339th Meeting – Tuesday, October 11th 2011

Transforming Ethnicity:

Hmong Kinship Identity under Thai State Formation

A talk by Prasit Leepreecha, Lecturer, Center for Ethnic Studies & Development, Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University

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 

The text of Khun Prasit’s talk


This talk presents the transforming of Hmong kinship identities in northern Thailand within the context of national building project. It is my argument that Hmong kinship identity has been immensely influenced by the modern Thai state’s integration and assimilation policies implemented as modernizing and rationalizing projects. Based on empirical evidence from my field sites, contemporary Hmong kinship identities in Thailand have been reshaped, and continue to be reshaped, by prominent state domination projects which include the state’s compulsory education system, conversion to the national religion of Buddhism, and state registration project. To elaborate my primary argument, I analyze the paradigm of Hmong kinship identities along the dimensions of cultural reproduction and cultural reshaping.

1.    Contemporary Phenomena of Ethnic Surnames

Working among the highland ethnic minorities in Northern Thailand for a long time, there are three main phenomena the interest me.

Phenomenon 1

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:

Karen Surnames I: Local place and movie star surnames

         โสภณแม่แจ่ม (Gorgeous Mae Chaem)

         รักษ์บ้านจันทร์ (Take Care Ban Chan)

         เสน่ห์ปางหินฝน (Charm Pang Hin Fon)

         ถิ่นบัวตอง (Bua Tong Land)

         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

   Phenomenon 2

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.

While conducted a research project in one district of Chiang Mai province, I interviewed a local district official and he clarified that “For those who want to obtain birth certificates, we will not issue it if the parents did not give a newborn baby’s first name in Thai.  Tribal names such as ‘Laota,’ ‘Mr. Ya,’ or ‘Robert,’ do not have any meaning in Thai.  In the case of surnames, some tribes do not have surnames or clan names.  We refuse to take or renew the identification card of any adult who does not hold a surname.  They must have a surname first, and the new surname must have a meaning in Thai, then we can accept the registration and process other documents” (Rakchart, pseudoname, a district official, 1998).

Phenomenon 3

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.

Among general non-Thai ethnic groups who do not hold Thai surnames, they eagerly obtain Thai surnames. In Thailand, having no surname or a non-Thai surname could cause difficulty for ethnic peoples to deal with state authorities. Although they have Thai citizenship, they would be suspected and questioned by the police at any check point, in obtaining a passport, in registering new land title, etc. A smart ethnic student who still holds his non-Thai name and surname, even holds Thai citizenship, is eligible but would be impossible to pass a recruitment procedures to enroll in army or police schools. Hence, in order to avoid such troubles, they attempt to obtain new Thai surnames. Meanwhile, the procedures in obtaining a new surname are easily and widely available, especially the present online system.

Since there are more and more non-Thai ethnic peoples attempted to obtain new Thai surnames, the Department of Provincial Administration, Ministry of Interior, created a list of new, acceptable surnames and asked the Buddhist patriarch to purify before opening for people to choose. According to the news item below, some people wake up as early as four o’clock in the morning to queue up for obtaining those new surnames. Each year the Department creates a list of around 2,000 to 3,000 new surnames for people to choose at it’s booth at the annual Red Cross Fairs at Suan Amporn in Bangkok.

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.

Traditionally, leaders of kin groups play a significant role in reproducing Hmong kinship identities.  The strategy of kinship identity reproduction is implemented through various ritual forms and daily activities, in order to pass down to the new generation. A sentiment of sharing a “primordial attachment” (Geertz 1973:259) among members of a lineage, subclan, and clan groups stems from their oral tradition, ritual performance, 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 through wedding rituals, the use of kin terms, funeral rituals, and hospitality and mutual aid.  In contemporary Hmong communities in Thailand, however, these reproducing strategies which operate though kinship institutions are weakened by state influences. 

