Marriage in a Thai Highland Society
(Originally published in the Journal of the Siam Society,
1988, no. 76, pp. 162 – 173)
Marriage & family
Acknowledgement: this paper resulted from research
carried out in Thailand with financial support from the Wenner-Gren
Foundation, New York. I greatly benefited from comments by Prof. W.
R. Geddes, University of Sydney, Australia. Assistance with retyping
of this article by my daughter, Debbie Lee, is also much
The Hmong have been
referred to as semi-nomadic people or "migrants of the mountains" (Geddes,
1976), because they move houses or sometimes entire villages every
ten to twenty years after stable residence in a particular place.
The reasons for such migrations are often complex, ranging from lack
of farming lands to social -economic factors such as the desire to
join relatives in another settlement or the fear of sickness and
A few writers have
suggested that the ideal Hmong settlement seems to be one consisting
of members of one clan (Cooper,1984). However, this is not the case,
even with the smaller villages of only a few households. Each
village is usually dominated by a particular clan, but no village is
completely occupied by any one clan. The one-clan village is to be
expected if e follow the Hmong’s rule of patrilocal residence to the
limit, since all newly married or couples with young families are
supposed to live in the same household or settlement as the man’s
father or male relatives. However, this rule is not always strictly
enforced so that bilocal or neolocal residence is also prevalent
with the result that members of a few clans are found living in one
In some cases,
residential preference is decided by social bond with members of the
clans from which the wives originate. Similar religious practice,
personal conflicts with one’s own agnates, or business commitments
may make it necessary for some Hmong to live in villages dominated
by other clans. Residential patterns are, thus, determined not only
by the search for new agricultural prospects but also by social-
economic factors such as social members of their own clan or kinship
groups, but will adopt matrilocal or neolocal residence when in
conflict with their own kinsmen.
In their traditional
hill environment, the Hmong tend to live in small groups of five to
twenty households, and are rarely found in "big agglomerations" (Savina,
1925: 182). Houses are built in a random fashion on a village site
without any sense of direction or order. There is no village square,
no main street. There may be fence here and there around the
village, but this is only to protect a garden or crops from village
animals and does not serve as a defence barrier for the settlement.
Mickey (1947) also does not mention any fortified walls around the
Miao village she studied in Kweichow, southern China. Graham (1937:
22), on the other hand, says that "there were formerly many
fortified places… where groups of houses were clustered together for
protection". This is further confirmed by Lombard-Salmon (1972: 118)
in her historical study of the Miao in Kweichow in the 18th
century. Today, however and as one French writer puts it, only scrub
forms a natural enclosure for a Hmong village (Anonymous, 1952: 31).
A Hmong settlement is a beautiful sight from the distance, but the
houses often look like old ruins close- up.
What is striking about
Hmong houses is that they are built at random, deliberately to
conform to the Hmong beliefs in geomancy and supernatural forces. No
two houses are in line or parallel to one another, even when all the
buildings have their fronts facing the downward slope. Unlike many
Green Hmong whose houses have only one door, the White Hmong houses
have two doors and sometimes even three, depending on the people’s
need (Chindarsi, 1976: 15; Geddes, 1976: 39; and Lam Tam, 1974: 60).
They are variably constructed on earthen floors compressed by the
use of water from hewn boards to mud, depending on what is
available. Some houses have timber shingles or thatches as roofing
covers, and even tiles or corrugated iron for the better – off
Nearly all the Hmong
houses are rectangular in shape, although some look almost square.
There is always a veranda running part of the length of the house,
generally used to store firewood. The side door is on the left of
the house when looking from the front where another door also
exists, although the latter is more often used for the performance
of rituals. The door on the front side of the house is called "qhov
rooj tag" (khor daung ta), and the door on the left side is referred
to as "qhov rooj txuas" (khor daung txua). Which door is used for
entering and leaving the house depends on how conveniently it is
situated, as there is no sanction against using either door.
A typical house
measures about 9x7 metres with the walls reaching 1.6 metres in
height, and with the centre of the roof about 4 metres from the
ground. Doors are usually 1.8 metres high. Bedrooms often have only
door frames no more than 0.5 metre wide, but usually no doors. The
bedrooms are located alongside the front of the house, with the beds
consisting of raised wooden boards about 0.5 metre above ground.
