What does a ‘matriarchy’ look like?

I don’t like the term ‘matriarchy’ as it implies a society where men are treated as badly as women are treated under patriarchy; ‘matricentric’ and ‘matrilineal’ are both more appropriate and more accurate.

There is no society on earth, past or present where men are considered to be chattel. There is no society on earth, past or present where baby boys are murdered purely for being boys (the Ancient Spartans may have exposed more baby boys than baby girls, but that was because of their very high standards for a healthy boy, not because of any kind of ‘man hating’), where boy children are routinely raped by adult women, and sold into marriage to adult women, or where men and boys are trafficked into prostitution to service adult women.

There is a nice documentary on the BBC iPlayer, and available for a few more days, that looks at the Mosuo ethnic group that lives on the shores of lake Lugu in the Yunnab and Sichuan Provences in China, close to the border with Tibet. (The documentary voice over is Scottish Gaelic, but it is subtitled in English throughout.)

The documentary focuses on Touentou and her family, Touentou is 21, and has two daughters by two different fathers.

The Mosou are subsistance farmers, growing rice, buckwheat and beans, and also keeping animals including pigs and chickens; they farm enough to support themselves, and do not sell surplices.

The Mosou are matrilineal, the household is run by the Dabu, the woman who is considered the most responsible (not necessarily the oldest woman), and although she has authority, the family makes decisions together; in Touentou’s family, this is her mother, although her grandmother is alive as well.

Women do the housework, childcare and cooking, and both men and women work in the fields (the field work is organised by the man who is ‘second’ to the Dabu, in Touentou’s family, her uncle). Also, women work in the tourism industry in season (Touentou and her sister work in hotels in the kitchens and as housekeepers, there are also boat rides for the tourists by women in traditional dress), and men go away to work in the city (Touentou’s current partner did this, and owns a motorbike).

Men stay in the same household/clan as their mother and sisters, and go to visit their lovers at night, relationships are started and ended freely, with no stigma attached, but serial monogamy seems to be the norm – in the documentary Touentou is currently back in a relationship with the father of her first daughter, they ended the relationship while he was away, and during that period she had another partner, who fathered her second daughter.

Children stay with their mothers, and their uncles act as their fathers, the biological fathers may be known to the children or not, but they have no material responsibilities towards them.

Touentou’s uncle describes the role of men as less significant, but not less valuable, and he says that men do not feel at all demeaned; he thinks other ethnic groups (there are over a dozen in that region) envy the Mosuo, but don’t say so!

The Mosuo religion is a variation of Buddhism called Lamaism, imposed by Tibetan conquerors, but with older ‘matriarchal’ elements surviving. Lake Lugu is called ‘Mother Lake’, and there is a legend that Gun Mu, the Mother Protector of the Mosou people, was so angered by the treatment of women under Lamaism, that she went to confront the Buddhist gods, to convince them how important mothers were.

At thirteen the girls undergo an initiation ceremony into adult membership of the clan, where they are given an adult name, and the key to their own bedroom. This ceremony is officiated by a male shaman and two (male) Buddhist monks.

The Mosuo have a very peaceful existence (the narrator says there are very few conflicts, and no “overinflated male egos” either), where very little has changed over the centuries. They even managed to survive China’s Cultural Revolution, and attempts to forcibly ‘modernise’ them, with some Mosou women choosing abstinence over ‘glorious Socialist monogamy’.

There is no evidence of anything that can reasonably be described as ‘man hating’.

Lake Lugu is now a huge tourist attraction, largely because of the Mosou, and the tourism brings modernity and change, so, ironically, but not surprisingly, the thing that brings in the tourists may be destroyed by them too. A 2010 article describes it in this way: “As commerce tries to elbow tradition out of the way and younger generations of the Mosuo are tempted by outside influence, a darker, seedier side has emerged in recent years. Tourism is booming, and the Chinese government is keen to market and monetise the Mosuo to Chinese tourists, even installing a toll booth charging $5 to enter the area from the newly laid main road. 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 [trafficked women] from Thailand dress in Mosuo traditional dress in the “capital village”, Luoshu […] all geared towards male Chinese tourists.”

Also ironically, Touentou, who didn’t go to school herself, sees not sending her daughters to school as a way of protecting them from change and preserving their freedom as women.

(NB: I am basing this account on the documentary I have just watched, the Wikipedia page is more detailed, and slightly different in some areas.)

6 responses

  1. […] antiplodon discusses the example of the Mosuo of China as an idea of what matriarchy might really look like. […]

  2. “At thirteen the girls undergo an initiation ceremony into adult membership of the clan, where they are given an adult name, and the key to their own bedroom.”

    Who held the key before?

  3. My guess would be that either the room was never locked before because they were children, or, they got to move into a new, lockable room.

    Please remember that, in many parts of the non-Western world, communal/shared living is the norm, everyone having their own, private, bedroom is a modern, Western phenomenon.

  4. Thank you for your prompt reply. Hopefully matricentricity greatly discourages predatory males who desire access to girl children.

  5. […] Later in the video (27:45), Knowland states that there has never been a ‘true matriarchy’, which is correct, there has never been a society where women treat men as badly as men treat women under patriarchy, where men are chattel to be bought and sold. There are, however, matrilineal and matricentric societies (I wrote about one here). […]

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