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Book Review: The Kingdom of Women

Choo Waihong’s The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains absolutely fascinated me, because it’s a sort of memoir/ethnography of the Mosuo people in Yunnan province, who are one of the last remaining matrilineal groups on Earth - and that matrilineal heritage is fast eroding as better roads, radios, and televisions bring the dominant attitudes of the rest of China into Mosuo homes.

However, the book is not about this erosion, but about the matrilineal culture as it still existed when Choo first visited the province. (She soon had a second home built there and began to visit often.) This is a society with no marriage: men and women both live in their mother’s home until the mother dies, and then the sisters found their own homes and their brothers continue to live with them.

People of both sexes can have as many lovers as they want; the men come to visit their female lover at her house. (All women receive their own room upon coming of age, to give them privacy for this.) Many people do eventually settle down to a stable relationship with a single axia, but the man continues to live in his matrilineal home and the children’s main male influences are their uncles, not their father, who may in any case be an axia who their mother dispensed with long ago.

And, because the basic building block of the family is the matriline, the Mosuo have none of the emphasis on female purity/virginity and total fidelity in marriage and accompanying male jealousy that bedevils patriarchal societies: there’s no need to ensure that the husband is the father, because there are no husbands and fathers don’t matter.

I found this all just about as delightful as Choo does, which makes me worry that we may both be gazing upon the Mosuo with rose-tinted glasses: any society has problems, surely. Although Choo does take up the question of whether Mosuo society devalues men the way that traditional Chinese society devalues women, and concludes that it doesn’t, certainly not to anything like the same extent; men don’t contribute to continuation of the matriline, but they as individuals are still valuable parts of it.

There were times when I wish that Choo went into more depth - I would have particularly liked to hear more about Mosuo attitudes on homosexuality, although I realize this may be a difficult topic to get info about. The one time Choo asks, her friends basically laugh the topic off, and there’s only so far you can push without getting rude, and after all they are her friends and not research subjects.

Aside from its intrinsic interest, I think this book is a fabulous jumping-off point for worldbuilding for a fantasy novel: it gives you the bones of how a matrilineal society can work, and you could build any number of different societal bodies off of that.

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Comments

I think this is one of the cultures talked about in <I>Sex At Dawn</I>, which has precisely that premise - that patriarchal monogamy as default is a result of socialization, not inborn traits as so often assumed. If you haven't read that one yet, I recommend it - I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I looked it up and now I want to read it and my to-read list is already fifty billion books long. First world problems, I guess?

Does Sex at Dawn talk about the Mosuo at all? I feel like they would offer a test case for many of the theories in the book - because here you have a society where paternity isn't an issue, where people do have sex more or less on a whim, and sometimes form stable partnerships and sometimes don't.
Book-lover problems in general, I suspect. For what it's worth, I sympathize. :)

I read it some years ago so I don't remember if it was the Mosuo specifically, but the description you gave here sounds very familiar. If not, it definitely talks about similar cultures, as well as partible-paternity cultures, where a child is thought to have multiple "fathers". Their primary theory, which I find fascinating, is that humans evolved hidden ovulation and polygamous tendencies as a way of fostering group bonding and support - when multiple men in a group might be the father of any one child, they're all going to be invested in the kid and want to help it grow.

...And now I want to read it again, haha.
I'm sure that the Mosuo do have problems, for the exact reason you say, but just because all societies have problems doesn't mean that some societies aren't manifestly better for some people than others are, and that one sounds like a much nicer one to be a woman in than a lot of others.

It's hard to recognize other societies' problems because we're so keyed to look for our own, and beyond that, to look for our own signs of happiness/unhappiness. The thing that happens to spring to my mind now is our society's equation of smiling with happiness ... but I know that some societies don't like purely social smiles (I remember hearing this from a Russian acquaintance on LJ, and later from someone Estonian), whereas there are other cultures where they're even more de rigueur. But social smiles don't equal happiness and lack of them doesn't equate to unhappiness, etc.
The Mosuo do have problems (they were very poor until recently, for instance) - but that's basically the same problems any subsistence farming society has, and without the patriarchal baggage most of the others carry.

I think the problem actually is that I've read so many dystopian novels that they've trained me to feel suspicious of any society that seems pretty darn good. Clearly there must be a catch! Why do we need to walk away from Omelas this time?
I liked this for a two-minute view into life there. Looks cold! (I went looking after reading your post.)
Ooooh, thank you for the link! It does look cold, but what beautiful, beautiful countryside - especially the shot at the end, with the man rowing across the lake, and the camera pans out so you can see the whole lake and the mountains...

I also liked the long swishy skirts the women were wearing in the dance at the beginning. (I always had a vague fear that writing a matriarchal/matrilineal society would mean the story could have no swishy skirts at all, so it's nice to have official confirmation, as it were, that this is untrue.)
People of both sexes can have as many lovers as they want; the men come to visit their female lover at her house. (All women receive their own room upon coming of age, to give them privacy for this.) Many people do eventually settle down to a stable relationship with a single axia, but the man continues to live in his matrilineal home and the children’s main male influences are their uncles, not their father, who may in any case be an axia who their mother dispensed with long ago.

This sounds very much like a culture that Ursula K. Le Guin would have written, so it makes me very happy to know that it's real and still surviving, which I hope it continues to do.
It sounds like it's slowly being subsumed by more general Chinese values as technology brings it in closer contact with the rest of China, but hopefully it will continue to hold on.
Oh, was this a NetGalley book? I feel like I saw it somewhere and was intrigued, but not quiteeeee enough to actually take home a copy. And now I regret that choice because it sounds fascinating!
Yes, it was on Netgalley. Maybe it's still there? I never know how long they keep things.
Oh, I'll have to check! Thank you.
Ooh, this sounds really interesting!
It really is!