Life as a Boy Toy in Southern China

June 5, 2009 at 11:25 am (By Amba) (, , , , )

Jason (the commenter), @BXGD, tweeted this remarkable story this morning by an Argentine writer/photographer about life in a genuine matriarchy, the Mosuo of southern China.

[I]t simply doesn’t make sense to the Mosuo women to solve conflicts with violence. Because they are in charge, nobody fights. They don’t know feelings of guilt or vengeance — it is simply shameful to fight. They are ashamed if they do and it even can threaten their social standing.

* * *

They are strong women who give clear orders. When a man hasn’t finished a task he’s been given, he is expected to admit it. He is not scolded or punished, but instead he is treated like a little boy who was not up to the task.

* * *

For the Mosuo, women are simply the more effective and reliable gender. However, they do say that the “really big” decisions — like buying a house or a machine or selling a cow — are made by the men. Men are good for this kind of decision-making as well as physical labor. The official governmental leader of the village, the mayor, is a man. I walked with him through the village — nobody gre[e]ted him or paid him any attention. As a man he doesn’t have any authority.

* * *

[T]hese are very strong women who give the orders and yell at you as if you were deaf. [You wouldn't want this one's eagle eye on you!] But when it comes to seduction, they completely change. The women act shy, look at the floor, sing softly to themselves and blush. And they let the men believe that we are the ones who choose the women and do the conquering. Then you spend a night together. The next morning, the man leaves and the woman goes about her work like before.

* * *

[T]he women decide with whom they want to spend the night. Their living quarters have a main entrance but every adult woman lives in her own small hut. The men live together in a large house. The door of every hut is fitted with a hook and all the men wear hats. When a man visits a woman, he hangs his hat on the hook. That way, everybody knows that this woman has a male visitor. And nobody else knocks on the door. If a woman falls in love, then she receives only the specific man and the man comes only to that woman.

* * *

When she can talk with a man, have sex, and go out, then she is in love. Love is more important for them than partnership. They want to be in love. The one reason to be with another person is love. They aren’t interested in getting married or starting a family with a man. When the love is over, then it’s over. They don’t stay together for the kids or for the money or for anything else.

* * *

One woman wanted to have a child with me. I told her, no, I can’t have a child with you because you live here in China and I live in Argentina. “So?” was the reaction. The children always stay with the mothers. I said that I couldn’t have any children whom I could never see. She just smiled as if I took it too seriously. When they have kids, the children are theirs only — the men don’t play a role.

* * *

Often, the women don’t know which man is responsible for the pregnancy. So the children also don’t know who their biological father is. But for the women it is usually not important because the men barely work and have little control over things of material value.

Most Chinese citizens prefer sons and suffer from their government’s draconian regulation of the birthrate.  But because the Mosuo have ethnic minority status, they are allowed three children.  And because women run the family and handle money, “[a] family without daughters is a catastrophe.”

Look at the picture gallery:  these people look and dress rather like Peruvian Indians.  Their way of life, so utterly alien to us, feels familiar to the nervous system somehow, eh?  (I want my own small hut with a hook on the door!)  Fascinating food for thought.  Now I can say “Read the whole thing” and mean it.

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8 Comments

  1. Bruce B. (chickenlittle) said,

    Often, the women don’t know which man is responsible for the pregnancy. So the children also don’t know who their biological father is. But for the women it is usually not important because the men barely work and have little control over things of material value.

    Interesting article, but I found the part about fathers a bit “matroning” (pardon the expression) and downright insulting. The notion is fun and subversive in the sense of going against the dreaded patriarchy, of going against any evolutionary role for males, of going against any useful societal model (half the people are idle?). But in short, it reminds me of a welfare culture. No thanks.

  2. amba12 said,

    1.) Remember that, “matronizing” though it may be, the article was written by a guy. Any opinions expressed are his.

    2.) What it reminds me of is chimpanzee, or elephant or dolphin culture — the model where family life is multigenerationally female and males past puberty rove around in packs. Welfare culture seems to be reverting to that model.

