339th Meeting – Tuesday, October 11th 2011
A talk by
Center for Ethnic Studies & Development, Faculty of Social
Present: David James, Mangkhoot, Brian Prior, Reinhard Hohler, Brigit and Bruce Vaughan, Jacque Leider, Elaine Fraser, Todd Saurman, Charles Keyes, Smutkupt Suriya, Mukdawan Sakboon, Louis Gabaude, Pierre Chaslin, Jennifer Dyson, Piyachat Lok, Rebecca Weldon, Hans Bänziger, Klaus Bettenhausen, Janet Illeni. An audience of about 25
talk presents the transforming of Hmong kinship identities in northern
1. Contemporary Phenomena of Ethnic Surnames
among the highland ethnic minorities in
During the past few months, my colleagues and I conducted a household survey in Kallayaniwattana District, which had separated from Mae Chaem District a few years ago, and I found out that they hold different surnames. Traditionally, Karen people do not have a surname system. They were obliged by local district officials to have surnames and nowadays they hold numerous new surnames. Interestingly, some of their surnames can be categorized as followings:
Surnames I: Local place
• โสภณแม่แจ่ม (Gorgeous Mae Chaem)
• รักษ์บ้านจันทร์ (Take Care Ban Chan)
• เสน่ห์ปางหินฝน (Charm Pang Hin Fon)
• สนวิเศษ (Excellent Pine)
• ชุติมานัยนา (Chutima Naiyana – a movie star)
Karen Surnames II: Prosperity surnames
• เงินทองมากล้ำ (Much silver and gold)
• เงินทองเกิดดี (Silver and gold born in good)
• ลีลามีทรัพย์ (Have property manner)
• ทรัพย์เจริญยิ่ง (Most progress property)
• หาทรัพย์คล่อง (Skillfully search for property)
Karen Surnames III: Mountain and forest surnames
• สวะชาวดอย (Plenty of mountain people)
• ใจรักคีรี (Heart loves mountain)
• ขุนเขาโอฬารยิ่ง (Magnificent huge mountain range)
• ราษฎร์บำรุงไพร (Civilian cares for forest)
• ทองภูคีรีไพร (Mountain mountain forest gold)
• สุขตามยอดดอย (Happy on mountain top)
• พิทักษ์ภูมิปัญญา (Protect local wisdom)
Indeed, it is not only the Karen ethnic group but other groups also get new surnames as well. Those names were both chosen/created by themselves and local district officials. Some prominent examples are:
• ศรีชาวป่า (Glory foresters) among the Mlabri
• เมลืองไพร (Flourish forest) among the Mlabri
• ไทยใหม่ (New Thai) among the Morgan
• ย่อภูเขาสูง (Lower down high mountain) among the Hmong
Among other highland ethnic groups who traditionally have their own surname systems, they originally registered with their ethnic surnames. Later on, younger generations attempted to change to Thai surnames at local district offices. Consequently, relatives, who traditionally share one surname, disagree on sharing a new Thai surname, then break down to different Thai surnames.
conducted a research project in one district of Chiang Mai province, I
interviewed a local district official and he clarified that “For
want to obtain birth certificates, we will not issue it if the parents
give a newborn baby’s first name in
Instead of servicing only at the district office, the Department of Local Administration provides mobile teams and offers new surnames, lists of thousands of names, for highland people to choose in highland communities A newspaper report in 1983 described how the Ministry of Interior organized mobile teams to offer Thai names and surnames for mountain peoples.
general non-Thai ethnic groups who do not hold Thai surnames, they
obtain Thai surnames. In
there are more and more non-Thai ethnic peoples attempted to obtain new
surnames, the Department of Provincial Administration, Ministry of
a list of new, acceptable surnames and asked the Buddhist patriarch to
opening for people to choose. According to the news item below, some
wake up as early as four o’clock in the morning to queue up for
new surnames. Each year the Department creates a list of around 2,000
new surnames for people to choose at it’s booth at the annual Red
at Suan Amporn in
My main point here, I would argue, is that obtaining new Thai surname is part of the processes to transform non-Thai ethnic identity to become Thai, since surname identifies kinship relations. Furthermore, kinship is an ethnic identity. Therefore, I am going to present the case of Hmong ethnic group here.
2. Hmong Kinship and Identity
Hmong Kinship and Identity
Hmong society is patrilineal. The three main structuring principles of their kinship system include clan (xeem), subclan (thooj dab), and lineage (koom pog-yawg). Although clan members assume that they share the same great-great ancestor, they cannot trace their lineage back to any known common one. The only justification for reorganizing common clan membership is the myth about the origin of Hmong clans, which has been passed down from generation to generation. Among the subclan members, a common ancestor also cannot be traced. What ties them together is a common pattern of ritual practices, e.g. ox ritual, door ritual, funeral ritual, and type of grave. For members of a lineage, the common identity is that they share a known ancestor. Based on the Hmong animist belief, a male individual is considered an automatic participant in his family’s pattern of ritual performances, while a female has to follow her husband’s rituals once she has married and moved out from her natal clan. To Hmong women the departure from their natal ritual group implies that their relationship with subclan and lineage members has been cut, although brothers and sisters, or their offspring, become external investigators at the other's funeral ritual.