3. The Transformation of Hmong Kinship Identity in Thailand’s State Formation Context

The “geo-body” of the modern state, to use Thongchai’s term (1993), has been drawn with regard to geo-political features rather than cultural ones. A nation-state therefore inevitably comprises a variety of ethnic groups.  In the process of building a modern state, power is gradually implemented through ‘officializing’ procedures and routines. Power is exercised based upon discipline, “…a type of power, [and] a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, and targets,” as stated by Foucault (1979:215). 

After modern states were established in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, they incorporated within their boundaries peoples –subsumed under the terms “tribal,” “upland,” or “indigenous”– who had previously lived in frontier areas. Mainland Southeast Asian governments of both colonial and postcolonial states “share common assumptions about the nature of the nation-state” (Keyes 1987:19, 1996:4).  Nation-building projects therefore were officially launched as modernization projects, in order to create a common consciousness of “imagined community” for people who share different cultural backgrounds (Anderson 1993).  National government policies have been operated through state agencies, such as schools, the military, religious monasteries, government and official offices, and development departments. In addition to nation-building projects, the globalization of western culture affects local worlds everywhere.  Importantly, the process of modernization, which includes the implementation of both national and international projects, adopts models of development based on ideas inherent in the rational and scientific worldview. 

The Hmong people in northern Thailand have been subjected to the Thai nation state’s building projects for five decades.  It is inevitable that their culture has been influenced.  The most fundamental aspect of Hmong culture to be so effected is kinship, the central identity of Hmong ethnicity. 

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.

The Conversion to Buddhism

As a state religion, Buddhism has been propagated to Hmong and other highland ethnic 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 Buddhist missionization project to highland and remote peoples in Thailand, was launched as a psychological development program to unite all distinctive cultural groups under one nation, the Thai. It is clearly stated by the Division of Tribal Public Welfare that the initiative to invite Buddhist monks to preach to highland people was not to propagate religious faith but to offer highlanders a sense of Thai-ness. Thammacarik then becomes part of the Thai-ization projects central government launched for highland people.

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.

State Registration

The implementation of the state documentation project throughout Thailand is both “totalizing and individualizing,” (Cohn and Dirk 1988:226).  On one hand, it officially distinguishes and recognizes all languages, religions, customs, and ethnic backgrounds.  On the other hand, in the long term, it aims at gradually subjecting different ethnic groups, controlling them, and transforming their traditions according to a national scheme (Rabinow 1984:17). 

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. 

In the Hmong case, despite the legend of the genesis of Hmong clans, it is my argument that the Hmong adopted the clan system from their long encounter with the Chinese.  As with the Chinese in contemporary Thailand, clan therefore becomes an ethnic marker.  Having Hmong clan names in Thai official documents often causes difficulties in dealing with government officials and lowland residents.  Young Hmong in my field site, and other communities, then anxiously change their official Hmong clan names to Thai ones in order to conceal their ethnic identity.  Ironically, the process of adopting a Thai surname creates deep tensions among clan members.  Those who formerly obtained Thai surnames are reluctant to give permission for others to share their names, because they fear that their reputation will be destroyed.  Therefore, relatives who previously shared the same Hmong clan name ended up by having different Thai surnames. In a village I studied, five Hmong clans split to be 42 surname groups.

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. 

Nevertheless, it is not only the Hmong case I have presented here that changing their ethnic surnames to be Thai ones means to transform their ethnic identity to be Thai. Such phenomenon has already caused impact toward the Chinese and other ethnic groups in Thailand for almost a century. Presently, the same situation also exists among highland ethnic minorities and other minority groups throughout Thailand. Therefore, it is not my regret on the lost of ethnic culture but my interest is the state’s formation process, or technology of power, in shaping non-Thai ethnic identities to become “Thai-ness”.

An enthusiastic question and answer session brought to a close what had been a most informative, thought-provoking and entertaining presentation by Khun Prasit.

