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review 2017-04-25 19:36
An extraordinary adventure that can help us see the world in a different way
The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains - Choo Wai Hong

Thanks to NetGalley and I.B. Tauris for providing me with a copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This book and its author, Choo Waihong, introduce us to a fascinating tribe, the Mosuo, from the province of Yunnan in China, in the region of the lakes, where a matrilineal society has survived in an almost untouched fashion for centuries. The author, a corporate lawyer working in a big law firm in Singapore, left her job and went searching for a different life. She toured China, first visiting the village where her father was born, and during her travels read an article about the Mosuo that aroused her curiosity and she decided to investigate personally.

The book narrates her adventures with the Mosuo, how she ended up becoming the godmother (personally, I think she became a fairy godmother, as she invested her own funds to help keep the Festival of the Mountain Goddess alive, and also sponsored a number of students, helping them carry on with their educations) of an entire village, and built a home there, where she spends 6 months a year.

The book is divided into twelve chapters (from ‘Arriving in the Kingdom of Women’ to ‘On the Knife-Edge of Extinction’) and it does not follow the author’s adventure chronologically (it is neither a memoir, nor an anthropological treatise) but rather discusses large topics, using first-hand observations of the author, her conversations with the inhabitants, and the insights the writer can offer when she compares this society to the one she had grown up and lived all her life in. She acknowledges she had always subscribed to feminist ideas, but nothing had prepared her for what she saw there, and the experience helped her redefine her feminism. She has difficulty fully understanding the social mores and the organisation and inner workings of Mosuo societies (the nuclear family is unknown there, the family relations are complex and difficult to understand for an outsider and they are becoming even more complicated when the population try to adapt them to a standard patriarchal model), she cannot get used to the concept of communal property (she likes the theory of people sharing farm work and living as a community, but not so much when her SUV is used by everybody for things not covered by her insurance when she is not there), she needs indoor toilet facilities (I couldn’t empathise more), and she is dismayed at the way modernity and tourism are encroaching on the traditional lifestyle. Of course, it is not the same to be able to come and go and feel empowered in a society so different to ours whilst still being able to access and/or return to our usual lifestyle than to be born into such circumstances without any other option.

The Kingdom of Women is a fascinating read. It gives us an idea about how other women-centric societies might have functioned and it introduces concepts completely alien but quite attractive and intriguing. I might hasten to say that although, as a woman, I could not help but smile at the thought of many of the practices and the different order of things, I am sure quite a few men would be more than happy with the lifestyle of the men of the tribe (no family ties as such, dedicated to cultivating their physical strength and good looks, invested on manly pursuits, like hunting, fishing … and not having to worry about endless courting or complex dating rules).

Choo Waihong is devoted to the tribe and their traditional way of life, and she has adopted it as much as they have adopted her (the relationships is mutually beneficial, as it becomes amply clear when we read the book). She explores and observes, but always trying to be respectful of tradition and social conventions, never being too curious or interfering unless she is invited in. Her love for the place and the people is clear, and she has little negative to say (she does mention STDs with its possible sequela of congenital defects and the issue of prostitution, which is not openly acknowledged or discussed), although when she talks about her attempts at keeping the Mountain Goddess Festival alive, it is clear hers is not the scientific model of observing without personally interfering (we are all familiar with the theory behind the observer effect but this is not what this book or the author’s experience is about ). The last chapter makes clear that things are quickly changing: most of the younger generation, who have had access to education, do not seem inclined to carry on upholding the same lifestyle. They are leaving the area to study and plan on getting married and starting a nuclear family rather than moving back to their grandmother’s house and having a walk-in marriage. Young men, that as she acknowledges do not have access to varied male role models, leave their studies to become waiters and dream of opening restaurants. Many of the older generation of Mosuo men and women are still illiterate but, they have mobile phones and take advantage of the touristic interest in the area, selling their lands and leaving the rural tradition behind. As the author notes, she was lucky to have access to the Mosuo people at a time of quick social change, but before the old way of life had disappeared completely. Others might not be so lucky.

This is a great book for people interested in alternative societal models and ethnological studies, written in a compelling way, a first person narration that brings to life the characters, the place and the narrator. It might not satisfy the requirements of somebody looking for a scientific study but it injects immediacy and vibrancy into the subject.

As a side note, I had access to an e-version of the book and therefore cannot comment on the pictures that I understand are included in the hardback copy. I would recommend obtaining that version if possible as I’m sure the pictures and the glossary would greatly enhance the reading experience.

 

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