The Kingdom of Women by Choo Wai Hong

The Kingdom of Women by Choo Wai Hong

‘I never set out to write a book when I first stepped inside the Kingdom of Women.’

Instead, Choo Wai Hong was on a journey to discover her Chinese roots, and Lugu Lake, which is located on the borders of Yunnan and Sichuan in western China, was just one stop on her tour of China.  Lugu Lake is the home of the Mosuo tribe, said to be one of the last matrilineal and matriarchal societies on earth.

This book is an account of Choo’s time with the Mosuo.  She spent seven years living with the Mosuo and was considered an honorary member of this small tribe.

There are two aspects to this book.  The first is an account of the Mosuo customs and lifestyle.  The second is Choo’s search for a more meaningful life than the high-powered and high-pressured life as a lawyer that she has left behind in Singapore.  The two aspects intersect where Choo contrasts her experience of more traditional patrilineal Chinese society with Mosuo life.

Until I picked up this book, I was unaware of the Mosuo tribe.  I was fascinated by the structure of a society in which the grandmother is the head of each family, where kinship is matrilineal and where women live independently of men. So, what about the men?  The men do not have a role as husbands and fathers, instead their primary familial role is as uncles to the children of their sisters.  Men have other responsibilities as well.  Choo writes that ‘the men handle the dirty jobs’.  Women cannot take the life of an animal, or handle a corpse.  Mosuo society believes in the sanctity of women as representing life and light.  Men also provide their physical strength and are vital for the creation of children:

‘A woman bearing the seed of childbirth needs a man to water it to bring forth life.’

Women judge men on their physical condition, which makes the males very competitive.  Choo likens them to peacocks.

Choo’s stay with the Mosuo tribe is made possible by the fact that she is wealthy.  This enables her to make material contributions to the tribe, and to observe how differently this society operates.  I enjoyed reading this account of the Mosuo tribe, and would like to learn more about this society.   I wonder, though, how long this society can continue to exist.  As Choo points out, they have become a popular tourist attraction in recent years and this exposure to the outside world has resulted in a number of the younger members moving away from traditional practices.

Note: My thanks to I. B. Tauris and NetGalley for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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