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Hmong World View and Social Structure - on Hmong Religion and Social Organization

From: Lao Studies Review, No.2, 1994-95, pp. 44- 60.

Reproduced here with kind permission of the Lao Studies Society, PO Box 44, Bonnyrigg, NSW, Australia



  1. Acknowledgements

  2. Gender Roles and their Ritual Contexts

  3. The Family and Household

  4. Lineage Network

  5. Clan and Sub-Clan Division

  6. Conclusion

  7. References




The research from which this paper originated was made possible by a grant from the Werner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, New York, USA. I have also greatly benefited from original comments by Prof. W.R. Geddes, formerly of the University of Sydney, Australia. This revised version has been enhanced by suggestions from Dr. Marjorie Muecke, School of Nursing, Department of Anthropology, University of California at Santa Cruz, USA. Financial assistance from the Indochina Studies Program of the American Social Science Research Council to present the original paper at the Workshop on Kinship and Gender in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia at the University of Northern Illinois, is also gratefully acknowledged.

According to Durkheim (1961), the source of what we regard as sacred or religious lies within our own image. The deities and spirits we pay respect to are but "society transfigured" for in the final analysis we only worship our society. It is society which is both the cause and the expression of religious sentiments through regular ritual representations (Aron, 1967: 53) These rights constitute beliefs enacted for the purpose of preserving a sense of belonging for the participants and maintaining them together as a group. They not only tie the members of the group to each other "but also to the past and the future generations" (Cohen, 1871: 180). Religious ideas, in the words of Bachofen (Leaf, 1979: 118), define fundamental relations in society, showing internal structures similar to the actual behaviour or the believers. The supernatural order is in general based on the social relationships of the group. It validates and regulates these relationships, thereby conserving the social orders.


In this paper, I will discuss the social organisation of the Hmong of Laos and Thailand in relation to their religious beliefs in order to see if the two spheres mutually interact to maintain the broader social system. It has been said that ancestral spirits are no more than "a projection of the authority system of the living - the lineage elders elevated to a supernatural plane" (Keesing and Keesing 1971: 309). How true is this of the Hmong? I will attempt to locate the social forces which cement them into distinct clans, lineages and gender categories. Here, a clan shall be taken to mean a group of people bond together through birth or adoption by a shared surname, but with few or no other identifications. Members of a clan who can trace decent to a known ancestor are said to belong to a lineage. My discussion will focus primarily on normative prescriptions, and not actual behaviour patterns since the latter varies greatly from one individual to another and has also been partly dealt with elsewhere (Cooper, 1983: 173 - 186). The issues examined here are based on my own life experiences as a Hmong from Laos and on information collected in the field in Thailand, Australia and the US.


Like the Han Chinese who have dominated and influenced them over many centuries, the Hmong seem to live constantly "under the ancestor’s' shadow" (Hsu, 1967). Close observation of ancestor worship is believed mandatory to the fortune of a family or kin group. A person's ritual system determines his or her social groupings, and interpersonal relations are assessed in relation to one's ancestral rites. Such important activities as farming, hunting and gathering often involve people linked to one another by kinship and affinal ties. As well as the need for religious sacrifices to the dead, special occasions like New Year celebrations, weddings, funerals, new harvests or a major crisis bring together living members of a lineage to discharge their mutual obligations. While the elders require the moral and practical support of the young, the latter also seek the guidance and wisdom of the former so that both can fulfil their physical and spiritual needs, thus enabling each group to perform functions expected of them.


Gender Roles and their Ritual Contexts


The Hmong value highly a social system with father-right as the norm. In other words, the male head of the family and those male relatives who represent him in his absence or after his death, have the authority to make decisions affecting the household and the lineage. Their wishes are to be respected by junior males and the female members of the group. Accordingly, young married men should live in the house of their father or any senior male relative who has paid for their wedding expenses. This is a way for them to repay the debt with their services, but in particular to show the need for the wives to be incorporated into the husbands' parental household, together with the willingness of the kin group to guide and to assist the newly married in their marital responsibilities.

