrab for the second or middle wife. The word nrab means literally "middle" or "in between", and when used with the word "wife" it refers to all the wives between the first and the last or youngest one. Thus, no matter how many "middle wives" a man has acquired, they are all called niam nrab.

  • niam yau for the last wife. yau means "young" or "junior". Alternatively, she can be addressed as niam me ("little or junior wife"), and the first wife as niam loj or "senior wife".


  • Children

Me nyuan is the term for children in general when the speaker is merely making reference. This can be broken into:









When brothers refer to one another, the term used are:

  • kwv tij, for all brothers of the same parents when the speaker is male. This term is a combination of two other terms:

    • kwv, younger brother of male speaker, and

    • tij laug, older brother(s) of male speaker.


For sisters, the terms for mutual address and reference are:

  • viv ncaus, a term meaning "sisters" and used by persons other than those involved in such relationship. Unlike the general term kwv tij for brother, viv ncaus cannot be broken up to designate older or younger sister for the White Hmong. Apparently, the Magpie Hmong (Ruey, op. cit., p. 148) adopt the term viv for older sister, and ncaus for younger sister. The White Hmong, however, know only the referent niam laus for older sister, and niam hluas for younger sister.

  • As evident in Chart I, there are no distinguishing terms for the children of the different wives of a man. Though of different mothers (but the same father), the children refer to one another as if they all belong to one mother by the rule that all the sons of a father are kwv tij ("true brothers"), and his daughters are all viv ncaus to one another. Together, these sons and daughters constitute a group of nus muag. By extension and in relationship with the sons and daughters of their father's brothers, the whole set forms ib cuab kwv tij or a lineage. This, however, is in the realm of secondary social relations, and we will now turn to these secondary categories.


Second-degree relationship terminology


In this grouping fall all those relatives who are related to the primary relatives of Ego but are excluded from the latter usually by virtue of the fact that they are born into it. A person, of course, does not have to be born into a nuclear family to be considered among its members, since he or she can be adopted from outside but still treated as a natural part of the group along with all the social expectations such a membership implies. Murdock (op. cit., p. 94) identifies 39 potential secondary relatives for every person, including HuWi (Co-spouse), HuSo or HuDa (by other wives), FaWi (other than Ego's mother), FaSo (the sons of Ego's father's other wives), and FaDa (half-sister). However, as we have already seen, these categories are included with primary relatives in Hmong kinship terminology, because they are all related to the same husband or father, for our purpose here, we shall exclude them from secondary relationships, and retain only the following terms illustrated in Chart II.


Thus, White Hmong second degree relatives and their corresponding terminology are:



























































This completes kinship terminology used by the White Hmong for secondary relatives. Ideally, the Hmong identify more with relatives on the paternal side than with those related through affinal bonds. One's kin group is differentiated from other groups by the clan name which one shares with them. People with a similar clan name are seen as related no matter how biologically or geographically distant they are from one another. Maternal relatives belong as a rule to a clan different from that of one's father and do not share the same sets of ancestral rites. Thus, the more different the clan name and the ancestors, the less are the people considered to be related. A clan name may indicate a common mythical origin, but to be included as a member of a lineage a man has to possess the same ancestor cult as other members of the group. Moreover, the male relatives will always have more significance than female ones, the latter being regarded as belonging almost exclusively to their husbands' clans after marriage. Hence, the absence of many kinship terms to differentiate between female relations when compared

with those for male.


Third-degree Relatives


According to Murdok (op. cit., p. 95), each secondary relative "has primary relatives who are neither primary nor secondary relatives of Ego, and who may thus be termed tertiary relatives" (emphasis original). Since there are 151 possibilities of such relationships, it is neither practical nor useful to list them all and to represent then al a chart. I will confine myself, therefore, to the most common terms for relatives of this category in the White Hmong kinship system. Among them ran be found the following:




































A glance at these kinship terms indicates that the Hmong kinship system is not comparable to the English system, despite the fact that both are patrilineally-based. In the English model, kinship is looked at through both the father and the mother, and their children (the nuclear family), embracing relatives from both the maternal and paternal sides with the s me classificatory terms with respect to the husband and wife. The children and the wife assume the father's surname (hence, patrilineal to this extent), but equal importance (or unimportance, for that matter) is placed on FaBr and MoBr who are both referred to as uncle, on MoSi and FaSi both called aunt, on the children of these uncles and aunts, and on the grandparents of both sides. That the Hmong model is different seems evident by the fact that different kinship terms exist to describe each of these relationships, perhaps with the balance leaning slightly towards those relatives on the paternal side.


