In this tribe at least it’s a woman’s world

In this tribe at least it’s a woman’s world

08 March 2017

The earliest celebration of what we have come to know and celebrate across the world as International Women’s Day was first held as a Socialist political event in 1909 in New York City. In 1917, it was declared as a national holiday in the Soviet Union and in 1977, it was adopted by the United Nations as a day to support women’s equality and empowerment. Forty years on, the campaign theme of International Women’s Day, in 2017 is Be Bold For Change.

Literature Programme Manager Hande Eagle spoke to a bold and courageous woman author, Choo Waihong, who left behind her career with top law firms in Singapore and California before taking early retirement in 2006 to travel and write.

On her journey across China to find her roots she encountered the Mosuo tribe, the last surviving matrilineal and matriarchal society in the world, in the Yunnan province. She lived with them for six years and wrote the first insider account of life in this extraordinary tribe – The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains.  Choo Waihong continues to spend half the year with the Mosuo tribe.


Hande Eagle: Can you tell us a bit about the reasons why you left your law career behind in 2006?

Choo Waihong: The thought of leaving it all behind first crept into my mind after I recovered from the shock of an accident when a bus ran through a red light and rammed into my car as I drove home from the office at midnight one Sunday.  While my car was badly damaged, I was not hurt.  But the crash left me in shock.  All I could think of at that moment was the late hour the accident occurred and how that might affect my getting up early the next morning for an important client meeting.  It was only days later that I stopped to ruminate on how ludicrous it was that my work life superseded more important questions of life and mortality…So it was not long after that that I decided to call an end to my intensely stressful corporate life and allow myself the pleasure of living life as it should be led, with leisure and loads of time to pursue the things that interest me.

H.E: As you know, in 2015 world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals which placed gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This is quite interesting as the Mosuo tribe, an agrarian society of 40,000 people are more developed than the most developed countries in the world when it comes to women’s place in the family and society at large. Middle Eastern countries seem to be in awe of western women’s rights, whereas they should perhaps be in awe of the Mosuo tribe? Strangely enough, in the west we associate enlightenment and the civilisation process with being well-read and educated whereas most Mosuo don’t have any formal education. How can we alter the social hierarchy of women across the globe? What are your views on this?

C.W: The Mosuos are lucky to have a firm and enduring base for women to thrive on.  From the beginning of their society, their matrilineal and matriarchal world created a social environment that empowers women from the cradle to the grave.  Every aspect of life, from the small things to the big, is centered on the female such that women have no gender equality battle to fight.  I remember the wise words spoken by a Mosuo matriarch when asked by a western woman journalist whether she felt special as a woman living in a woman-centric community:  “Special?” the Mosuo grandmother answered, “Not really.  It is just the way we are.”

It is different for the rest of us unlucky female souls caught in a patriarchal existence.  Starting from the base-line, we have to fight every inch of the way just to gain small victories en route to a semblance of equality, whether in the family, workplace or society at large.   Women, repressed and unappreciated, have been fighting for hundreds if not thousands of years, and the fight goes on.

I truly believe that in order to have any chance of success, this battle has to involve not only the women but also the men, and I don’t mean merely a few lone male voices, but the majority of men.

Choo Waihong and a goatherd in a remote Mosuo hamlet.

Choo Waihong and a goatherd in a remote Mosuo hamlet

H.E: Do you think that women in the west are women’s worst enemy?

C.W: No, women in the west are most definitely not women’s worst enemy.  They have initiated and carried on many valiant struggles to put women’s issues to the fore.  They have done so not only within their own cultural milieu but taken their campaigns internationally.

In doing so, these female warriors sometimes overlook cultural differences and the dissimilar stages of societal development elsewhere outside of the west such that their calls to action may not fit the particular circumstance at any one place or time.  The important thing is to work with local partners in order first to better understand their actual plight and second to propose solutions befitting the particular cultural context.  Activists from the outside should never impose their unconsidered solutions on any foreign soil.  I believe change must come from within, not outside, each culture for the struggle for gender equality to succeed.

H.E: How would you define being a feminist in a so-called man’s world?