After a father has died, his widow who originated from a different clan will normally raise the children among his male relatives and with the latter's aid in order to maintain them within their patrilineal group. As soon as one of her male children is grown enough to act as head of the family, she will retreat into the background to allow him to fulfil the male duties expected of him. Although such a young man may still be single, he is judged to be sufficiently mature for such a role when he shows signs of leadership and a sound decision-making ability.


It has been said that " the married woman among the Meau not only loses every connection with the sib from which she is descended... but also after her death her soul arises anew in the next child of her husband's family" (Bernatzik, 1970: 43). The belief in this form of reincarnation is not accepted by all Hmong, but there is no doubt that after marriage, a woman belongs exclusively to the spiritual world of the husband in that only members of his lineage offer sacrifices to her soul after her death. Her inclusion in their ancestral line, however, does not mean that she is no longer of her parents' clan since she continues to maintain her former clan name to the end. Thus, a married woman in Hmong society still physically remains a member of her clan of birth, but no longer belongs to her parents' lineage and ritual circle because she has already been adopted into her husband's spiritual domain through the rites of marriage. Should she be divorced or widowed, she can always return to her consanguineous relatives but must live separately as only people with the same ritual system can inhabit the same house.


As far as affinal ties are concerned, it has been asserted that after the payment of the bride-price a married woman goes to live with her husband and "never gives anything else to her parents again" (Chindarsi, 1976: 131). Whether it is the Green Hmong of Thailand or the White Hmong elsewhere in Southeast Asia, such a statement is not totally accurate. She may not give because of the long distance between her new residence and her parents, or because of poverty. Regardless of these factors, she and her husband are expected to offer occasionally gifts and practical help to her parents and siblings, to pay visit to them during New Year and in special circumstances, and in general to maintain contact with them.


The role expectations of sons and daughters are symbolised by the places where their placentas are buried at birth. Graham (1937: 39) states that among the Ch'uan Miao of China, another branch of the Hmong, a boy's placenta is "buried deep under a pillar of the house and that of a girl under a door of the house". Geddes (1976: 53) also reports the burial of a boy's placenta near the central post of the house, and the girl's one under the bedroom floor. This tradition is attributed to the belief that for the Hmong the central post holds the house structure as well as the household spirits and religious symbols. A boy's placenta is consigned to this post to represent the role of a male descendant as bearer of the household's ritual responsibility. A girl's placenta is disposed of under the bedroom floor because this is the most convenient place when a woman gives birth at home. There is no symbolic meaning to it since a daughter will not perform social functions of importance for the family and the ancestral group.


The Hmong practise marriage by clan exogamy: they must marry only women from a clan different to their own, and women must go to live with their husbands and the latter's kin group after marriage. Daughters are, thus, often referred to as "other people's women". They are expected to marry and to belong rightfully to strangers from outside their group of birth. As we have seen, they are cut off from their parents' ritual system as soon as they are married. Therefore, they must seek remarriage in the event of divorce or widowhood so that they will have a proper place in the afterlife and avoid becoming "lost souls". This is unless they already have sons in whose lineage they are included as ancestors. Although a son can confer lineage status on his mother, it is usually a husband and his lineal relatives who legitimise her entry into the group's spiritual world. A son can only do so by virtue of his membership in a lineage. In other words, such a son must be legitimate; and if born out of wedlock, he and his mother must have been adopted into a lineage, whether that of his natural father, his mother or some other persons.


Spinsters without male children occupy a rather dubious position in Hmong society. A daughter who remains unmarried all her life, is considered ominous to the life of her lineage. Upon her death, the "maum phauj" (or father's sister's husband) will be asked to cast away her spell from the group so that she will not be born again into spinsterhood or influence other female descendants to fall into the same condition. Despite this belief, unmarried daughters are usually regarded as full members of the family with major economic contributions to make, and not just burden.


