16. Father and Son, Master and Disciple: The Patrilineal Ideology of the Mien Yao of Northern Thailand

Yoshino Akira


The Mien, a sub-ethnic group of the Yao, live in Southern China (Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan, Guizhou, and Yunnan), Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Approximately 36,000 Mien dwell in the hills of the Northern Thailand provinces of Chiang Rai, Phayao, Nan, Lampang, Chiang Mai, Phitsanulok, Kampaeng Phet, and Tak where they conduct swidden cultivation. Swidden cultivation has caused them to migrate from South China to Thailand. The Mien have interacted socially and culturally with the Han (Chinese) population along their path of migration. Takemura views the Mien-Han ethnic relationship as one of "ethnische Symbiose" or "social symbiosis" (Takemura, 1981: 84 ff.). The Mien, according to Takemura, have economic and cultural connections with the Han, but they have not been assimilated into the Han, but rather have maintained their ethnic identity.
They have adopted from the Han many cultural elements, such as the Chinese writing script, Taoist rituals, patrilineal value systems, concepts concerning fengshui and so on. As previous researchers have pointed out, Mien rituals have been deeply influenced by Han Taoism. Jacques Lemoine called their ritual system "Yao Taoism" (Lemoine, 1982: 30). Michel Strickmann hypothesized that the Tianxinzhengfa sect movement in the Sung Dynasty extended to the Mien in China (Strickmann, 1982). I think that several Han-Chinese religious movements may have influenced the Mien, and that their ritual system may have been formed from compound religious elements.
Though the Mien have been exposed to the Han cultural elements more deeply than other non-Han ethnic groups of China, they have adapted the Han cultural elements, i.e. the Chinese writing system, religion, ancestral genealogies, and so forth, and used them in an original way (Takemura, 1991: 489). In other words, the Mien have been culturally sinicized but have not become the Han; i.e. they have maintained their ethnic boundary with the Han by utilizing the cultural elements of Han origin in their original way (ibid.). The kwaa taang ritual is also one of the cultural forms which the Mien have recomposed from Han religious elements using their own cultural tradition.[1]
The kwaa taang ritual has many aspects. Takemura points out that kwaa taang is the initiation rite for Mien males (Takemura, 1981: 159); this initiation attributes Mien ethnic identity to the initiates. Kwaa taang is also the first stage of the ritual ranking system (kwaa taang, tow say, gyaa tsaeq, gyaa thay) that has as a feature the feast of merit. This ritual system is also a ranked priest-ordination system. Here I would like to discuss as an aspect of kwaa taang the way in which it acts as a ritual re-affirmation of the patrilineal kinship system.
First I will give an outline of the kwaa taang ritual on the basis of my research in Mien villages, Village R (Chiang Kham District, Phayao Province; December 1988) and Village H (Mae Yao District, Chiang Rai Province; January 1988) both in Northern Thailand. Then I will discuss the patrilineal ideology made explicit in this ritual. In the discussion, I will also use data obtained in research in Village P (Chiang Kham District, Phayao Province) and Village N (Muang District, Nan Province).