The Hmong kinship structure consists not only of blood (consanguine) and marital (affinal) ties but also common rituals and myth. Blood and marital ties are genealogical, while the ties of rituals and myth are cultural. Regarding genealogical ties, anthropologists have justified three different sorts of relations: descent, siblingship, and affinity.
Cultural ties are based on common identity which is either constructed by members of the society or adopted from the outside. It is the cultural ties that unite the Hmong clan and subclan members, while genealogical ties bind lineage members. Essentially, cultural ties promote change, according to the contexts of time and space.
leaders of kin groups play a significant role in reproducing Hmong
identities. The strategy of kinship
identity reproduction is implemented through various ritual forms and
activities, in order to pass down to the new generation. A sentiment of
a “primordial attachment” (Geertz 1973:259) among members
of a lineage,
subclan, and clan groups stems from their oral tradition, ritual
hospitality and mutual aid, and the use of kin terms to refer to one
another. Meanwhile, the strategy to
build kinship relation across one’s kin group is performed
rituals, the use of kin terms, funeral rituals, and hospitality and
aid. In contemporary Hmong communities
3. The Transformation of Hmong Kinship
modern states were established in
people in northern
Although it is clear that at the policy level, in the beginning, the Thai government proposed integration, in practice, both integration and assimilation policies have been emphasized on development projects.
Research findings in my field site of a Hmong village in Chiang Mai province, and elsewhere, regarding impact of state policies and implementations upon Hmong kinship identities are compulsory education, Buddhism missionization, and state registration.
Compulsory Education and Hmong Kinship terms
Fortes (1969:54), states that “[k]inship terminology is a package of definitions, rules and directions for conduct … a store of information but also a tool for action,” while Murdock (1949) argues that reciprocal behavior between kinsmen is based on kinship relations and the kinship terms used to address or refer to one another. Kin terms thus cause the sense of close or distant relationships and everyday practices among members of the society.
Lee argues that kinship terms are, “essential guides to social behavior, placing people into categories and assigning them statuses and roles” (1986:13). As members of a kin-based society, response and reciprocity between Hmong individuals depend upon the kin terms used. To reiterate, kin terms express the relationships between people and create trust among them. The ignorance or error in the use of kin terms may mark a person –and even their parents and relatives-- as being “tsis paub cai,” (impolite behavior).
In the same way as a workshop, prison, or hospital, the school becomes an institution for forging a “docile body that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved” (Rabinow 1984:17). The state’s discipline, or power, has been gradually imposed upon its population through the school system. School then is an authorized institution through which the dominant group aims at reshaping cultural practices of dominated groups to the national domain (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977b, Chayan 1991, Keyes 1991b).
Compulsory education implemented throughout the country and the efforts of government officials and neighbors to pressure subordinate Hmong people also reshaped Hmong kinship and ethnic identities. Hmong students and adults in towns do not to express their own ethnic identity around the lowland Thai public. Because “[s]tandard Thai is an ‘official’ or ‘public’ language acquired only through school” (Keyes 1991a:112), and has been officially emphasized by teachers, Hmong parents and children have had to conform to the rules of that language. Younger Hmong have, thus, gradually adopted Thai kin terms and meanings for daily use. To the Hmong people, the neglect of speaking Hmong and using Hmong kin terms to refer to one another is automatically to cut them out of kinship relations and mutual activities with Hmong who do not speak Thai or use Thai kin terms.
Under the monolithic national policy to integrate peripheral people to be Thai, only the Thai language is recognized in school. The use of local dialects in school is banned and punished. In particular, Hmong is condemned as a useless language and pressured by lowland Thais, attaching a sense of inferiority and embarrassment to the use of Hmong language in the lowland public sphere. They gradually adopt Thai kin terms into their culture, even when speaking Hmong with one another. To the young generation, the feeling of complexity and the ignorance to trace Hmong kinship relation, in order to find appropriate Hmong kin terms, stem from the replacement of Thai kinship terminology and the adoption of the Thai concept of kinship.
The adoption of Thai kinship terminology into Hmong culture has subsequently reshaped Hmong relationships. The Thai kin terms have no perfect parallels in the Hmong system, and carry no meaning in the Hmong cultural context. On the contrary, the adoption of Thai kin terms into Hmong culture results in the borrowing of its meaning into culture. Relationships among Hmong, particularly of the younger generation, thus have been changed as well.