Because they are not entrusted with the perpetuation of the family line, the most that can be hoped from female offspring is their labour assistance. When a girl marries, a bride-wealth will be required from her husband. The more industrious she is, the higher the bride-wealth is likely to be. This bride-price is also referred to by the Hmong as "nqi mis nqi hno" or nurturing charge, implying that a girl's parents bring her up at much cost only to lose her to her husband. Although male children are given greater significance, this does not mean that daughters are devoid of parental care and affection, or that spinster relatives are not given offerings after death. Nevertheless, couples without sons may seek to adopt them, or may compromise their monogamy by allowing the husband to marry a second wife in the hope that she will bear him male offspring to take care of the parents during old age, or to provide them with offerings after they are dead.


The aspirations for male descendants may be strong, but it does not lead all parents to prefer sons over daughters in practice. In cases where the sons are incapable or unwilling to contribute to the parental household, parents may even care more about their daughters and sons-in- law. Although the Hmong are usually attached to members of their lineage and value its spiritual protection, these concepts are not absolutely compelling. A married man, for instance, may fail to live in harmony with his parents and relatives, or may wish to exploit resources elsewhere, and thus move with his family away from the kin group. A husband who cannot pay the bride-wealth of his wife may also resort to residence near his relatives-in-law to work off the debt by giving service to them. Thus, it is not unusual to find transgression of residential norms and gender role expectations. Variation obviously exists where physical distance and cultural divergence are involved.


Graham (op. cit.: 26), for instance, states that "formerly the husband lived with the relatives of their wives so that the families may have been matrilineal". De Beauclair (1970: 133) and Mickey (1947: 51) both say that for the Hmong they studied in Southern China, the bride returns to her parents after the wedding and is only visited by the groom until just before the birth of the first child when she joins her husband's household for good. This practice is unknown among the Hmong in Thailand and Laos where residence is patrilocal. Ruey (1960: 29-30) further contends that the Magpie Miao of Szechuan display bilateral elements in their social structure in that they maintain "close association" with relatives of both the husband and wife; and among those in Western Hunan, the old tradition of neolocal residence and independent nuclear families is still followed. From this evidence, he concludes that the present Hmong patrilineal kinship system with patrilocal residence has developed from the influence of the Han Chinese, and that old patterns survive because of poor assimilation of Chinese culture by the Hmong.


Strictly speaking, the Hmong's kinship system is not patrilineal with the inclusion of in-married women into the kin group and the exclusion of daughters who marry into other clans. Membership is based on descent, affinity and adoption, but not on descent on the male side alone. Be this as it may, it is clear that gender roles are usually prescribed for sons and daughters, or for husbands and wives, by religious beliefs. These beliefs centre on the ancestral cult characterised by offerings from all male household heads to the spirits of their dead relatives, especially in any special event requiring the killing of domestic animals as food offerings. Because of this religious responsibility, men's social roles are more prominent than those of women. Women serve the important function of meeting the material needs of the family but they do so without the parallel political or religious responsibilities assumed by the men.


The Family and Household


In order of generality, Hmong social relationships consist of ties within the family, the family line, or marriage. Of course, distance in degrees of relationship cannot be equated with their social importance as this is affected by the nature of physical or emotional proximity and other circumstances. From this point of view, there is no doubt that the nuclear family and the extended household are the smallest unit of Hmong social structure, and the most important psychologically for all members in term of their commitment to one another. A household may have more than one family or generation, and more than one wife married to a man. Household membership, therefore, is not commensurate with memberships of a nuclear family. The Hmong call people living in the same household "one house people" (ib yim neeg) and regard them as "the strongest category of relationships" in their society (Cooper, 1978: 309).


I will now examine the relationships of the "house people" to one another. Whether only one or more married couples live in the same house, a husband and his wife or wives often share sleeping quarters with one another and with all younger children. In a polygamous household, the wives may sometimes have their own separate beds or bed rooms in which they sleep with their children who, upon reaching puberty, move to their own sleeping compartments. At this primary level, the relationships include those of "husband-wife, father-son, father-daughter, mother-son, mother-daughter and brother-sister" (Geddes, op. cit: 46).