The kwaa taang ritual and its background

In the kwaa taang ritual, the Mien invoke the Taoist Gods and make offerings to them to obtain merit. Kwaa taang is formally called kwaa faam toy taang (putting up three lights). The initiates are all male and are initiated in the ritual collectively, not individually. In the case of Village R, fifteen male agnates were initiated by kwaa taang, and two brothers were initiated in Village H. The diagram (Figure 1) indicates the agnatic relationship of twelve of the fifteen initiates in Village R, from whom I was able to obtain information. The other three are also agnates who share the same ancestors. Those that share the same patrilineal ancestors are called kywang ong-thay.
Each initiate receives his own ritual name (or spirit name), and is recognized as a full-fledged ritual personality after completing this ritual. The ritual name consists of a surname, Faat, and a final Chinese character which differs for each person; for example, Tsew Faat Kuey, Ley Faat Meng and so forth. This name is called faat bua and is separate from a secular adult name (tom mien bua) and childhood name (fut-kywey bua). In the ritual context, the ritual name only is referred to, and secular names are never used.
One or two sets of Taoist Gods' picture-scrolls are used in the kwaa taang ritual. The three highest Taoist Gods (in Chinese: san qing; in Mien: faam tshing) head the Mien pantheon which is organized like a secular bureaucratic organization. So eighteen to twenty scrolls are included in a set. The set of picture is called tom taung faang, and the gods of the pantheon are referred to as tom taung mien. The Cantonese language is used for chanting in rituals which involve the tom taung faang. On the other hand, the Mien or Yunnanese language is employed in rituals without tom taung faang. The initiates have to abstain from eating meat. This abstention is referred to as tsey.
Kwaa taang is performed over three or four days and three nights. Here I will report its main ritual segments. Like many other Mien rituals, it is performed inside the ritual host's individual house. Four priests, all of whom are male, are necessary to perform kwaa taang.
On the first day, pictures of the gods are hung on the wall of the host's house, and the gods are called to come to the ritual place. Then the priests make offerings and chant to the gods. Initiates also take part in the chanting. At this time the initiates wear female clothes; some informants explain that the female wear symbolizes the initiate's wife or future wife who herself cannot be initiated directly, so his wife is initiated indirectly through her husband's initiation.[2]
On the second day the gods are offered liquor and the initiates dress as priests. Then each initiate sits on a kwaa taang taung (kwaa taang chair) and holds a large candlestick (kwaa taang tay) made with the trunk of a banana tree. The priests places three votive lights on the candlestick. The priests chant and walk around the initiates. Then the candlestick and votive lights are removed, and each initiate undergoes a ceremony to establish a master-disciple relation with three ritual masters. The first master is called tsu pun say, the second khoy gyaaw say, and the third paw tsong say. The father (or close elder agnate) of the initiate(s) becomes tsu pun say and the initiate's agnate or a kinsman of the same surname as the initiate becomes khoy gyaaw say. A male who has a surname other than the initiate's may act as paw tsong say. An initiate follows a master in stepping on seven coins which symbolize the Big Dipper, and he holds a ritual stick together with the master. Then the master blows several rice grains into the initiate's mouth. The rice grains symbolize guardian spirits and the power to perform magic. Every initiate repeats this process with each master. Then each initiate is handed two bundles of si kin (a cloth with a cup of rice grains and thirty-six coins wrapped inside). The coins represent the spirit soldiers who guard the initiate. The disciple-master relation with the three masters is established with the completion of this ceremony.
A large ancestor worship ritual is performed on the third day in Village H and a prayer ritual for good harvest in Village R. On the night of the third day the abstention is lifted and the last offering of liquor, rice cakes and paper money to the gods is made. Then the higher gods are sent away and their pictures are removed. They burn the paper money and the other minor gods or spirits are sent away at midnight.
The next morning, a feast is held for the priests, assistants, elders, and near agnates who assisted or participated in the ritual. Elder priests give the initiates instructions about Mien rules of behaviour as a full-fledged person and about the magical power the initiates have obtained.