    But before we assume any model is more advanced than any other, consider that human arrangements have varied as much as they do across the entire animal kingdom. That’s really interesting. One male with a harem is the herd-animal model — deer or wild horse or elephant seal. Polyamory is the bonobo model, among others. Monogamy really is the bird model (it’s for the birds?) — and I just worked on an article that showed that many bird species have “social mates” to raise children with for part or all of life but “cheat” some on the side (behavior that can be detected by genetic analysis of offspring and that is common enough that scientists think it must have a genetic payoff). Some birds that pair off also “divorce” and re-pair. And everything in between. There are even animals that have “Mr. Moms” — not only in seahorses but in a type of bird that walks around and nests on lily pads, the male raises the young. In most cooperative-breeding bird species, males do more of the feeding of young. As for bat-eared foxes (not true foxes) in Africa that eat insects, the female forages, coming back only to nurse, while the male stays with the young, protecting and caring for them.

    I’ve been very impressed by the strength of families in Orthodox Judaism, where males have been won over by making family life holy. (Which isn’t to say that they don’t cheat, go to prostitutes, divorce, etc.)

    Just a bunch of reflections, no conclusions.

  3. Ennui said,

    I kind of wonder if there’s some Magaret Meadizing going on in this article. That is to say, a mixture of a) the author seeing what he wanted to see and b) getting played by the natives.

    That there is no violence in a matriarchal society. I know that quickly slips into idealization — every human society has its problems. But it simply doesn’t make sense to the Mosuo women to solve conflicts with violence. Because they are in charge, nobody fights. They don’t know feelings of guilt or vengeance — it is simply shameful to fight. They are ashamed if they do and it even can threaten their social standing.

    I call bullshit.

  4. realpc said,

    “I kind of wonder if there’s some Magaret Meadizing going on in this article. That is to say, a mixture of a) the author seeing what he wanted to see and b) getting played by the natives.”

    I think so. There is no explanation of how the women earn money and support their children. There is no mention of military defense — maybe these people are protected by China now, but in the past the men must have been responsible for protecting the women and children. That is almost a universal, as far as I know.

    Primitive tribes have often been romanticized by anthropologists and portrayed as Edens without sexual restrictions or violence. There is probably a grain of truth, because isolated tribes without enemies may have existed.

    Men are usually responsible for war and hunting, so if a tribe is agricultural and without enemies the men might have nothing to do. But that is rare. If you live on good agricultural land chances are someone else wants to take it and you have to defend it.

    So something is definitely wrong with the article. It’s very popular in some contemporary sub-cultures to assume matriarchy with sexual freedom is the natural human state, and I really doubt it.

    And I think chimpanzees are very patriarchal, and they’re our closed relative. Each alpha male has a group of females, and only the alpha males can have sex whenever they want.

  5. amba12 said,

    Actually, our closest relatives are the bonobos, which are very different from chimps. They’re less sexually dimorphic and, embarrassingly, they’re constantly having sex. They use it as an, um, social lubricant. And either sex will get it on with either sex.

    But that aside . . .

    This is very much a westerner’s fantasy, and if you read this Argentinian guy’s bio on the site, he’s made a lucrative business of selling these fantasies of matriarchal cultures. He goes there for a couple of months, no question they play him (the way the Samoans indeed put on Margaret Mead), and he serves up a mixture of truth and romance that sells like hotcakes. Especially in Germany.

  6. amba12 said,

    OK, here’s the original bonobo story by a serious (though willing to popularize) primate scientist. (There are porny sites about them too; this isn’t that.)

    Here’s the bio of Ricardo Coler, who wrote this piece:

    Ricardo Coler was born in Buenos Aires in 1965. He is a doctor, photographer, and author as well as founder of the Argentinian culture magazine Lamujerdemivida. His photo collections and reports abuot matriarchal and polygamous societies have attracted a lot of attention in Argentina. Among others, he has written books about “living goddesses” in Kathmandu (“Ser una diosa”) and about a village called Vilcabamba in Ecuador, where people live to be over a hundred years old (“Eterna Juventud”). For his bestseller “El reino de las mujeres”, he spent over two months in southern China with a matriarchal society. The book sold over 60,000 copies in Argentina and has been released in German.

  7. amba12 said,

    Apparently as intelligent as chimpanzees, bonobos have, however, a far more sensitive temperament. During World War II bombing of Hellabrun, Germany, the bonobos in a nearby zoo all died of fright from the noise; the chimpanzees were unaffected.

    See? That’s the kind of wusses a matriarchy breeds. Tsk.

  8. realpc said,

    ” That’s the kind of wusses a matriarchy breeds”

    My guess would be that peaceful matriarchies, of any species, only evolve in safe environments without predators or competition. There is a reason for male energy!

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