In their traditional village setting, all Hmong mothers breast-feed their babies, and generally carry them around on their backs in an apron- style embroidered baby carrier, particularly when preoccupied with household chores or farming activities. In this sense, mothers spend more time on child care than fathers. However, most fathers also share in looking after small children when their wives are too busy or when there are no older children to help. With older children, a father's role is primarily to train his sons in the knowledge and performance of male responsibilities in such spheres of life as agriculture, socialising and religious induction. On her part, a mother teaches her daughters womanly behaviour and tasks related to household work (cleaning and cooking), the procuring of firewood and water, the gathering of food for domestic animals, sewing and embroideries, farming and other activities deemed appropriate for the successful fulfilment of their roles.


It is the mother who admonishes her daughters for any misconduct or shameful acts. When they are "kidnapped" by suitors for marriage, she will challenge their male abductors rather than the father. She and other older females in the group are responsible for counselling younger girls in all matters of the heart. The men will only intervene when matters have come to a head, demanding a major resolution. Should the parents die before the children are married, their socialisation is passed on to paternal grandparents, a parental uncle and his wife, an older son, or an unmarried daughter (Ruey, op. cit: 154). Preference in such cases is vested with the parents and male siblings of the dead father, but a lot also depends on who can assume such undertaking.


There are many prohibitions regarding the relationships between fathers and daughters-in-law. These taboos described by Chindarsi (op. cit.: 79) for the Green Hmong, apply equally to the White Hmong, especially those with the clan names Vang, Yang and Lee. Among the Vang people, a married woman and her husband's father cannot enter each other's bedroom, because it is believed that in former times there was violation of the incest taboo between them since the Hmong see a daughter-in-law in a position similar to that of a daughter. As long as she and her husband continue to share the same house with his parents, she also cannot enter the area separating the family fireplace and the sleeping compartment next to the central post. This area is known as the southern side of the fire place (qab cub), and is the domain of the household spirits. It is believed that if a daughter-in-law steps over this area, she will make offend these spirits who may make blind as retribution. Blindness, of course, is not the only form of punishment by household spirits and women are not the only ones incurring their wrath. The Hmong believe that illness or disability can be the result of spiritual chastisement - for both men and women.


With the Lee or Yang clans, a daughter-in-law cannot climb onto the ceiling of the house to store and retrieve goods. To do this, she would have to pass the central beam which is held by the central post, again the domain of all household rituals. Trespassing this area would amount to showing disrespect to family ancestors, thus bringing harm to her and other members of the household since the house formally belongs to her husband's parents. Once she has her own house, a married woman can go up to its ceiling without fear or harm, because the house is now hers. These are some examples regarding the relationships and obligations of parents and their daughters-in-law. There are other prohibitions applicable to other sets of relationships or other Hmong clans, but these should be sufficient to illustrate role classification and behaviour prescriptions between certain members of a household or nuclear family.


Few Hmong know for long the close ties of the family as an isolated unit. As soon as a son marries and brings his wife to live in his father's house, the family becomes an extended household. Thus, we have firstly a nuclear family, then the male siblings take in their wives and children under the same roof, giving the fullest expression to their relationships in the form of the extended household. This cluster of classificatory brothers will later separate into different households; but they, together with their spouses and children, can become a lineage. Lineal ties will be remembered so long as this brotherhood is remembered. If it is forgotten, the sharing of common ancestral rituals will be evoked in reckoning lineage membership with other people.


Ancestral rituals are used to trace membership in an original family or household, because the closer the blood relations between the living the more common the number of dead agnates invoked for offering by them. In such invocations, a ritual performer begins with the most distant ancestors of the household, followed by each generation of dead relatives on the male side down to the lowest in the line. Only included in these offering are those dead who were in primary and secondary degree relationships. Beyond this range, relatives of lesser age status may be omitted as they are in any case taken care of by their own immediate living relatives. Some members of the original household may have moved to other villages or live a long way away; and with distance over time and space their newborn children will be unknown to those who do not settle close to them. Thus, not all dead or living members of a group can be known and included in one's ritual offerings. Moreover, the Hmong rely almost exclusively on memorising the names of all dead relatives: it is possible and even necessary to overlook some of them from an already long and complex list.