Kwaa taang and the affirmation of patrilineal kinship

The Kwaa taang ritual resembles the Taoist priest's ordination ritual. Kwaa taang includes the transmission of power and qualifications to the initiates. All male Mien have to be initiated by this ritual, and such an institution is referred to as a "collective priesthood" by J. Lemoine (Lemoine, 1982: 33). Lemoine gives two reasons for his use of this term: (1) the fact that the Mien practice group ordination as opposed to Chinese Taoist individual priest ordination, and (2) the necessity for every Mien male to be initiated by kwaa taang. I will also employ the term "collective priesthood", particularly to emphasize the latter meaning. Because it is necessary for all males to pass through kwaa taang this qualification is necessary to perform some kinds of ritual. A male who has not been initiated may perform minor rituals such as a simple ancestor worship offered to one or two ancestors including the sacrifice of a fowl. However, such a person cannot take part in performing rituals to the higher gods. So kwaa taang not only formally grants an initiate the qualification of priest, but also grants it in practice. It should be mentioned that this priest's qualification is a necessary condition for becoming a priest, but this in itself is not sufficient. To perform ritual as a priest, it is necessary to learn ritual knowledge, i.e. the ritual process, the recitation or reading of ritual texts, and so forth.
The prescription that all Mien males must be initiated in kwaa taang plays the main role in ethnic boundary maintenance among the Mien. By kwaa taang, a male acquires the first ritual rank, a ritual name, and his guardian spirits (spirit soldiers). His wife or future wife also obtains a similar status. Her ritual rank, ritual name, and number of guardian spirits depend on her husband's ritual rank. Thus the ritual status of every adult Mien is prescribed by kwaa taang, and this ritual status forms the core criterion of Mien ethnic identity. Many Mien informants say that an adoptee of alien origin (mentioned below) is also recognized as a full-fledged Mien if he or she has fulfilled the criteria concerning the ritual status determined by kwaa taang.
However the meaning of kwaa taang is not merely limited to the expression of priestly qualification and ethnic identity. It also has the all-important function of a ritual which expresses patrilineal ideology and provides the cultural construction for Mien descent.
Some researchers have pointed out that Mien society is a society exhibiting the features of patrilineal descent, patrilineal ancestor worship, and virilocal marital residence (Takemura, 1981: Pt. 3 Sec. 3; Kandre and Lej, 1965 etc.). Mien surnames, written in Chinese characters, should be succeeded to patrilineally. The group or subgroup of people holding the same surname are often referred to as clan and sub-clan, but the kinsmen belonging to these are not organized as a corporate group. The proper form of marriage should be arranged virilocally. The formal wedding rite, which takes three days, is performed only for a virilocal marriage. The formal rite is not used in the case of uxorilocal marriage, and indeed in most cases only a one-day banquet is held. The patrilineal extended family is the ideal household form, that is to say it is the largest corporate group in Mien society.
Patrilineal ideology, however, does not always appear in practical kinship organization. Though most the composition of most households follows patrilineal ideology, in practice there are some cases of non-unilineal descent in which most descendants are male but some females also form part of the descent line. There are also cases of uxorilocal marriage, of which there are three forms (Yoshino, 1991).
Furthermore the Mien of Thailand often adopt children from other ethnic groups (Kandre, 1967: 594; Miles, 1973: 258). Kandre estimates that 10% of the Mien population of Thailand are adoptees from other ethnic groups (Kandre, 1967: 594), and Miles reports that 22% of the population under the age of twenty were adoptees at his research site (Miles, 1973: 258). Mien villagers know which parents have adopted children, and adoptees have no physical filiation with their adopting parents in the folk-biology of the Mien. The adoptees themselves know that they were adopted from other ethnic groups. But the relationship between the adopting parents and the adoptee is recognized as a full parent-child relationship by the local society. There is no apparent discrimination against adoptees because they are adopted (cf. Kandre, ibid.). In other words, Mien kinship identity and ethnic identity are recognized at a sociological level and not at a folk-biological level.
Though practical kinship organization does not necessarily follow the patrilineal ideal, the patrilineal kinship relationship is often referred to in the ethical context of daily life, and specially important in the context of ritual. The gap between Mien patrilineal ideology and their real social organization is rather large. Though the practical descent line sometimes shows non-unilineal, but patrilineally inclined, features, it cannot be denied that the Mien express their patrilineal-virilocal ideology in ritual and ethical contexts.[3]
In kwaa taang, an initiate establishes a relation with three ritual say-tie (masters). Amongst the say-tie, the first master, tsu pun say, should be his father, or a close elder agnate if the father is dead, and the second, khoy gyaaw say, should be his close agnate. It indicates that the father-son relation and patrilineal kinship relation are re-affirmed in this ritual process as the master-disciple relation. In particular, the ritual segments of blowing rice grains into an initiate's mouth and of the provision of guardian spirits mean that magical power and guardian spirits are symbolically transmitted through the patrilineal line. Though in fact many initiates do not learn ritual knowledge nowadays, and though an actual instructor of ritual knowledge may be an expert priest other than one's father, the formal qualification of men as priests is also recognized through the patrilineal line as the master-disciple line.
In addition to the recognition of father-son relations as those of master and disciple, the initiators should be all agnates, or at least kywang ong-thay. This is another feature which emphasises the patrilineal line in the kwaa taang rite. In Mien society, the ritual-holding unit is usually the household, and rituals are seldom held by kin groups of individual households, but the kwaa taang is an exception. Kwaa taang provides an important opportunity for indicating patrilineal ideology in the form of group action.
The surname identity is also emphasized; the second master khoy gyaaw say should be at least a male with the same surname as the initiate. Mien surnames (fing) are often referred to collectively as "tsiep ngyey fing" (the twelve surnames). The Mien regard their own set of surnames as distinct from the Han surnames (paeq fing: hundred surnames or ordinary surnames). Kwaa taang also affirms the initiates' surname identity and membership of tsiep ngyey fing mien (the Mien of the twelve surnames).

