Sokendai Review of Cultural and Social Studies


Three Approaches to Studying Hmong Kinship:
Focusing on Symbols, Practices and
Relationships in Ancestral Worship

IMAI Akitoshi

Department of Regional Studies,
School of Cultural and Social Studies,
SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies)

Key words:

Hmong, kinship study, ancestral worship, symbol, practice, relationship, Vietnam

This paper focuses on symbols, practices and relationships in the ancestral worship of the Hmong in Vietnam in order to draw out the various manners in which the Hmong give meaning and shape to their kin relationships.

Ever since the moment of their birth, every Hmong individual is assigned a place in a complex network of kin relationships at different levels such as those of clan, sub-clan, lineage, and family. Various scholars of the Hmong have depicted the way in which they substantiate the network of kin relationships, particularly lineage relationships, through ritual symbols and practices related to ancestral worship.

This paper first analyzes the kin relationships in a Hmong village in Vietnam based on the symbolic approach and the constructionist approach, focusing on symbols and practices related to ancestral worship. Subsequently, it aims at further analyzing the kin relationships of Hmong in the same village employing another approach which has its basis in the kinship theory of M. Strathern. With this third approach, this paper tries to delineate a particular aspect of Hmong society, namely the way in which the kin relationships are substantiated in a way so that existing relationships elicit other potential relationships.

From this viewpoint that “relationships elicit further relationships,” this paper presents the view that in Hmong society, kin relationships exist prior to individuals in a way that they link to and generate further kin relationships, in contrast to the prevalent view that individuals exist prior to relationships. It will also be illustrated how symbols and practices related to Hmong ancestral worship are produced and negotiated in relation to existing kin relationships.

The three approaches presented in this paper are far from incompatible. Rather those aspects of Hmong society which each of the three approaches depicts coexist in Hmong society in a complementary fashion, and each approach delineates the various aspects of Hmong kinship, showing respectively how the Hmong define kin relationships through ritual symbols, construct kin relationships through ritual practices, and reproduce kin relationships in a manner in which relationships elicit further relationships.