Parents and young children sleep together in the big bedroom while
adolescent and grown-up daughters share the second bedroom, and
older sons or unmarried male family members occupy a third bedroom
further away. A spare raised timber flooring serves as bed for
guests and is sometimes found at one end of the house, near the
Rapoport (1969: 129)
suggests that human settlements and house forms are primarily the
physical expression of a people’s culture and way of life, even
though climatic conditions and building materials or technology may
influence where and how a house is constructed. House forms and
location cannot be understood in terms of their descriptive value
only, but must be related to the shared goals and life values or
beliefs of the people living in them. To the Hmong, a house is not
only a shelter, but also a place of worship where one’s ancestral
cults are observed and protected from outside influences. It is the
sanctuary which unites members of a household into an extended
family and later confronts all married male members to form their
own separate dwellings.
We will now turn to
this process of Hmong household formation and dispersion through
marriage and procreation.
Marriage and the
As a rule, the Hmong
observe clan exogamy in that two persons of the same clan or surname
cannot marry each other. There are some exceptions as stated by de
Beauclair (1970: 133) when "the partners do not descend from the
same ancestor". This is true of the Vang clan in certain parts of
Laos, and the Yang clan in West and Central Kweichow, China.
Sometimes, individual deviation is found among clans who otherwise
practice no clan endogamy. The violation of this general marriage
rule seems to be rare, since it is not mentioned by Binney (1968),
Geddes (1976) or Cooper (1976). Mickey (1947: 50) states that the
Cowrie Shell Miao in China prohibit marriage between people "of
exactly the same surname", while Graham (1937: 27) writes of the
Chuan Miao that it is considered "a crime for two persons having the
same family name to marry".
Given that the norm
for marriage is clan exogamy, the onus is on Hmong young men to
court only girls born into clans other than their own. For some
groups of Hmong in China (where they are generally called Miao), "
patrilineal cross-cousin marriage is said to be obligatory" (Chen
and Wu, 1942: 20). Among the Magpie Hmong of southern Szechuan,
cross-cousin marriage is favoured but is "by no means obligatory,
and sex relations between unmarried cross-cousins are freely
permitted" (Ruey, 1960: 146). Formerly, a young man could marry his
father’s sister’s daughter as a matter of course; and if this right
was not exercised the girl’s father must pay the boy’s parents for
the right to marry her to another man. This seems true also of the
Chuan Miao (Graham, op.cit.: 27). Such a practice, however, does not
occur among the Hmong in Laos and Thailand.
In the past, marriage
by capture was allowed and so was the betrothal of small children by
parents who are friends or relatives by affinal ties, especially in
the case of a brother’s son and sister’s daughter. However, such
marriages are becoming the exception since nearly all parents have
now begun to take more account of their children’s wishes rather
than their own. It is today left to the sons and daughters to choose
their own marriage partners so long as the latter are of acceptable
personal and social standing. Parents will interfere mainly when a
son or daughter decides to marry someone who is considered a bad
risk such as an opium addict, a person of loose character or lazy
disposition, a married man, a widowed or divorced woman, a spinster
or a man whose male relatives have a reputation of using violence on
The most acceptable
marriage process for a Hmong man begins with the courting of a girl,
preferably one with an industrious nature. This must be done in the
least conspicuous way, particularly towards the girl’s relatives.
This means that young people are free to meet or court the opposite
sex mainly in the evenings in the dark of the night after each day’s
work. The procedure seems to vary from one region to another, and to
some extent from one generation to the next. In the old days when
many Hmong lived in isolated pioneering small villages, a young man
would have to travel a few hours each evening by himself or with
some friends before reaching the girl’s hamlet.
From time to time,
such a group might take enough food supplies with them to stay for a
few days with relatives in the girl’s village or in the bush in
order to court her at night. Courting also took place when boys and
girls spent time working in the neighbouring fields away from home
when it was inconvenient to return to their own villages during
intensive farming periods. Much of this tradition is still carried
on by the present generation, except that young men today do not
travel a long way each evening to see their girlfriends, thus having
to return home the next morning for another day’s work on the family
farms. Of course, some may say court in their own village
individually or as a group.