Biologically Distant Relatives


In general, it is not possible for a Hmong to remember relatives for more than four or five generations above or below Ego (Cooper, 1978: 3C8, and Geddes, 1976: 52). This seems to be true of relatives who are in more than four-degree relationship with Ego horizontally. For this reason, the Hmong do not always have kinship terms for these biologically distant kin. This applies also to relatives of the third degree or second degree, so long as they are not clan relatives. For instance, Ego refers to his sister's son as "son" in the same way as he does with his brother's son. However, SiSo is called "son" only by virtue Ego's relationship with his sister (sibling), and clan and patrilineage. When a relative is too distant, he or she is often referred to with a kinship term used by the person in closest relationship with the speaker, eg. MoMoBr = MoBr. WiMoFa = MoFa, and FaFaBrSoSo = FaBrSo.


Because a person can have hundreds of those distant relatives, the kinship terms given below will be limited to those most commonly found in White Hmong society.


  • Quaternary Relatives










  • Quinary Relatives

  • Six-degree Relations



It can be seen that the further removed a relative is from Ego, the more common are terms used for relatives of the second and third degrees. This suggests that terminology for the more distant relatives is but extension of that existing for the more prevalent or closer relationships, since the system of terminology does not adequately cover those relatives in the fourth to the sixth degree. As the social distance increases between Ego and his kin, we have to resort to terms employed by those relatives in primary relationship with Ego to refer to relatives in tertiary or quaternary relationship. Many more combinations of these relationships could be listed, but this is not done here for this simple reason.




As stated by Lemoine (1972a: 178), kinship terminology for the Hmong as with other peoples, exists to help them in referring to their affine and kin, and to distinguish between these politically, religiously, and economically. A Hmong marriage unites not only two persons of the opposite sex, but also two families and clans, even though the marriage is not one arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. A man's social status depends on the number of his patrilineal relatives, those of his wife and mother, and, to a lesser extent, the descendants of the female relatives on his father's side.


A brief examination of White Hmong kinship terms reveals that terminology extension through teknonymy and tekeisonymy seems to be the norm. It is not my purpose to discover the reasons for the existence of Hmong kinship terms. Determinants of kinship terminology have been discussed by other writers and summarised by Murdock (op. cit., pp. 113-183). I have only tried to list the most common White Hmong kinship terms, and to see from them how the Hmong kinship system is structured. According to one writer, the terminology is a method of classification and what it shows is how various systems classify kin folk and affine (Morgan, 1870).


It can be seen that the Hmong more or less group their kin, according to the eight criteria deduced by Kroeber (19 9: 77-84): (1) different or same generation; (2) lineal or collateral relation; (3) relative age within the sane generation; (4) sex of relative; (5) sex of speaker; (6) sex of person who is a link between one relative and another; (7) consanguine or affinal relationship; and (8) whether a linking relative is dead or alive. There is a preponderance of kinship terms based on age (eg. older or younger brother), generation (eg. father, son, uncle), and sex (brothers, sisters, aunts). Often, a married woman is an important link between her relatives on her parents' sides and her affines, as when her brother refers to her son as "son", not because SiSo has the same social significance as BrSo or one's own son but because SiSo is referring to through Si; that is, as if one is speaking as Si; that is, as if one is speaking as Si referring to her own son. When such a linking relative is distant or dead, her affines or descendants are usually forgotten unless they are geographically and socially close to her original kin group, for instance FaFaBrDaDa.


Classification based on age is most obvious between older brother (tij laug) and younger brother (kwv), father's elder brother (txiv hlob) and younger brother (txiv ntxawn). This importance of age seems less prominent among female relatives, when there are no separate terms for elder sister and younger sister and both are simply referred to as viv ncaus ("sisters"). All FaSi are also collectively called phauj irrespective of whether they are older or younger than Fa This difference in terminology between male and female relatives could be attributed to the fact the Hmong kinship system is patrilineal, considering a daughter as belonging almost exclusively to her husband's clan once she is married (a women once married, can never again live and die under the sane house spirits as her consanguineal kin, whether she later becomes widowed or divorced-she must carry on under her former husband's ancestors and spirits).


Terminology differentiation between brothers and male kin of different ages is perhaps due to the respect for age commonly found among the Hmong and the Chinese, the latter having exerted much religious and cultural influence on the former. This respect for seniority is also shown in the cult of ancestor-worship, although the Hmong cannot usually remember their ancestors for more than four or five generations and often do not have kinship terms for these relatives. This is evidenced by the terms yawg ("grandfather') and yawg koob ("great grandfather") which are often used indiscriminately to refer to all ancestors above Ego's father's generation.