Kwaa taang and the affirmation of descent

When I questioned the elders about the implication of kwaa taang ritual as a whole, they often answered by invoking the concept of dzip tsow or dzip tsong-tsey. Dzip means "to succeed" or "to join to" (cf. Lombard et al. 1968: 186); tsow means "ancestors"; and tsong-tsey means "patrilineal line from the ancestors" (cf. ibid: 165). So the meaning of the words is "to join the ancestors or to succeed to patrilineal ancestor worship." One priest showed me a sentence in a text (tshing kyaa ley sow, a text on the marriage customs) which is read in the wedding rite; it states "a male eighteen years old should marry a girl, settle themselves in his house, be initiated by kwaa taang, and succeed to the ancestral line: a female eighteen years old should marry out....."
Moreover, in the kwaa taang ritual, a religious document called kwaa taang sow is addressed to higher gods to report on the performance of the ritual. It includes the following sentence: "Let the male initiate (say nam) dzip tsow (succeed to his ancestral line) and become a disciple of a master to learn faat (magic or religion)..." It indicates that one of the purposes of kwaa taang is to let an initiate succeed to the patrilineal line of ancestor worship.
The kwaa taang sow emphasizes the learning of ritual as well as the importance of patrilineal ancestry. It also indicates that the Mien should succeed to the membership of the "collective priesthood" descended from their ancestors. In an individual kwaa taang case it is seen as patrilineal master-disciple relationship, but, as for the Mien as whole, kwaa taang is a ritual to recruit new members to their collective priesthood. To establish the ancestor-descendant relation is, at the same time, to be affiliated to the tsiep ngyey fing mien, the collective priesthood descended from their ancestors.
Kwaa taang prescribes kinship behaviour. Mien informants say that a male initiated through kwaa taang cannot be adopted or become a permanent uxorilocal husband, because the relation between his ancestors and him has been firmly and really (tshien) established. So, if he marries permanently into his wife's natal household, he has already affirmed that the ancestors will get angry and quarrel with his wife's ancestors, which will bring unhappiness. I heard of an episode at Village N in which a man (they referred to his individual name), who had undergone kwaa taang and the higher ritual of tow say, became a permanent uxorilocal husband because his wife's family was rich. This man later divorced and remarried, but was involved in a theft case and was murdered. This episode shows the strong Mien consciousness of kwaa taang as an affirmation of the ancestor-descendant relationship, which should not be offended.
A male who has not undergone kwaa taang, can become a permanent uxorilocal husband. After marriage, he has to be initiated in kwaa taang with his wife's agnates and affirm his relationship with his wife's ancestors. However, in the case of a temporary uxorilocal husband, he will only hold a ritual to get a permission from his wife's household's ancestors to stay in the house temporarily.
Such rules also apply to residential change. Many Mien households are patrilineal extended families. Members of a household fall under the protection of ancestors of the male household head. Each member is joined to a single ancestor from among the household head's agnatic ancestors and their wives. In the case of temporary uxorilocal residence, which often accompanies bride service, children born in their mother's natal house come under their mother's ancestors. After the period of bride service finishes, the father will take his wife and children to his natal house. At that time rituals are performed to cancel the mother's ancestors' patronage, and to register them as clients under the father's ancestors' patronage.
These rituals are called tshaeq mien khu (cancellation rite) and thim mien khu (registration as a recipient of the ancestor's protection) (cf.Yoshino, 1990: 81-86). Tshaeq mien khu and thim mien khu are also held in the case of marriage. A bride has to cancel her natal ancestor's patronage and joins the protection of her husband's ancestor.
As for a male who has been initiated in kwaa taang, however, it is impossible to perform tshaeq mien khu or thim mien khu for him. It is because he has already established his ancestor-descendant relationship and it cannot be changed.


As mentioned above, a person who has not undergone kwaa taang has an implied instability in connection with his "ancestors". He may be an adoptee or a permanent uxorilocal husband. Furthermore, it is the instability of this connection with "ancestors" which gives adoptees from other ethnic groups the means with which to attain full ethnic and kinship membership of the Mien. Even males who are born Mien have to undergo the ritual in order to obtain their full ethnic and kinship identity. Kwaa taang is a ritual that affirms the relation between the initiate and his patrilineal ancestors.
A female cannot be initiated immediately by kwaa taang. She obtains her ritual status only through her husband. Thus she can change household membership, i.e. she can marry into her husband's household by making tshaeq mien khu and thim mien khu more easily than a male can. This follows the patrilineal-virilocal ideology of the Mien. The male stabilizes his relation to his ancestors in kwaa taang so he cannot change household membership after he has undergone the ritual. The kwaa taang is limited to the males and affirms the ancestor-descendant relation. This prescription corresponds with the patrilineal-virilocal ideology.
A feature of Mien society is the frequency of adoption. Many cultural symbols supplement the lack of a folk-biological theory of parenthood to relate the adoptee and his or her social parents. The kwaa taang functions as one such cultural mediating symbol, and it affirms the father-son relation through the idiom of the master-disciple relation and establishes a relationship between descendant and ancestor. In short, the kwaa taang endows the adoptee-adopter relation with social recognition.


The data used in this article were collected in field research in Thailand conducted from 1987 to 1989. Here I would like to express my special thanks to the National Research Council of Thailand, the Japanese Ministry of Education, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of Chiang Mai University, the Tribal Research Institute, and the Departments of Public Welfare of Nan and Phayao Provinces, all of which supported my research. I would also like to express my deep appreciation to the Mien people of Northern Thailand.


1. In this paper the romanization of Mien language follows Downer's system (Downer, 1961]. Because of limitation of printing characters, some phoneme-transcriptions are modified in the following way:

Though the Mien language has tones, tone transcription is omitted here.
2. I heard that initiates did not put on female wear in a kwaa taang ritual held at another village in Phayao Province. There are some variations of ritual knowledge even among the Mien in Northern Thailand.
3. Douglas Miles in his analysis of Mien kinship organization ignores the Mien representation of patrilineal ideology in the ritual context (Miles, 1972; 1973; 1978, etc.), and for this reason I cannot agree with it.

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Updated 4 June 2020