Once the courting has
been done long enough (from a few days to a few months as the case
may be), the girl may agree to marry the young man who will then
have to ask permission for the marriage from his parents. This is
necessary because the parents or guardians have to help pay part or
all of the bride- price and wedding costs. If the girl consents to
the marriage, her parent’s permission does not have to be obtained
beforehand. A mediator is used to negotiate with the girl’s parents
only when she herself has not agreed to the marriage or when the
prospective couple do not know each other well enough. Today,
parents are reluctant to force their daughters to marry and will try
first to persuade them to agree to a marriage, because the parents
wish to avoid being blamed in case the marriage prove unsuccessful.
The groom and his relatives are also apt to treat the bride and her
parents with respect if the latter do not consent to her marriage
If a girl is willing
to marry, the man will take her to his home quietly, then send a
messenger to inform her parents. If the man does not live too far
away, the girl’s mother may go there to claim her back and may even
use violence on her and her intended husband to show her
displeasure. This verbal and physical abuse has to be accepted
without retaliation, and has to be manifested even when the girl’s
parents secretly approve of her match in order to demonstrate their
reluctance to hand over their daughter so that her husband will take
better care of her, knowing how highly they valued her. The man and
his relatives will, on their part, lavish verbal promises or money
gifts on the mother and in the end, she will return home without her
daughter to await the day when the marriage will be celebrated.
Another variation of
this procedure is for the man and a handful of male relatives to
"abduct" the girl at a pre- arranged place, often with her full
knowledge and consent. She will then scream for help, and her mother
will come to her rescue, again full of verbal abuse and brandishing
a stick. If the daughter indicates that she is unwilling to be
carried off for marriage, the mother will rain blows upon her
abductors and ask her for release. On the other hand, if the girl
shows willingness to go with the men, the mother’s blows will be on
her for being too eager to get married.
It should be noted
that at this stage of the marriage process, no male relatives of the
girl are involved in her so- called rescue from her husband-to-be
and his helpers. They have no roles to play until the wedding when
they take full charge of all negotiations and tasks related to it.
Abduction is still deemed preferable to elopement, even when the
girl has no objection to marrying her boyfriend, because elopement
is seen as worthy only if those girls without self- esteem or
respect for their family members. Abduction is also regarded as a
face- saving protection for both the girl and her family should the
marriage fail, as she will then be able to say that she was
uncertain about the prospect all along and her family, too, can
claim that they were not responsible for the failure.
Once the "abduction"
or elopement has occurred, the young man’s parents send a message to
the girl’s relatives asking for a convenient date to celebrate the
wedding. The wedding itself is a costly procedure, consisting of:
(a) the bride price (b) fines (c) miscellaneous expenses for pigs,
food and alcohol. Thus the Hmong wedding is never less than $500
(US) in overall expenses, and can run up to $1500 (US) in the case
of the richer or more difficult families. For this reason, few young
Hmong are able to pay for their wedding immediately. Sometimes, the
date set by the bride’s parents may not be convenient to the groom
if he and his relatives have not found enough money on time to cover
the wedding expenses, and a new date may have to be arranged.
The wedding ceremony
is too elaborate to describe in detail here. It is sufficient to say
that it comprises one to two days of negotiations and feasting,
firstly at the groom’s house, then at the bride’s house and again
back to the groom’s residence. At least one medium- sized pig and
four chickens are slaughtered for meals and rituals at the groom’s
house, and two large pigs as well as two chickens for the bride’s
relatives. Many gallons of rice alcohol are also needed. The bride’s
parents on their part have to kill a large pig to feed those who
helped them during the wedding feast either with negotiations or
other duties. Each of those helpers, both on the groom’s side and on
the side of the bride’s relative, has to be paid in silver coins.
These payments and the cost of food items can amount to $150 to $200
which may have to be outlaid in cash to buy them if the two parties
do not have them. The bride- price, which some Hmong see as the
nurturing charge, ranges from $400 to $800. The fines paid to make
up for the past grievances suffered by members of the girl’s clan in
the hands of the groom’s clansmen may claim from $5 to $100,
depending on how serious or how many are these wrong- doings.
