The Kingdom of Women by Singaporean author Choo Waihong is a first-person account of the author’s experiences living with the Mosuo, an ethnic minority community resident in South-West China and one of the world’s last surviving matrilineal and matriarchal societies.
Closely related culturally to the Tibetans, the Mosuo have long been a focus of interest for sociologists and anthropologists because of their unique practice of “walking marriage”, whereby women take on a male lover or lovers (known as axia) without any commitment, with any offspring borne of their union becoming part of the mother’s family—with the man left free of any burden or claim to the children.
As a Chinese woman, Choo is able to access Mosuo culture far better than any male author ever could.
The book slowly reveals the path that led the author to her current life among the Mosuo. A disaffected commercial lawyer in Singapore, she had grown weary of the long hours and chauvinism she faced in the corporate world. A sudden decision to quit her job and travel the world found her establishing a new life by the shores of the Lugu Lake at the foot of the Gemu Mountain in China’s Yunnan Province. Invited by the local Mosuo to take up residence, she makes a decision to build a house in the traditional Mosuo style—made from the wood of a single tree, and constructed without the use of a single nail—and move her life there. Over time she becomes a part of the community, sharing their experience of births, deaths and marriages.
As a Singaporean Chinese woman, Choo writes from an interesting position—both insider and outsider. As a Chinese woman she is able to access Mosuo culture far better than any male author ever could. However, she remains a foreigner and the book contains many of the familiar tropes of the “fish out of water” story—from the initial thrill of the exotic, to cultural misunderstandings and finally assimilation. By the book’s conclusion, Choo confesses to having “gone native”, adopting local dress, taking up horse-riding and assuming a traditional Mosuo-name given to her by the resident Mosuo Living Buddha.
In addition to providing a peek into her life, Choo has also written her book with the intention of clearing up a number of misconceptions about the Mosuo. First among these is the idea that the “walking marriage” concept means that the Mosuo are sex-crazed hedonists. Choo argues instead that the Mosuo actually consider sex as far less valuable than the bonds of family: it is just that family bonds are constructed in different ways.
Choo therefore dedicates a great deal of the book to explaining the complex and unfamiliar web of family relationships which are the product of the Mosuo’s atypical family structures. As such, the book is not punctuated by dramatic events, but rather unfolds as a series of small vignettes—the hosting of a dinner, the construction of a house, religious festivities and the various social interactions between Choo and her adopted community.
Although Choo is not a natural writer, she has a clear and purposeful style and many will appreciate the slow, languid pace of the book which suitably reflects the Mosuo lifestyle. Readers looking for an objective, anthropological analysis of the Mosuo culture will come away disappointed. Ultimately, Choo’s portrayal of the Mosuo is an idealized one. For Choo, the Mosuo are the most elegant, moral and respectful people in the world—unlike the Chinese she argues—and nothing will convince her otherwise.
Chinese patriarchal traditions cast a long shadow over the book, with Choo setting the Mosuo’s feminist ethos against China’s chauvinistic patriarchy. Every element of Mosuo culture is compared to the author’s own Chinese background, with the former almost always found superior to the latter. She talks enviously of the confidence, poise and pride of the Mosuo women:
She must feel much more special than the Chinese woman who is made to take a back seat in a patriarchal household, where tradition requires her to defer first to her father, then to her husband, and finally, to her son in her old age. Everything connected to the female is relegated to a lesser position. For the Mosuo woman, she is already clothed with privilege from the day she is born because a baby girl born to a Mosuo family is a celebration, not a tragedy as it has always been viewed in the old Chinese culture.
Choo does briefly touch on the darker side of Mosuo culture, such as the proliferation of brothels and paid sex work—and associated sexually transmitted diseases—that have accompanied the growing interest within China in this culture of “free love”. However, the broader political context confronting ethnic minorities in contemporary China remains largely absent. The People’s Republic of China—the nation within which the Mosuo exist—is referenced only a handful of times regarding the violent attempts to change Mosuo culture during the Cultural Revolution and later the impact of Chinese domestic tourism on the Mosuo. However, this absence is not a glaring one.
The value of the story of the Mosuo—and Choo’s life within their community—lies in its depiction of an alternate reality to the one in which most of the world live; one in which a woman has no need to fight for empowerment because she is empowered from birth. As Choo reminds us, “the fact that the Mosuo paradigm exists at all calls into question the inevitability of human society evolving as the male-dominant archetype.”