The Kingdom of Women: Choo WaiHong

★★★

Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains

Some time ago, I heard about a book called Leaving Mother Lake, which told the story of a young woman raised in a remarkable tribe in western China near the Tibetan border, and her journey into mainstream Chinese life. I haven’t yet got round to reading that, but it meant that I immediately jumped on this forthcoming book about the same Mosuo tribe, this time told by someone entering, rather than leaving, the community. The Mosuo are remarkable as (apparently) the only remaining matriarchal and matrilineal society in the world, and this book tells the tale of a successful Singaporean lawyer who takes early retirement and finds a spiritual home in this unique community.

The story begins on a Sunday afternoon when a leading lawyer finds herself, yet again, at the office. Choo WaiHong’s determination and commitment have led her to the very top of her profession, but she has made great sacrifices for her success: her working day is often fifteen hours long and, although she can afford luxurious trips to visit friends and family around the world, she has no time to get to know herself. In a moment of sudden resolve, she resigns and decides to spend the rest of her life exploring China and finding out more about the country of her ancestors. As an independent woman in a man’s world, she has spent her life fighting to be recognised for her abilities and having to work twice as hard to get the same acknowledgement as male colleagues. Now she hears about the remote Mosuo tribe, who live in the beautiful region around Lugu Lake in the far west of China, where women are the driving force behind society. Fascinated, Choo takes a trip to explore this unique tribe and their community; and her interest turns into a love affair with this ancient way of life, which leads to her assimilation as an honorary Mosuo.

One thing to be aware of is that this book has two aspects to it. On the one hand, it offers an introduction to the customs and lifestyle of the Mosuo; while, on the other, it’s one of those rather hackneyed stories of a high-flying, single, wealthy woman finding spiritual meaning in a remote, simple community. Being primarily interested in the former, I found there was a bit too much of the latter for me to be entirely captivated by the book, especially because Choo’s personal journey doesn’t really involve any struggle or soul-searching, which might have made the story a bit more dramatic (even if this would have probably made it even more of a modern cliche). I find that it helps for me to have some empathy or emotional connection with the narrator in this kind of travel book, but unfortunately it was hard for me to find a point of contact with Choo.

This is, after all, the story of an extremely wealthy woman who arrives in this remote community, spontaneously has a house built, and becomes a valued ‘godmother’ through her ability to financially support children through their studies, and to act as a patron for local festivals. Choo is passionately interested in the Mosuo, and it’s commendable that she uses her money to help preserve their way of life, but her financial situation obviously smoothed her way into the community and as such we see a very privileged view of a quaint, traditional society. We aren’t even given a clear picture of how Choo become assimilated. Roughly the first half of the book tells her personal story (with the later chapters focusing on Mosuo traditions), but her experiences aren’t recounted in chronological order. One has the impression that she casually turns up, is accepted into various families and has a house built without really making any effort at all. I’m sure this gives a vastly simplified picture of what it must have been like and I would have been very much more interested to see more of the reaction of the villagers to this new arrival, and perhaps a bit more psychological depth behind the story.

It is interesting, however, to see how Choo responds to this society. Although she is a member of the international elite and has already created a life very different from the patriarchal world of her upbringing, that clearly still resonates deeply with her. And so, as she navigates Mosuo society, her reactions and realisations tell us a great deal about the position of women in traditional Chinese society, as much as about the Mosuo matriarchs. She explains the key aspects of Mosuo life: that sons and daughters customarily remain in their own mother’s home, as do the children of the daughters. Women control all financial affairs, run the households and act as managers for any business interests. There is no such thing as marriage. Women take axias, temporary lovers, sometimes developing long-term arrangements with a single man or choosing a series of short-term liaisons. The identity of the father is unimportant, because all childen are born of the same woman, and in traditional Mosuo society men do not have roles as fathers or husbands. Instead they serve as uncles to their sisters’ children. I was struck by the links between this kind of community, where a child is regarded as a woman’s with an almost negligible contribution by a man, and the kind of prehistoric communities imagined by Jean M. Auel in her Earth’s Children series). It’s an attractive idea that, somehow, the Mosuo have preserved an enclave of truly ancient human society, in its most natural form. This was fascinating to me, and Choo stresses the revolutionary impact it had on her, as the daughter of a world in which women are frequently treated as second-class citizens under the control of men.

I was particularly interested in the Mosuo attitude to men. They have three key functions in the society: to use their physical strength to help with labour; as studs for breeding, to put it crudely; and to deal with death. Interestingly, women (as life-givers) are prevented from any contact with death; and so men kill animals for meat, and deal with any tasks relating to the preparation of a corpse for burial. Women are not even allowed to see such things lest it affect their capacity to give life. Going back to the second function, the fact that men are judged by women on their physical condition causes Mosuo males to be very competitive in their masculinity and appearance. Choo perceptively likens them to peacocks, very conscious of their looks, their appearance and their sex appeal. But one fact that interested me even more was the result of a DNA test that Choo carried out on her friend Zhaxi. She’d already observed that Mosuo men, probably as a result of women choosing to breed with the best-looking mates over the course of generations, are strikingly handsome; but they also look different to men in Han China, with more prominent noses and more impressive stature. Amazingly, Choo’s DNA test revealed that Zhaxi and his fellow Mosuos could trace their patrilineal genes back to Northern European ancestors, similar genes to those found in Scandinavia and Iceland. Choo says it, not me, though with a sense of glee that I share: ‘Chinese Vikings!’

As someone who knew nothing, I found this an interesting introduction to a unique (and threatened) way of life. Indeed, the book’s subtitle referring to the ‘hidden mountains’ implies that the Mosuo are little known, whereas Choo makes it abundantly clear in her final chapter that they have become a very popular tourist attraction in recent years, and that the arrival of the millennial lifestyle means that many younger members of the tribe are drifting away from traditional practices. The story certainly brings up lots of ideas that I’d love to explore further. I don’t know how this book will be regarded by those who already have some knowledge of the Mosuo, through one of the numerous documentaries made about them, or through other books. Personally I can’t get away from the sense that much has been simplified, and that Choo’s experiences present a very privileged picture of this community. I’m now even more determined to get hold of Leaving Mother Lake, to see how someone raised in this society copes with China’s very different attitude to women. And I’d love to know whether anyone has come across a more historical, sociological or anthropological exploration of this society.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review

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