Friday, September 01, 2006

[Movie Review] Guan Cha Mosuo - Mosuo, The Last Matriarchy Family

GUAN CHA MOSUO (MOSUO, THE LAST MATRIARCHY FAMILY) (PI) Chine / 2005 / Vidéo / Colour / 60 min / Dir.: Weijun Chen In a remote region of southwest China, there lives the Mosuo ethnic group who have a matriarchal and matrilineal society. A young Mosuo girl wants to liberate herself from the primitive Mosuo social system.

And no, the above is not a joke, nor is it a misleading description of this poorly translated crappy documentary.

Mosuo, the Last Matriarchy Family falls just an inch short of being a parody, as director Weijun Chen (whose previous work about AIDS in China got rave reviews) introduces us to the “backwards” Mosuo nation, where women are burdened with doing hard manual labour and making all the decisions in their households, and men just sit around being useless all day long.

I am an ignorant dumbfuck when it comes to Chinese history or society, but looking through my Canadian eye, reading stuff on the internet and such, i get the impression that groups like the Mosuo are like indigenous nations trapped within the Chinese State. Survivor peoples, who have made it through the contortions and distortions of living “in” China without really being “in” China, if you know what i mean. Like one of the first scenes in this film, where (as much to show how ignorant these folks are as anything else, IMO) each member of a Mosuo household is asked who the chairman of China is today – not only does nobody know, most don’t know who Mao was either!

The Mosuo are a relatively small ethnic group, numbering between forty and fifty thousand, living in villages around Lake Lugo in Yunnan province, in southern China. Until recently they were partially shielded from the outside world through their isolated location – it used to take a week on horseback to be able to reach Lake Lugo, and there were no paved roads for cars. But in 1993 the Chinese government decided to invest $2.3 million to develop tourism in the region, and today a one week trip has been cut down to less than twelve hours, the village of Luoshui – the most accessible Mosuo community – now welcoming 300 tourists every day. (As capitalist development has allowed a middle class to grow from the exploitation of the Chinese proletariat, internal tourism is becoming an increasingly important sector of the Chinese economy, one in which – as elsewhere in the world – indigenous peoples and cultural diversity suddenly become potential sources of great wealth. Tourism is one of the four pillars of the economy in Yunnan province.)

Now i must point out: these facts were found on the internet. There is very little information actually contained in The Last Matriarchy Family!

The Mosuo are themselves a key part of the expanding tourism industry around Lake Lugo, and key to their “appeal” is the fact that traditionally there are no monogamous marriages within their society, and sexual and (on a family-level) economic power are concentrated in the hands of women.

The Last Matriarchy Family does show us how this non-patriarchal society works, with the role of Dabu, or family manager, being passed down from mother to daughter, generation after generation. Any cash earned is handed over to the Dabu, whose responsibilities include redistributing it based on need. Brothers and sisters live together with their mother and maternal grandmother (and even great-grandmother) for their entire lives. Hetero-sex happens when a woman over the age of fifteen invites a man to visit her in her private bedroom; he can show up, but only for the evening. This is called a walking marriage, as in the morning he must head back to his home, which is with his grandmother, mother, sisters and brothers. (Sorry to say there’s no queer sex in this movie…) Children are raised by their mother (who in bourgeois family terms we would say “has sole custody”) and uncles.

According to John Lombard of the Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association, “women still wield most of the power. The oldest matriarch in each house is the head of the house, and controls house finances, as well as owning all family property. When she dies, property and leadership is passed down through the female side of the family. In conflict resolution, business decisions, etc., the women tend to have greater say than the men.”

This kind of arrangement is certainly much better than what capitalist patriarchy offers – either in China or Europe or North America – but this documentary tries to milk the “exotic primitives” angle for all it can. Leaving us with a film both dishonest and empty.

For instance, there is no real discussion of how the Mosuo have either survived or developed in the midst of patriarchal empire. Nor is there any discussion of their herstory or political structure.

It took the internet for me to learn that there is a Mosuo queen (no idea if this is a real ruling class function or not). Or to learn that at one point the “socialist” State outlawed the walking marriage, attacking it as a “decadent vestige of feudalism.” Men and women were forced to live together if they were having a sexual relationship. According to Lama Luo Sang Yi Shi, “during the Cultural Revolution, the governor of Yunnan came to Yongning. He went into Mosuo homes and cursed us, saying that we were like animals, born in a mess without fathers. At that time, all of the Mosuo were forced to marry and to adopt the Han practice of monogamy; otherwise, they would be punished by being deprived of food.”

Gotta say… sounds like colonialism to me!

But times change, and so did politics, and this rule was rescinded, most of the men returning to live with their mothers.

Today such heavy-handed repression has been replaced with the implicit corrosion that comes with the tourism industry. The same industry which is presented in The Last Matriarchy Family as something that will benefit the people indigenous to the Lake Lugo area… by creating pressure on people to abandon or water down their traditional ways of life… all of which makes this a low-quality, badly-done, smiley-face advertisement for both patriarchy and ethnocide…

Take the village of Luoshui, the Mosuo community most effected by the cash economy. Thanks to tourism, this village now has a nascent sex industry revolving around karaoke bars. Horny male tourists are attracted by what they have been told about the “sexually liberated” women of the area.

Matriarchy as gimmick – and why not? Don’t we have the same phenomenon all over? (Just think of that “feminist” tv show, Sex in the City!)