C.W: That most of us live in a man’s world is a constant that goes without saying.  It is a tragedy.  To be a feminist in that context is to resolutely believe in gender equality as a guiding principle, carry the conviction of that principle in our daily lives and take action whenever possible to change the patriarchal mindset.

Choo Waihong with two villager friends

Choo Waihong with two villager friends

H.E: The world has been changing rapidly, i.e. socially, economically, and geographically and with it, so has humanity. How do you think the Mosuo family structure has managed to remain matrilineal and matriarchal?

C.W: The matrilineal and matriarchal family structure of the Mosuo has sustained itself over time precisely because they are a tiny community cocooned in a remote mountain region and cut off from the outside world.

It is not so much that the outside world has changed rapidly to become patriarchal.  After all, the patriarchal outside world had existed for as long as, if not longer than, the Mosuo cosmos. I do not buy into the narrative that human society has invariably travelled along a linear route from matriarchy to patriarchy in history because believing in that ‘progression’ would mean that the end point of human society is the patriarchal model.  Humanity can, and does, have alternative faces, and being patriarchal or matriarchal are but two alternative structures.

Leading on from this, the questions to ask are these:  Can patriarchy be reversed into matriarchy? Or can patriarchy be changed to reach even a mid-point, of equi-archy, where no gender presides over the other?

A Mosuo matriarch such as this one always takes her prime place on the more important female side of the room by the family hearth, where the embers are never allowed to die out.

A Mosuo matriarch such as this one always takes her prime place on the more important female side of the room by the family hearth, where the embers are never allowed to die out

H.E: I read in an article published in The Guardian on 19 December 2010 by Shahesta Shaitly that tourism is booming and that the Chinese government is keen to market and monetize the Mosuo to Chinese tourists. They even installed a toll booth charging US $5 to enter the area from the newly laid main road. Do you think that in time the traditional way of the Mosuo will be swept away by conventional western living?

C.W: In the years I spent with the Mosuo tribe, I have seen at first-hand how quickly change has swept through the previous sleepy hollow of Lugu Lake.   In the last chapter of the book, I talk about how the traditional Mosuo customs and values are being challenged as the outside world marches in by way of the opening up of Lugu Lake to tourism.

The age-old Mosuo way of life faces a serious existential head wind, and I see no way the community can resist the onslaught.  Younger Mosuos are choosing to get married instead of retaining the old ‘walking marriage’ way of conducting their love lives; the men are beginning to borrow the patriarchal attitudes in claiming bigger spaces within the family and the community; and younger families are being formed along the patriarchal nuclear family structure practised by the Han Chinese.  How the Mosuo culture will change is not necessarily with the wholesale adoption of conventional western living, but rather with a mélange of Han Chinese patriarchy and modern Western urban culture.  The sad thing is that the Mosuos might unwittingly embrace patriarchy and give up their most precious gifts of matrilineality and matriarchy.

H.E: In the same article it is written: “Curious and frisky visitors are lured in by the suggestion that the Mosuo women offer free sex. Hotels, restaurants, casinos and karaoke bars have been built and sex workers shipped over from Thailand dressed in Mosuo traditional dress in the ‘capital’ village Luoshu.” Can you tell us a bit about how such misunderstandings about the Mosuo affect them?

 C.W: In the push for the tourist dollar, some enterprising hotel and tour operators have latched on to the ‘free love’ story of the Mosuo and enacted a modern day rendition of sex for sale in the small hamlets by Lugu Lake.  Professional prostitutes from outside the community are employed to provide brothel services to the increasing number of mainly Chinese tourists traveling to Lugu Lake.

Needless to say, the locals are embarrassed by the new phenomenon.  Shame-faced, most of them pretend it does not exist.  If confronted with it, they will remain true to their cultural taboo of not talking about sex openly.  Instead, they shrug it off and quietly refer to the sex trade as something foreign and not involving Mosuo women.

 H.E: In the book you mention the enforcement of monogamy and marriage from the 1960s to the 1980s, and how this affected the Mosuo. Could you tell us a bit about this?

