Book Review: The Kingdom of Women by Choo WaiHong

Friday 5 May 2017 by

The Kingdom of Women, Choo WaiHong, Book, Reading, I.B.Tauris, China, Mosuo

The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains by Choo WaiHong

Publishing by I.B.Tauris

In a mist-shrouded valley on China’s invisible border with Tibet is a place known as the ‘Kingdom of Women’, where a small tribe called the Mosuo lives in a cluster of villages that have changed little in centuries. This is one of the last matrilineal societies on earth, where power lies in the hands of women. All decisions and rights related to money, property, land and the children born to them rest with the Mosuo women, who live completely independently of husbands, fathers and brothers, with the grandmother as the head of each family. A unique practice is also enshrined in Mosuo tradition – that of ‘walking marriage’, where women choose their own lovers from men within the tribe but are beholden to none.

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One day, Choo Wai Hong decided to give up her career as a lawyer in Singapore. What she didn’t realise was that this decision would lead to her to the Kingdom of Women. The Kingdom of Women tells the story of Mosuo tribe, the last surviving matrilineal and matriarchal society in the world. In stark contrast to her traditional patriarchal upbringing, this community structure their social hierarchy according to maternal bloodlines, and worship the female spirit.

Overlooked by Gemu Mountain Goddess, and on the shores of Legu Lake, this remote part of China has stayed unchanged by the rest of China. The community welcomes Wai Hong as one of their own, and this book discusses the uniqueness of such an environment, but also asks important questions about traditional gender roles, familial expectations, and how a matriarchal community survives in the patriarchal 21st Century.

Wai Hong is a fantastic writer, and the book itself is beautifully written. I sometimes find non-fiction to be stilted, but this flows around its subject. And what a subject! This place sounds like heaven on Earth – a truly feminist society. Wai Hong does her best to explain the traditions and expectations, although sometimes I think she’s right in that it’s impossible to translate in to our patriarchal understanding. For example, she works hard to explain how the families are made up, not of a nuclear father-mother-child structure, but instead through the women – grandmother-mother-daughter – and how sisters, aunts, cousins, brothers, uncles, and so on all fit in to it.

She explains how the Mosuos conduct “walking marriage”, which is neither walking nor marriage, but something quite different. Mosuos don’t practice marriage in the sense that we understand it, but instead women choose their axias (or lovers) for any given amount of time, but the man is not expected to care for her, nor even act as a father to his children. Instead, he remains in his matrilineal home all his life, visiting his axias in their own homes and returning the following morning.

This all sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? In fact, it all sounds much more advanced than our own societies. But the Mosuo way of life is under threat of extinction, with the encroachment of modernity. Wai Hong talks about the traditions and her experiences through most of the book, but the final chapter addresses the future – how uncertain it seems, and how she thinks the Mosuo traditions might survive. In a sense, it’s a bittersweet ending for a book that is ultimately so empowering.

And it is empowering – it’s elegant and respectfully done, not drawing out the seedier aspects of things, but rather understanding the Mosuo way of life and trying to enlighten others. Wai Hong clearly has a huge affection for the people she talks about. It’s a relatively short book, and I wonder if there was a lot more to say. After all, how is it that this matrilineal and matriarchal society expects to survive the patriarchal norms encroaching on them? Many young Mosuos are choosing different ways of life to their parents – turning away from subsistence farming and the Gemu festivals, and even choosing legal, traditional marriages. One of the most striking things that seems to be happening is the sudden change from sexual confidence and enlightenment (there is no judgement on women for the number of axias they have), to the patriarchal shaming that is so common – a woman must be monogamous, whilst a man can be polygamous. No man would ever want a woman who had had multiple partners. If this is so, how can the tradition of walking marriage, and even matrilineal bloodlines, survive? A woman can no longer be a single mother, with the child belonging to the maternal family. Instead, you must become a nuclear family, with the child belonging to the father.

There are no answers in The Kingdom of Women. Wai Hong simply lays out the arguments. I get the sense that she did not write this in an attempt to “save” the Mosuo way of life, but rather in the hope that the Mosuo way of life can be empowering to others. The more I read, the more I felt proud to be a woman, the more confident I felt in myself and my choices. In fact, as a feminist I almost read it as a rallying call.

This is a must-read for anyone seeking empowerment.

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