About Prasit Leepreecha

Place of Birth:              Nan Province

Address:         Center for Ethnic Studies and Development,      Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai  50200

                        Tel:   66-(0)53-943582            E-mail:  sialee@chiangmai.ac.th

Education:      - BA, Political Sciences, Ramkhamhaeng University, Bangkok, 1984

- MA, Social & Population Research, Mahidol University, Bangkok, 1987

- MA, Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, 1997

- PhD, Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, 2001

Languages:     Hmong, Thai, Lao, English

Work Experiences

- Field supervisor, the research project on Hmong Household Economics

   and Population Behavior in Thailand, conducted by Mahidol University

   and the University of California, San Francisco, 1988-90.

- Researcher, Social Research Institute, Chiang Mai University, 1990-2010.

- Lecturer, Department of Social Sciences and Development, Faculty of Social 

  Sciences, Chiang Mai University, 2010-present.

- Board committee of various tribal NGOs, since 1983-present.

Main Publications

McCaskill, Don, Prasit Leepreecha, and He Shaoying, eds.

2008                Living in a Globalized World: Ethnic Minorities in the Greater Mekong

Subregion. Chiang Mai: Mekong Press.

Prasit Leepreecha, Don McCaskill, and Kwanchewan Buadaeng, eds.

2008                Challenging the Limits: Indigenous Peoples of the Mekong Region.

Chiang Mai: Mekong Press.


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

The Talk: When the 10th Panchen Lama died in 1989, the question of the search for his reincarnation emerged in China, in Tibet and in India. The Panchen Lama belongs to a prestigious Tibetan Buddhist masters lineage. He had a master-disciple relationship with the Dalai Lama since the first Panchen Lama (1570-1662) became the master of the 4th (1589-1616) and 5th Dalai Lamas (1617-1682). Because of this particular relationship, the Manchu Emperors of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) had tried to manipulate the Panchen Lama from the beginning of the XVIIIth century. This Manchu policy had been inherited by the Chinese Republicans (1911-1949), then by the Communists (1949 to the present).

But at the time of the recognition of the 11th Panchen Lama three countries were concerned: China, Tibet and India. China, which has held authority over Tibet since 1950. Tibet, as the Panchen Lama is a Tibetan reincarnated master whose main monastery, Tashilhunpo, is located in Shigatse, the second town after Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. India, where the Dalai Lama and a large number of the Tibetans in exile live. As a matter of fact, the search for the 11th Panchen Lama became the challenge of the Sino-Tibetan relations between 1989 (year of the death of the 10th Panchen Lama) and 1995 (year of the recognition of the 11th Panchen Lama). These five years became the theatre of debates and fights about tradition and modernity. Through facts and arguments, we will analyze the importance of the reincarnated masters within the Sino-Tibetan relationship and ask the question of the survival of a spiritual recognition ritual within today’s world.

The Speaker: Fabienne Jagou, historian, is associate professor at the French Asian Studies Institute (École française d’Extrême-Orient, EFEO). Her researches focus on the Sino-Tibetan political relations during the first half of the twentieth century. She is now turning to a more contemporary field with the analysis of the development of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan and in Thailand. She has published Le 9e Panchen Lama (1883-1937), enjeu des relations sino-tibétaines, Paris, EFEO/De Boccard, 2004 and edited « Conception et circulation des textes tibétains », Les Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, 15, 2005 and with Paola Calanca, Les fonctionnaires des frontières chinoises (in Chinese), EFEO/Zhonghua shuju, Peking, 2007. An English version of her book on the 9th Panchen Lama will be published very soon by Silkworm Books.

See also: http://www.efeo.fr/biographies/cadrechine.htm






Future Speakers

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

"WWII in Northern Thailand: The Flying Tigers and 64th Hayabusa Sentai Clash in Chiang Mai."

A talk and presentation by Jack Eisner

March 24, 2012 will be the 70th anniversary of a famous event from WWII in northern Thailand.