Of the six marriages
studied in Khun Wang, Thailand, in 1977 by Lee (1981: 46), one was
finalized in the sense that the full bride- price was paid at a
wedding ceremony, which took place within a month of the bride going
to live with the groom. Two other wedding ceremonies were carried
out, but these were for marriages contracted two to three years
earlier. The remaining three couples only had a small preliminary
ceremony with the bride’s parents at which an agreement was made to
postpone the wedding either indefinitely or to a later date.
Postponement usually means that the full wedding will never take
place and the bride- price never be fully paid.
There is no sanction
against such couples living together as husband and wife, or raising
a family in a similar fashion to those who have gone through the
prescribed ceremonies. The reason for not formalizing the marriage
may be that the husband and his relatives were too poor to afford it
at the time, but often no pressure is put on them later by the
wife’s parents, or her relatives after they are dead. The failure to
formalize marriage, however, has certain social implications for the
husband. He has no claim on his unpaid wife’s children should she
divorce him, nor can his relatives keep her and her children in case
of her being widowed and remarrying outside the husband’s kin group.
There are other
reasons apart from poverty why bride- price may not have been paid.
The match may be disapproved by the boy’s parents and the young
couples are left to their own devices. In such a situation, the
groom may have to do service by staying with his wife’s family and
working for them until such time as he can afford the wedding costs.
In normal circumstances, however, a couple usually depends on the
man’s parents to pay for both the bride- price and the wedding
expenses, They will accept this as a project for their household,
provided that: (a) the prospective bride has approved the marriage
(b) The groom is a loyal and productive member of the household, and
(c) the amount of the bride- wealth required by the bride’ s family
is considered reasonable (Barney, 1970: 157).
When the man’s parents
have paid his bride- price, the couple will live in his father’s
house in order to profit from his advice regarding marriage
problems, to show their gratitude by staying with him and helping
with all household tasks (Chindarsi, op.cit.: 77). They remain there
until they can set up a house for themselves separately, often when
they have two or three children. Bernatzik (1970: 43) states that
this occurs when the husband is thirty years of age. However, this
is not true in all cases. Segmentation from the parental household
can take place any time, depending on how crowded the father’ s
house is and whether there are married sons living in it.
It is not easy to
determine age correctly as the Hmong do not, as a rule, keep written
records of their vital statistics. Only declared statements can be
obtained, usually in connection with certain important personal or
national events used as chronological landmarks. This is no longer
true of the younger generations, of course, because parents are now
compelled by law to register the births of their children or deaths
with local authorities of the countries where they now live.
Based on such time
reckoning, Lee (op.cit.: 48) discovered that of the ninety three
married persons he surveyed, seventy five persons or 80.6 per cent
married between the ages of fifteen and twenty one. Only four
persons or 4.3 per cent were twenty six years or older when they
first married while for the remainder the age of marriage could be
as early as thirteen and as late as twenty five. Women tend to marry
at an earlier age than men, either through their own will or by
obligation such as coercion and capture. This is not to suggest that
all married women are younger than their husbands since the age gap
between some couples can be as much as twenty two years, the older
being usually the husbands who married more than one wife or who
remarried after divorce or widowhood. Geddes (op.cit.: 80-81) says
that among the Green Hmong " boys usually married when fifteen or
sixteen years old and girls at about the age of twenty years".
According to him, this is because a Hmong man often marries more
than one wife; and the older the first wife, the more respect she is
likely to receive from her husband and his other later younger
wives. Lee (op.cit.: 49) finds that this generalisation does not
apply to the White Hmong he surveyed at Kun Wang in Chiangmai,
Thailand. There are only a few couples with the wife older than the
husband, but this situation has arisen from factors other than
deliberate design to conform with any polygynous pattern. A close
analysis of other Hmong settlements will probably reveal that as a
rule the husbands are older than their wives when they marry for the
Of the four weddings
witnessed by Mickey (op.cit.: 50) in Kweichow, the ages of the
couples were: boy thirteen, girl twelve; boy fourteen, girl
thirteen; boy sixteen, girl twenty; boy and girl both eighteen. In
each case, betrothal was initiated some years before marriage.
According to Graham (op.cit.: 35), the Hmong of Szechuan often marry
at an early age through arrangements made by their parents so that
"most children are married by the time they are twelve".