Lineage Network


We have already seen that for the Hmong a lineage is a group of male relatives and their families united around an agnatic core. The brotherhood group and the father who created it form the core of the lineage with membership spanning across all male descendants, their wives and all unmarried daughters. A family can give rise to a lineage which is a descent group leading back to a known procreator. Not all households result in a lineage in a patrilineal society such as that of the Hmong, particularly when there are only daughters born in the group. Households with only female children (whether married or single) will contribute nothing to the life of the lineage, since only men can perform ancestral worship rituals through which the lineage is remembered and perpetuated. So long as there are male descendants who adhere to the cult of ancestors, the lineage will survive. Hence, Hmong parents desire to have sons who will offer sacrifices to ancestral spirits and thus maintain the family line. The need to have sons is, therefore, dictated by a religious sanction which ensures that the physical and spiritual well-being of the parents are taken care of.


Due to this material and religious need, parents prefer that their unmarried sons remain in their household, or live in their village. It is only through the father that sons will learn about the lineage and its attendant rituals. A man who joins his father-in-law does so only in extreme circumstances. Such a move is considered a betrayal of one's own lineal group, a lack of filial responsibilities towards parental and male relatives, or an indication of major discord in the extended household or lineage concerned. A man living with his in-laws is spiritually on his own, despite all the practical assistance he obtains from his uxorial relatives. In ritual matters, he still must perform his own ancestral ceremonies and revere his own ancestors, since he and his family can never be admitted into the cult of his wife's parents as they are not of the same clan or lineage.


The observation of different ancestral rites in the same house is forbidden in Hmong society. The problem cannot be resolved by the adoption of affinal ancestors, for this requires that the son-in-law changes his clan to that of his wife, which is a violation of the practice of clan exogamy in marriage and a defiance of the incest taboo. A Hmong who resides patriuxorilocally, therefore, will have built his own house separately from that of his father-in-law. Beside the rule regarding clan and ritual differentiation, he will anger the father-in-laws house spirits by having sex with his wife in her parental home. Even with young couples working off the bride-price with their parents-in-law, the fact that they cannot pay it at a wedding puts them in a lower social-economic position than those who can free themselves of such bondage. Patrivirilocal residence is the preferred practice, because it allows the continuation of lineage development under the guidance and protection of one's kin group for the interest of its members.


The ancestral cult not only unites the living under one roof or in one settlement through their common ancestors, but also establishes a mutual dependence between the dead and the living descendants through the bond of blood relationships across the generations. The living members of a lineage are to follow the same ancestral rituals without deviating from the group's norms, and to provide mutual help by virtue of their kinship bonds. To the dead, they must pay respect through commemoration and sacrificial ceremonies, to provide their spirits in the other world with food and paper money, and to remember them during feasts and harvests. On their part, the dead relatives will protect the living from misfortune, but will bring harm or sickness if they are neglected or spurned by their descendants.


As postulated by Radcliffe-Brown (1945: 40), this structuring of social relations with religious rituals give incentives to those who take part in them to have a sense of dependence on their ancestors and to remember them for having given the life, while they are spurred on to bring up their young ones to whom they will one day also became revered ancestors. It is this scene of duty to the dead as well as the living that creates a direct association between a Hmong religion and his social structure, particularly his lineage. Ancestral rites are the symbols which express, regulate, maintain and transmit this association from one generation to another, thereby enforcing lineage solidarity and inspiring members to carry out their duties to the living, the dead and those yet to be born. These rites can be found elsewhere (Chindarsi, 1976) and are not discussed here since this is the purpose of the present paper.


With respect to lineage depth, Hmong knowledge rarely goes "deeper than four generations" (Cooper, op. cit: 308). Geddes (op. cit: 52) also discovers that lineage is often of no greater depth than two generations from "the most senior men among the living". These observations apply equally to other Hmong groups where lineage generation depth is often five to eight generations encompassing the dead and the living members of a lineage. Lineage heads are usually the oldest living male descendants of the group, except in the case of a woman who assumes the role after her husband's death. These lineage leaders belong to at least the fourth generation from the lineage founder. They are not called "tus hau zos" (village headman) as stated by Cooper (op. cit.), but carry the title of "tus coj plaub" (trouble bearers), and "tus coj dab" (ceremonial bearers) for their members. They may be, but not always, village heads who are formally appointed or elected for the whole village or a group of villages which contain many lineages. There is only one village headman or woman, but there are many lineage and informal leaders within a settlement.


