The Hmong clan name system is patrilineal meaning the family structure revolves around the male lineage. The family and house rules is under the authority of the male head of household, who is the oldest male in the family, which could be the grandfather, father, uncle or eldest adult married son. Usually the father is the head of the house and the family must adhere to his decisions. The clans consist of those persons who share the same paternal ancestry, meaning through their fathers linage. The way how Hmong people trace their linage/pedigree is through their fathers’ side.
In each clan it is directed by a leader or group of leaders that oversees all relations with other clans. These leaders often mediate in disputes, assist families in determining punishment and handle difficult situations for family members. The Hmongs hold closely to their clans and put a great deal of trust in their leaders. It is said that the head of the clan has particular powers that permit him to communicate with the deceased ancestors of the clan members in specific rituals.
Originally there are 12 clan names also known as their surnames (last names); Vang, Chang, Lee, Yang, Xiong, Vue, Her, Thao, Kong, Hang, Moua, and Lor but in todays Hmong society there are 18-21 clan names that are recognized but these extras are most likely spelling variation of the original 12 names. There may be several sub-clan groups within each clan where those members can be traced back to their ancestors. Anyone with the same clan name is related wherever they may live. Members of the same clan are considered to be brothers and sisters and therefore cannot marry each other. The men remain members of the same clan all their lives but the women would normally change from clan to another by marriage. The way to gain membership to a clan is either by birth, marriage for the women or adoption. All children gain membership into the father’s clan at their birth but once the daughter marries she acquires the clan membership of her husband’s clan upon their marriage. Women who are married can continue to identify herself by her birth family’s clan name but for all practical purposes she is considered a member of her husband’s family and clan and the adopted children would gain clan membership through the family that has adopted them and take after the male head of house hold. Clan members are obligated to help each other out socially and culturally. The clan name is the identity card in the Hmong societies. It will tell where a person comes from and the principles s/he was raised with. A person who is without attachment to a certain clan can lose grasp of their culture as a Hmong person. Also each clan has a different story, different ways of speaking Hmong and different superstitious.
Whenever a Hmong person visits a foreign land, a clan member who lives in that area will help them and provide guidance for their sojourn. Usually when two (2) Hmong people meet, they will greet each other and one will invite the other back to his or her home for a meal or something to drink. After greeting each other, they exchange names, ages, clans and generations to establish their relationship in order to properly address each other. If they belong to the same clan, they will try to find the exact relationship between them within the clan and if they are not from the same clan they will try to find their relationship through the marriage of their kin, beginning with their wives, aunts, and so forth. Once they establish the relationship they will address each other using kinship terms, such as brother, sister, uncle, aunt and so on.