As a state
religion, Buddhism has been propagated to Hmong and other highland
groups with the main purpose of incorporating them into mainstream Thai
society. The government, and dominant
Thai, perception is that “to be Thai is to be Buddhist”
(Keyes 1993:262). Buddhism has been
constituted as one of the
state’s “technologies of power” (Cohn and Dirks 1988
and Foucault 1977). Thammacarik, the
project to highland and remote peoples in
Considering the impact of the Thammacarik Buddhist missionization project on Hmong kinship identity, young Hmong who remain in the Sangha monkhood for many years neglect to perform their traditional rites as they adopt Buddhist principles and Buddhist rituals. From the perception of a “rational” (Geertz 1973, Weber 1956) religion such as Buddhism, Hmong animism seems irrational. Young Hmong men who have been ordained to be Buddhist monks and novices hence tend to ignore their own traditional beliefs and ritual practices, even after they leave the monkhood and return home. Since the performance of rituals in the same pattern identifies the shared descent of Hmong lineages, the abandonment of Hmong ritual practices then divides a young Hmong man from his own lineage group. In addition to kinship identity, under Buddhist Thai society, conversion to Buddhism means becoming Thai. Hence, becoming Buddhist means abandoning the Hmong ethnic identity.
The most successful example of state documentation reshaping ethnic traditions is the creation of the clan or surname system. James Scott argues that the creation of a permanent last name, which is unusual among some ethnic groups, is one of the strategies used by the state to “… gradually get a handle on its subjects,” (1998:2).
The state documentation project became primarily a technology of power for recording, classifying, and controlling the population, on such issues as taxation, property, military service, and jurisdiction, etc. Clan name or surname was first used to identify an individual and, later on, linked him or her to a kin group.
The introduction of the Thai surname system; last names became legally required of Thai citizens in 1913, was the state’s strategy for providing a basis for national inheritance laws, identifying ethnic background, and assimilating non-Thai ethnic minorities into the Thai majority. Such purposes were accomplished through the implementation of the state documentation project. Throughout this project, among non-Thai ethnic groups, the Chinese were the most successfully integrated. Upland ethnic groups are presently in the process of changing and obtaining Thai surnames.
the Hmong case, despite the legend of the genesis of Hmong clans, it is
argument that the Hmong adopted the clan system from their long
the Chinese. As with the Chinese in
Consequently, the older generations still base their kinship relations on a common Hmong clan name, while the younger generations perceive that only those who share the same Thai surname are kin members or relatives. The transformation of Hmong clan to Thai surname system also changes cultural values among the Hmong people. As many Hmong leaders are concerned that, sooner or later, marriage among clan members will definitely occur since the younger generations recognize only those with the same Thai surname as close relatives who may not marry. Moreover, as younger Hmong generations no longer hold Hmong clan names, they will certainly lose their clanship and ethnic connections with those who live in other communities or countries. The vulnerability and transformation of clanship and ethnic identities then is gradually increasing, particularly among the younger generations who enroll in school, often have contact with lowland Thai neighbors and government officials, and work in towns.
it is not only the Hmong case I have presented here that changing their
surnames to be Thai ones means to transform their ethnic identity to be
Such phenomenon has already caused impact toward the Chinese and other
An enthusiastic question and answer session brought to a close what had been a most informative, thought-provoking and entertaining presentation by Khun Prasit.
Center for Ethnic Studies and Development,
Faculty of Social Sciences,
Tel: 66-(0)53-943582 E-mail: email@example.com
- BA, Political
- MA, Social
& Population Research,
Languages: Hmong, Thai, Lao, English
- Field supervisor, the research project on Hmong Household Economics
and Population Behavior
Social Research Institute, Chiang
- Lecturer, Department of Social Sciences and Development, Faculty of Social
- Board committee of various tribal NGOs, since 1983-present.
McCaskill, Don, Prasit Leepreecha, and He Shaoying, eds.
in a Globalized World: Ethnic Minorities in the Greater
Subregion. Chiang Mai:
Prasit Leepreecha, Don McCaskill, and Kwanchewan Buadaeng, eds.
the Limits: Indigenous Peoples of the
Next INTG Meeting
340th Meeting – Tuesday, November 15th 2011
The 11th Panchen Lama: a Chinese political recognition of a Tibetan spiritual master
A talk by Fabienne Jagou, École française d’Extrême-Orient
When the 10th Panchen Lama
died in 1989, the question of the search for his reincarnation emerged
at the time of
the recognition of the 11th Panchen Lama three countries
Fabienne Jagou, historian, is
associate professor at the French Asian Studies Institute (École
d’Extrême-Orient, EFEO). Her researches focus on the
relations during the first half of the twentieth century. She is now
a more contemporary field with the analysis of the development of
See also: http://www.efeo.fr/biographies/cadrechine.htm
December 2011 – To be confirmed
341st Meeting – Tuesday, January 17th 2012
Getting Real about Food in the World: Food Security and Small Farmers
A talk and presentation by Professor Lindsay Falvey FTSE, Former Dean of Land and Food, and Chair of Agriculture, University of Melbourne, Australia; Fellow/Life Member, Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, UK.
Meeting - Tuesday, March 20th 2012
A talk and presentation by Jack Eisner
2012 will be the 70th anniversary of a famous event from WWII in