Space, physical resources, social conflicts, or political upheavals can restrict the expansion of a lineage when some of its members may be forced to move and re-establish themselves in other villages, and more recently even in other countries. This means that the descendants of a lineage are not necessarily residents of one village, but can be scattered over great distance from one another. More commonly, this wide dispersion is often the result of intermittent migration caused by the Hmong's practice of shifting cultivation (Cooper, op. cit.: 308 and Geddes, 1970). The environment in which they depend for their livelihood generally become depleted within ten to fifteen years, and they may have to move elsewhere to seek new land for farming. However, some of them may choose to remain in the old settlement or may join relatives of the wives in other villages. After a few generations, these lineage members will lose track of one another from lack of communications and written records. Their children may be unable to remember the original founders and other descendants of the group, thus forcing some of them to adopt the slightly different ritual practices of neighbouring sub clans in a place of their own.

Lineages are open to division, shrinkage and leadership take- over, as the generation levels increase over time and as its membership disperses in space. To be preserved in a cohesive group worshipping the same set of ancestors, the member must remain together or be separated for only a short time. Long distance migration fragments the group, although some descendants may later reunite. However, unless the original ancestors and rituals are remembered, they may form merely a sub clan rather than a lineage. In some cases, the ritual difference may be so great that only clan membership remains.


Clan and Sub-Clan Division


We have seen that members of a lineage honour the same "parental spirits" in ritual ceremonies, which can be traced to a common original male founder. Above this level, membership of more inclusive groups such as the clan and sub clan also exist. Clan identification is made on the basis of a common surname. When two persons have a similar surname, they are said to belong to the same clan. If they further share similar rituals but without any genealogical connection, then they are of the same sub clan, a grouping intermediate between the sub clan and lineage. A lineage is known in Hmong as a "cluster of brothers" (ib cuab kwv tij), and a sub clan as "one ceremonial household" (ib tus dab qhas). One of the distinguishing features between kinship categories is that members of a lineage can die in one another's house and will be given funeral, but not people related only by clan or sub clan membership.


The clan serves as a reference point for the Hmong to recognise one another as kin or non-kin. It unites them into organised kinship groups, while it also divides them along mutually exclusive patrilineal lines, except for the connections maintained via and wives. If man is of a particular clan, even if they have never met or known one another before. Their relationships will be closer still if they are also of the same sub clan. Persons of the same clan or sub clan without any known blood links refer to each other as "kwv tij" or relatives in the broader sense of the term. Based on the various surnames found in Thailand and Laos, Binny (1968: 380) groups them into 12 clans: Chang, Hang, Heu, Lee, Lo, Mua, Pang, Thao, Vang, Vue, Xiong and Yang. Other clan names also exist, but it is difficult to know how many altogether because of the Hmong's wide dispersion across many countries. The Green Hmong, for instance, share some clan names with the White Hmong, but also have others of their own.


The clan system proscribes marriage between persons of the same clan. It helps a person to identify the groups with which he or she can count on for closer ties and support, despite the fact that the bond of mutual obligations will not be as strong as that between members of a lineage. Of the main religious rituals used to establish sub clan connection, the most common are the "door ceremony" (dab roog) and the "ox ceremony" (nyuj dab) as described by Chindarsi (op. cit: 113- 125). The door ceremony involves the offering of a piglet every one to two years to the spirit of the household's southern door to ask protection for a family's domestic animal. The ox ceremony is performed at irregular intervals, depending on when dead ancestors (parents or grand-parents) require an ox offering. Such requirements will be transmitted to the living through an illness in the family and revealed through shamanic divination.