C.W: The cultural dislocations brought about during the Cultural Revolution affected not only the Mosuo culture but the whole of China during the 1960s through to the end of the 1970s.  With the end of those turbulent times, China slowly made its way back to the ‘old’ normal.

For the Mosuo by Lugu Lake, like the Chinese elsewhere, community life gradually returned to how it was.  Communes set up during the Great Leap Forward were disbanded and land was redistributed to individual matrilineal families.  Rural folk went back to worshipping the old shamanistic and Tibetan Buddhist gods previously discarded throughout the revolutionary times.  The Mosuo community started to dip their toes back into their old cultural practices, including not registering their partnerships as legal marriages and reverting to living within their matrilineal family structures.  The transition back to the old Mosuo ways was helped by a loosening up of governmental policy to let ethnic minorities get on with their cultural practices without undue official interference.

Two godchildren garland Choo Waihong with wild flowers

Two godchildren garland Choo Waihong with wild flowers

H.E: Speaking of cultural practices, the Mosuo language is a solely oral language and I understand there has been an effort to create a written form of their language by the Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association. In the book you provide a tale about how their written language vanished as a result of one incident involving two dabas [Daba is a religion practised by the Mosuo. Their priests are also called daba]. Would you say that the Mosuo language is an endangered language because it is oral?

C.W: Being solely oral, the Mosuo language can only be taught at home by the elders. Home-schooling their native language cannot compete with the formal education system conducted in the Chinese Mandarin language.  Primary school education is compulsory in all of China, even in the far remote mountains of Yunnan Province, and all Mosuo children of school-going age learn Mandarin far better and deeper than they can their native tongue at home.

More and more local children go on to high school and university, and these are located outside of Lugu Lake and therefore outside the Mosuo-speaking environment.  For these children, the only chance they get to speak their own language is when they return home during the holidays.  Otherwise, they increasingly live in a Mandarin-only language environment.

The Mosuo language is further disadvantaged by being an oral language. As there is still no written form of the Mosuo language, native speakers have no text for reference or for passing it on in permanent form.  In addition, having no written language has prevented the Mosuos from developing a tradition of literate learning.  For example, there were no history books written by the Mosuos in times past.  To the extent there are still storytellers who are capable of passing on Mosuo tribal oral history, they are diminishing in numbers over time, with the newer generations being told fewer and fewer stories.

I have seen many older teenagers and young adults who have studied away and returned to Lugu Lake struggling when they speak to their elders in Mosuo.  This presages a declining use of their oral language in the long term.

H.E: In the Preface you wrote, “I never set out to write a book when I first stepped inside the Kingdom of Women. I was on a journey to discover my Chinese roots and explore the vast land of my ancestors with its 5,000 years of historical and cultural treasures. Picturesque Lugu Lake, on the borders of Yunnan and Sichuan in western China, the home of the Mosuo tribe was just one stop on my grand tour of China.” When you look back through the years and your experiences, what was it that made you stay with the Mosuo and write this book?

C.W: I talk about serendipity playing a large part in my choosing to stay with the Mosuo and write this book.  This is absolutely true.  I did not start out with the idea of staying long in Lugu Lake, and I certainly did not start with the intention of writing a book about this fascinating people and their culture.

A chance meeting with a warm and welcoming Mosuo family and later a chance decision to build a home made me return to that community, with the visits becoming more frequent and longer in duration.  My trips morphed into a habit, and before I knew it, Lugu Lake had become my second home.  It was only much later, a couple of years on, that the thought of memorializing the intriguing stories of this incredible community took root

Building a house the Mosuo way

Building a house the Mosuo way

H.E: How do you feel about being the godmother of an entire Mosuo village?

C.W: My becoming the godmother of an entire Mosuo village as told in my book was an unintended result of my sojourns and involvement with the Mosuo community over time.  Unintended, definitely unplanned, but for sure, a pleasant happenstance.  In reality, I try not to make too much of it and just go with the flow.

Join us on Monday 13 March for Unlock Bangkok, the first talk of our series Sin Cities: Vice & Virtue Across Asia’s Urban Landscapes sponsored by Cockayne Grants for the Arts – a donor-advised fund of the London Community Foundation. For more information click here.