The Kingdom of Women by Choo Waihong, I.B. Tauris
Throughout western China, minority ethnic groups are throwing off their traditional clothing, trading horses for automobiles, and choosing to sing Mandopop songs in karaoke rooms instead of traditional ethnic songs. When economic modernization demands different skill sets from the people and commercialization breeds different desires, traditional culture goes by the wayside.
I saw that first hand in the Bai Autonomous Prefecture of Dali (Yunnan), the Shui Autonomous County of Sandu (Guizhou), and the Qiandongnan area of Southeastern Guizhou. These villagers have access to new and beneficial luxuries. They can find higher paying jobs at home, in neighboring cities, or in factories in Guangzhou. Still, they try to hang onto traditional culture for tourism as well as cultural reasons.
Choo Waihong saw this situation playing out among the Mosuo people in the Lugu Lake area. Choo lived there for six years, adopted Mosuo culture, and became a figure in the Mosuo community. She wrote about it in her book The Kingdom of Women, published this year by IB Tauris.
The book begins with scenes of breathtaking vistas along mountain roads until Choo arrives in the land of the Mosuo and looks upon the Gemu Mountain Goddess, a female mountain deity who is worshipped by locals. The next day after she arrives is Zhuanshanjie (转山节), or Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival. Choo describes a splendid, large scale event with locals dressed to the hilt in colorful, elaborately embroidered, traditional ethnic dress; dancing, eating, prayer with incense, flute music, and Tibetan llamas all situated around a tent village. It was this passionate atmosphere in this beautiful environment that enticed Choo and convinced her to have a home built there.
Once there, she felt at ease amongst a society where women’s status was respected—even venerated. The Mosuo people are a matrilineal society—sometimes referred to as matriarchal, although whether they really are is contested. The Mosuo people are often said to practice “walking marriages,” where a man can walk up to a woman’s room and be invited in and kicked out at her pleasure. I heard that phrase a lot when I lived and traveled in Yunnan, particularly in relation to tourism promotion there.
But in fact, as Choo explains, the practice isn’t really a marriage at all. Women choose axias, long-term relationship partners, who come over at night but live at their mother’s house most of the day. They have a limited, but not nonexistent, relationship with any children they father. A couple may stay together for a long time, maybe even a lifetime, but in most cases they eventually move on and the woman takes another axia, often giving birth to children from multiple axias. Children are raised mostly by the mother, grandmother, and others in the family. The men of the family do the manual labor and the killing of animals for their family (that of their mother and sisters and their sisters’ children), and the grandmother of the household is the ultimate arbiter of major decisions.
Choo says this system results in women having a higher status, more autonomy, and freedom from some of the patriarchal strictures that are particularly evident in rural China. Women are free from social stigma attached to sexuality. Every woman is essentially a single mother (with a family to help raise and provide for their children). Women are not reliant on men for room or resources. Also, Choo says, women’s voices and opinions are respected amongst the Mosuo in a way they weren’t at the high-power corporate law firm where she used to work.
There is no Western concept, no traditional Chinese concept, no English word for the relationships in Mosuo society. “Walking marriage” is adopted partially to describe to an uninitiated audience, but also for tourism purposes. Ethnic tourism has been a growing industry in western China, particularly as train lines get extended and dirt roads turn into two-lane highways. Locals open restaurants and inns. The residents, who otherwise have started to leave their traditional attire in the closet, take it out and wear it to dance in front of tourists. Boys drop out of high school in order to pursue a career as a waiter.
Over the years she lived there, Choo says, she saw the scope and enthusiasm participants brought to the Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival wane. She became so disappointed that one year she decided to fund it herself. With her 5,000 RMB (US$725) donation and the help of a hardworking Mosuo man, they put on a great festival. But how long can it last?
“In the blink of an eye, in the six years I have lived among this community, I have borne witness at first hand to how quickly they have moved from their subsistence-farming way of life to plug right into the new world as cogs in the burgeoning tourism industry of China,” Choo writes.
In the end she says many locals are forgetting their traditional culture and adopting perspectives of the nationally dominant Han culture. One of her goddaughters married a Han man and started a nuclear family. Some of the young, would-be liberated women now want to protect their “purity” for a marriage.
Economic growth has brought indoor-plumbing, hot showers, and washing machines to homes, but it has also caused status-seeking. Besides food, drink, and smokes, some young men have began indulging in hard drugs like opium and heroin, Choo writes in the final chapter.
I know well how entrancing the scenery of Yunnan can be and the culture of the local ethnic groups. While I spent a much shorter time—just three months—living and working in Dali, I often return in my mind to those stone streets and the special festivals I witnessed. The white-walled homes painted with black ink (a Bai style) are beautiful, but not the fact that students have to come from over 100 kilometers away to attend a decent school. Ultimately a life of backbreaking farm labor is not desirable. It’s not the romantic image portrayed in cultural shows and tourism brochures. But economic growth coming from outside too quickly can have destabilizing effects.
Choo ends on an optimistic note. Some traditions may break down, “But I do take comfort from the reflection that the last thing that will survive will be their core belief in the matrilineal principle,” she writes. How the Mosuo cope with modernity is a question that will play out, and similar questions will play out in ethnic enclaves and villages throughout China.
The Kingdom of Women is an entertaining contribution to literature on the topic, a look at far-flung culture and a beautiful land. It can be purchased in hardcover at Amazon for $16.51, as of this writing.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, The Federalist, City Weekend, and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.