These two ceremonies are the yardstick by which the Hmong differentiate sub clans, because the number of plates into which the various cooked portions of the pig (door ceremony) or the ox (ox ceremony) are distributed differs from one sub clan to another. For the door ceremony, the pork can be divided into 5, 7 or 9 plates; and for the ox ceremony, all parts of the ox can be put as small cuts into one big bowl; 30 big and 3 small; and 33 big and 3 small bowls. The big bowls of meat are for ancestral spirits, and the small plates for the local spirits of places surrounding the village. One sub clan may divide the pork into 5 bowls, and the ox meat into 13 big bowls and 3 small plates. A second sub clan may have 9 piles for the door ceremony, and 30 big plates plus 3 small bowls for the ox ceremony. Any number of combination is possible within the above variations. If two Hmong discover that they have the same combination, they are said to be of the same sub clan.


There are other criteria employed for the identification of sub clans such as the type of grave construction or the nature of clan taboos. Hmong graves can be a mound of earth with some tree branches on top to protect the corpse from wild animals, a mound of earth surrounded by a plaited bamboo fence, or a mound of earth protected by boulders. Each type of grave is strictly observed by each sub clan. In terms of clan taboos, some sub clans are forbidden to eat animal hearts or pancreas. Again, people who share common grave construction or clan taboos usually see themselves as members of the same sub clan.


However, it is doubtful whether some sub clan members are related other than by clan name. Rituals are likely to undergo changes from their original forms over the generations, since they are only verbally transmitted so that small details can become lost or forgotten. It is believed that originally all Hmong had 33 big bowls and 3 small bowls for the ox ceremony, but smaller numbers had been adopted because some groups could not afford so many bowls and plates. It is not easy to determine if one's sub clan has resorted to such changes over the generations. Thus, when a Hmong finds that he has the same set of ritual as another person of the same clan, it can be a coincidence rather than the sharing of a common sub clan origin. The clan had sub clan rituals discussed do not, therefore, totally reflect the social structure of the Hmong, except at the level of the lineage. This is despite the fact that they are acknowledged means for identifying clan affinity.




I have tried to show how the Hmong organise their social relationships into gender and kinship categories based on the patrilineal ancestral cult. Their conception of existence consists of mutual interaction between the living descendants and their dead ancestors, the latter having the power to aid or punish the former who must revere their memories and wishes. Hmong kinship structure is, therefore, really a ritual structure with religious rites and beliefs specific to each category of relationships such as the household, the lineage, the sub-clan and the clan. Each category carries its own proper ritual prescriptions and performances. A household is more than just a shelter and the people living in it. It is a kin group as well a place for worship, with appropriate domain for its living members and for the spirits of the dead relatives on the male side.


In practice, social relationships are not confined to these kin groups and religious sanctions. The rule of patrivirilocality, for example, does not prevent a Hmong married man from having social contact with relatives of the wife, particularly her parents and brothers. A special bond may be developed between them when one party is in a more economically advantageous position than the other, although no ritual links are evident. For this reason, Hmong religious beliefs cannot be said to dominate all relationships. A man may have obligations towards his parent-in-law and their descendants, but these obligations are not manifested in his rituals.


The Hmong, indeed, maintain close connections with affinal ties, but reserve their ceremonies to agnatic ancestors. These ceremonies serve to place the lineage dead on a supernatural level while also preserving the power structure and gender relationship of the living. Because of this, Durkheim's assertion that the source of religion lies within our own image, as stated at the beginning of this paper, only partly applies to the Hmong. To a large extent, they can be said to worship their own images (represented by their ancestors), but more precisely the images represented only by the male lime of decent. These worship activities clearly define the position of each Hmong, male and female, within a social system in such a way that both the religious observation and the social mutually reinforce and justify each other's existence.




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  • Hsu, F.L.K. 1967 Under the Ancestor's Shadow (New York: Doubleday Anchor).

  • Keesing, R.M and Keesing, F.M. 1971 New Perspectives in Cultural Anthropology (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston).

  • Leaf, M.J. 1979 Man, Mind and Science (New York: Columbia University Press).

  • Mickey, M.P. 1947 The Cowrie Shell Miao of Kweichow (Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum).

  • Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. 1945 "Religion and Society", J Royal Anthropological Institute, 75: 33-43

  • Ruey, Y.F. 1960 "The Magpie Miao of Southern Szechuan", in Murdock, G.P. ed Social Structure in Southeast Asia (Chicago: Quadrangle Books).

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