More significant than classification based on age and sex is classification based on marriage and descent, or lineal and collateral relatives. Among relatives classified in this way are three main groups. In terms of closeness (both with respect to rituals and affection), we have: (1) the patrilineal relatives, all male descendants on the paternal side and their close relatives; (2) the consanguineal and affinal relatives of all females married into the group; and (3) the descendants and affinal relatives of all females originating from the group and having married into other clans. Thus, we can distinguish one group of patrilineal relatives, and two groups of collateral relatives among the Hmong. All males of the same generation in the lineal group are referred to as kwv tij ("brothers"), even though they would be more appropriately called male parallel cousins since many of them do not belong to the same set of parents. Male and female relatives in this category call one another nus muag ("brothers and sisters"); and all female relatives address one another as viv ncaus ("sisters"). It is forbidden for them to marry one another so long as they belong to the patrilineal group and have the same clan name.


Thus, no terms exist for parallel cousins on the male side, eg. Ego and FaBrSo or FaBrDa (Ego is here either male or female), because all descendants from the males of the patrilineal group are regarded as brothers and sisters, but not cousins. This rule, however, does not apply to what I referred to above as collateral relatives, or descendants of MoBr, MoSi, and FaSi. MoBrSo and FaSi are all referred to as npawg ("cousins"), tij npawg if older than male speaker, and kwv npawg if younger. MoBrDa and FaSiDa are both called muam npawg ("female cousin") by a male speaker, and viv ncaus (npawg) (female bilateral cross-cousins) by a female speaker. Nus npawg is used by female Ego in referring to MoBrSo and FaSiSo, either of whom can marry Ego. This means that for the White Hmong at least, a male is allowed to marry either his MoBrDa or his FaSiDa and MoSiDa (all of whom are his muam npawg), but never his FaBrDa who is considered his own sister. Hence, distinguishing terms exist only for cross cousins.


However, going one generation above Ego and still referring to parallel cousins and cross-cousins, we find that there is no term which the parental generation can use to, refer to their cousins' children. BrSo and SiSo are both called tub (''son") by both male and female speakers; and BrDa and SiDa are called ntxhais ("daughter"). Here again, the principle of terminology extension through tekeisonymy (the opposite of teknonymy) seems to apply. The Hmong practice the levirate and it would be logical to expect a BrSo to be seen as one's own son. But when this term is used with SiSo (who is not related to Ego's clan), this is due to terminology extension, whether the speaker is male or female. This seems to be a widespread rule in Hmong kinship terminology as has been shown repeatedly in the course of this discussion.


Because White Hmong distinguish between lineal and collateral relatives, it can be said that they have a descriptive kingship system. They also distinguish MoBr (dablaug) from Fa (txiv) and FaBr (txiv hlob or txiv ntxawm). FaBr is seen as belonging to the father's generation but is called by a different term from Fa (txiv). Since FaBr could thus be regarded as Fa, the Hmong could be said to have a bifurcate merging system of kinship (Schusky, Op. cit., p. 19-20). Despite this, it is not clear if White Hmong kinship is of the Eskimo, Hawaiian, Sudanese or Iroquois system on the basis of cousin terminology. Not all cousins are separated from siblings (e.g. all FaSiSo, FaSiDa, MoSiSo and MoSiDa) as is the case of the Hawaiian system. It is obvious now that the Hmong do not distinguish cousins between one another and between siblings, according to the Sudanese type. The Iroquois system equates parallel cousins with siblings, but not cross cousins. This appears closer to the Hmong system; and yet the Hmong only equate FaBrSo and FaBrDa with siblings, not MoSiSo and MoSiDa unless these happen to be related to Ego because their fathers also are from Ego's clan.

Perhaps, it is not that there is an anomaly within the kinship system of the Hmong, but rather that these four systems are too narrowly defined so that the Hmong system does not fit into any of them. As Lowie points out, any given system is a complex historical growth that cannot be adequately defined as a whole by some such "catchword" as classificatory, Hawaiian or what not (Lowie, 1917: 116). Needham echoes this basic issue when he writes (1971: 15):

There really is no such thing as an Omaha terminology, except that of the Omaha themselves, and it leads only to confusion and wrong conclusions to suppose that there is.




However, we may look at Hmong kinship terms and their importance in the analysis of Hmong kinship structure and classification, there is no doubt that it is primarily based on the family unit and the patrilineal clan. A Hmong person always feels closer to members of his nuclear and extended families, and to members of his clan. He possesses more rights and obligations within these units than with members of others groups and clans. This seems reflected to some extent in the kinship terns he uses for his FaBrSo and FaBrDa ("brothers and sisters") as opposed to those for FaSiSo, FaSiDa, MoBrSo, MoBrDa, and MoSiSo and MoSiDa (npawg: "cousins"). This is if we accept Radciffe-Brown's proposition that people who are called by the same term are those who have similar obligations to one another, since the nomenclature of kinship is often used as a means to establish and recognize a category to which a person belongs and by which "the actual social relation between an individual and his relative, as defined by rights and duties or socially approved attitudes and modes of behaviour, is then to a greater or less extent fixed..." (Radcliffe Brown, 1952:63). A term refers to a category of relatives and different categories will be distinguished by different terms.




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