With respect to the Hmong of Thailand, it is
worth quoting Chindarsi (op.cit.: 71-72) when he writes that;
"The Hmong marry between the age of fifteen
and eighteen years. One of the factors contributing to such an early
marriage is the need for (more) people to work in the fields and in
the house…. The father of a girl sees that there will not be too
wide a gap between the ages of his daughter and prospective
son-in-law. If the girl is older than the boy, he may marry again,
hence (girls) avoid such marriages".
It does appear that
the Hmong exhibit ambiguity about polygamy (a man marrying more than
one wife). On the one hand, some men approve of it if the husband is
rich and the wives can get along with one another "like sisters" so
that hardly any conflicts exist between them (which is rare in real
life). However, in the case of poor men, its practice is often
frowned upon, particularly by girls of marriageable age and their
mothers. On the whole, it is tolerated if it is done through family
obligations as in the case of the levirate (when a widowed woman is
taken as an additional wife by the younger brother of the woman’s
dead husband to take care of her and her children and to keep the
latter within the family). Polygyny may also occur in cases where
the first wife is barren or unable to perform her duties effectively
for various reasons.
Thus, polygyny does
not seem to be a factor causing the age difference between married
partners. Generally, husbands are older than their wives. Only in a
minority of cases is the first wife older than her husband (such as
when a young son is persuaded to marry an older wife because she is
industrious or of good character and his parents do not want to lose
her to another man). This is, however, becoming rare, probably
because marriage today is the result of romantic courtship rather
than parental arrangements as in the old days. Age is not a major
concern so long as both the bride and groom are deemed ready for
matrimony and socially suitable to each other.
factor to the age gap in Hmong marriages is the requirements for a
substantial bride-price which often delays the age of marriage in
times of economic decline, particularly for the men (Kunstadter,
1983: 35 and 39). Most young men will wait until their parents have
at least some savings to pay for part of the bride-price and wedding
costs. This delay can be averted if the groom agrees to do service
by joining the bride’s family and work off the bride-price, or by
incurring long term debts with the bride’s parents and remaining
with his own relatives.
Today, some Hmong
parents will not ask for a bride-price, because they do not want to
be seen as "selling" their daughters off. Strictly speaking, the
so-called bride-price is really a levy or a "nurturing charge" (nqi
mis nqi hno – literally, a fee for mother’s milk) from the groom to
the bride’s parents in recognition for the many years of love and
care they have given her only to see her go to make a life for
herself with him. This "nurturing gift" is found in many other Asian
societies, including the Thai and Lao, among whom it is known as "sinsot".
Anthropologists have incorrectly refer to this as bride-price for
want of a better term, from the Hmong word "nqi poj niam" which
refers to the total costs of getting a wife, including wedding
expenses and the "nqi mis nqi hno". The term "nqi taub hau" is
sometimes used, but this is a term which should not strictly be used
in regard to weddings as it mainly refers to compensation money for
a death through someone else’s fault or negligence.
The costs of marriage
aside, whether or not the man will later have other wives is for him
and sometimes his first wife to decide, depending on the quality of
their relationship and other socio-economic considerations. It may
have been the case that in the past some Hmong parents might have
persuaded one of their young sons to marry a much older girl so as
to get her economic contributions to the household, knowing that he
would likely later acquire another wife of his own or younger gage
group. Such matchmaking, however, is no longer acceptable, as it
today considered exploitative and too calculating for a happy
marriage. It is now left to the young man to choose his own wife.
There is usually no regular age discrepancy favouring polygyny. In
general, the relative ages of married couples in Hmong society are
similar to those of most other human societies.
As has been indicated,
a young couple does not normally form their own household in the
first few years of marriage. Because only the groom’s parents or
guardian can have accumulated enough money to pay for the wedding
costs, a newly married couple is expected to remain in the parental
household to render service until such a time as they have two or
three children when they may then move out on their own.. By then,
other sons in the household will have been married and have had
children so that the household becomes too overcrowded for them to
remain together. Moreover, friction between some of the wives or
disagreement over the allocation of labour are likely to divide the
household so that one or more couples will have to establish their
separate living quarters.
The factors that lead
to actual separation are not so much an ideology of neolocal
residence, as strains that develop inside a large household. This
applies equally to polygynous households which often become
segmented once the family members have increased in number and the
children of the older wives have grown up enough to be able to
support themselves and their mothers. They will then build a house
for themselves, usually not far from the father and his household if
all is well between them.. This pattern is found particularly with
the White Hmong.
Lee (op.cit.: 54) find
that fifteen or half of the thirty households in Khun Wang referred
to previously are comprised of nuclear families while the remaining
fifteen are extended families. This suggests that the Hmong appear
to prefer these two types of households to those complicated by
polygyny. This household pattern appears to be similar elsewhere in
other Hmong settlements in Thailand. At Meto, Chiangmai, for
instance, only twenty six of the sixty five households have some
form of polygyny, fifteen are polygynously simple households, five
polygynously extended, four extended polygynously, and two
polygynous extended polygynously (Geddes, op.cit.: 124). Mark (1967:
57) also notes that the nuclear family is the predominant household
form with the Magpie Hmong in China; stem families are next in
frequency; and five percent of the households have extended joint
families. Binney (1968: 257, 269A and 273) finds that nineteen of
the forty nine White Hmong households in two different settlements
in Chiangmai are of the nuclear type, twenty six are extended, and
only four are polygynous.
The number of persons
in a household usually ranges from six to eight persons. This seems
common among the Hmong, as the Meto figure for the Green Hmong is
eight per household (Geddes, op.cit.: 110). In the three Green Hmong
villages studied by Lemoine (1972: 39) in Laos, the average number
of household inhabitants is 6.8, 7.9 and 8.1 respectively, giving an
overall figure of 7.6.
Due to the prevalence
of extended families in Hmong society, household size appears to be
bigger than family size, a factor seen by Geddes (op.cit.: 128) and
Kunstadter (op.cit.: 38) as important in the Hmong opium economy
since the merging of manpower from two or more families into one
single unit result in increased agricultural production and cash
income. The figures also attest to most Hmong’s desire and ability
to maintain cohesive social groupings at the household level. The
only factors limiting the growth of household size are the lack of
money to pay for additional wives to join the group, and thew
unsuccessful control by a household head over the disagreements or
personal activities of married sons who may move out to live on
It is obvious that by
Western standards, the Hmong household is rather large, from six to
eleven persons on the whole, and Keen (1978: 210) even found an
average of fourteen in Tak province, Thailand. The largest
households in Khun Wang have four to six families with between
sixteen and twenty three persons (Lee, op.cit.: 56). In the nearby
settlement of Mae Wak, there is a household of forty four persons
and five families, probably one of the biggest in existence.
However, on a family population basis, the average number of persons
rages from 4.1 to 8 by clan with a total average of 4.9. This seems
to suggest the Hmong family is not very different from that of many
other groups of people. However, the household tends to be larger
because of the Hmong extended family system.
Although some Hmong in
Thailand as well as in China, Laos and Vietnam live close to or on
lowlands, the majority of them live in mountainous areas, often at
altitudes above 3,000 feet. This is where they have traditionally
been located. Generally, they build their houses at the foot of a
hill or on mountain slopes which have running water and fields for
crop growing. The houses always face the downward slope with one
door on the front and another on one of the side walls.
Almost all the houses
are simply furnished, with only essential farm tools and household
utensils maintained in different places. The buildings are not in
line with one another bit because of lack of suitable terrain and
deliberate design. The orientation of the house is influenced by the
topography of its site as well as by religious and cultural
determinants. This settlement pattern also reflects the need of clan
affiliates or relatives to stay close to one another for mutual
protection and assistance, although a few household heads achieve
these objectives by settling among relatives of their wives.
Marriage is by clan
exogamy and often takes place following a period of courtship. Some
arranged marriages and a few unions by capture or coercion still
occur, but the mutual consent of the principals is now more taken
into account. Weddings are expensive, and many young men cannot
afford them. Even among those who have married for many years, a
large number of them still have not formalised their marriage owing
to the lack of resources to meet the wedding expenses and the
The majority of first
marriages occur among the sixteen to eighteen age group, although
the age of marriage in some cases does vary between thirteen and
thirty five years. In general, the husbands are older than the
wives. There are more households with nuclear families than other
types, despite a prevalence of extended families. The average number
of persons per household is 8.4 with an average of six persons per
family. Notwithstanding the occurrence of some polygynous marriages,
Hmong family and household size does not appear generally to be
greatly different from that found in the majority of human
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