Of course this “want-to-fuck-the-free-woman” fetish has its obstacles, as growing up female in a society where women hold so much power is not the kind of background that tends to push one into sex work. The fact of the matter is that many of the “Mosuo” women in these bars are in fact from other ethnic groups, told by the pimps to pretend to be Mosuo to fulfill the customers’ fantasies. Traditionally there is a strong taboo regarding sex with outsiders amongst the Mosuo – little wonder given what we know about the importance of sex in extending patriarchal relations into non-patriarchal societies. (Quoting one Mosuo woman: “Tourists are welcome here so they can witness our way of life, but for those who come here looking for free sex, we do not welcome such people.”)

Yet things like this were completely absent from The Last Matriarchy Family. Instead, we are introduced to a young woman who works in the cash economy, and is eager to leave her mother’s home and marry a man. This is explained by the narrator as a result of her being “enlightened” by the Han culture of the (mainly male) tourists she meets.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no clue what it’s like to be a member of the Mosuo nation, and i have no idea what the “right” path might be for a young Mosuo woman as the capitalist whirlwind that is modern day China closes in. But for me that’s just the point – the director obviously feels that he does know what the right decision would be, and so this film ended up reminding me of those racist documentaries about “primitive” people that get made by Christian missionary types.

And like all such cheap-ass propaganda films, half of the lie is in what is left out. The alternative, “more enlightened” patriarchal culture that is absent-mindedly “liberating” the Mosuo. This is China, an economic dynamo leading the way in capitalist productivity – on the cutting edge of progress, as one might say. And like all class societies when they’re revving their engines and taking off full speed ahead, this “progress” spells heightened exploitation and misery for whoever is at the bottom. Which in a patriarchal society means poor women.

Most people know that China’s rapid economic advance is fuelled by the labour of its highly exploited working class. But to say this and leave it at that is still to only tell half the truth, for in fact it is primarily the female working class which is producing the wealth pushing China to the capitalist fore. According to the China Business Review, “Though statistics show that the migrant labor male-to-female ratio nationwide is 2:1, in the Pearl River delta [the Special Economic Zone in Guangdong province, a key driver in the Chinese economy -K] the ratio is reversed. Job segregation in the delta pushes women into the unskilled, labor-intensive, and lower-paid apparel, footwear, and toy industries.”

So as the “People’s Republic” has lurched ahead over the past twenty years, even the government-affiliated All-China Women's Federation has found that women's social status has declined.

Today the female proletariat is sometimes paid as little as half a male worker’s wages while often working longer hours, on top of reproducing the larger working class by looking after children and men in the home… realities which form the lifeblood of all capitalist factions in this shiny 21st century – which is why the above observation about the Pearl River Delta could just as easily have been written about Canadian sweatshops in Haiti or American sweatshops in Mexico.

This is the reality which makes possible those “enlightened” middle-class tourists spending their vacation time trekking in to check out the “pristine,” “timeless,” “exotic” indigenous people of the world… people like the Mosuo…


“When your children will come here asking about the Kingdom of Daughters, my children will tell them that it was just a beautiful legend from the past.”
- Zaxidi, an old woman from the Mosuo nation

“Is it true that there are places where men beat women?”
- Zumaci, a member of the Mosuo nation

Disappointing though it might be, The Last Matriarchy Family did clue me into the existence of the Mosuo, and got me reading up on them via google and such. I learned some interesting stuff… things that – with the caveat that anthropologists and the like must be taken with a grain of salt – are worth repeating here. (For those interested, the most informative place to go seems to be the Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association, founded by John Lombard, a “Canadian businessman who has lived in China for almost 13 years, and specializes in cross cultural consulting for multinationals”… makes you wonder what kind of angle he’s working, mind you…)

For one, by all accounts Mosuo society is not simply matriarchal in the sense that women have the power, but also exhibits many qualities common in non-capitalist indigenous societies the world over. Property is held in common, there is very little violence, and no great class differentiation. So matriarchy is not just like patriarchy with the roles reversed – men are not being beaten or raped or forced to do all the work “out of love” or any such thing. They’re not earning eighty or seventy five or fifty cents to the female dollar!

Instead, what we are told makes us think of a classless society.

Or at least that’s how we are told things were traditionally.

This classlessness is so alien to capitalist society that it is shaken up from the get-go by the current “modernization” and tourism development. According to John Lombard:

The rapid pace of change at Lugu Lake has resulted in a small number of Mosuo who have profited greatly, and many more who look on with envy/jealousy. Competition has led to the dissolution of strong community bonds, as people that once worked together for the community's good now vie with each other for personal benefit. Murder rates (many of which are never reported to the authorities) among Mosuo have increased greatly.

Sure as hell didn’t see anything like that in The Last Matriarchy Family!

Lombard quotes a Mosuo woman who explains that “Twenty years ago, we had much less than we do today, but we thought it was so much, and we were satisfied; today, we have much more, but we see it is so little compared to other people, so we are not satisfied.”

(This reminded me of another indigenous woman from the other side of the world, quoted in Marilyn Waring’s book Counting for Nothing: “In the old days,” said Maya Indian villager, Dona Ettelvina, “we were poor but there was plenty of food. Now, we have money but nothing to eat.”)

The Last Matriarchy Family pays no attention at all as to why the Mosuo might have this matriarchal society while other indigenous peoples in the region do not. In this regard, i found the story put forward by the Lugo Lake Cultural Association to be far more fascinating than the “living fossil” line put forward by tourism agents.

According to this story, the matriarchal system was in fact specific to the Mosuo peasantry. They were exploited and oppressed by a feudal patriarchal class of nobles. We are told that “It has been theorized that the ‘matriarchal’ system of the lower classes may have been enforced (or at least encouraged) by the higher classes as a way of preventing threats to their own power. Since leadership was hereditary, and determined through the male family line, it virtually eliminated potential threats to leadership by having the peasant class trace their lineage through the female line.”

A ruling class ploy subverted by the oppressed…

This account may be true or may simply be some anthropologist’s ticket to an academic posting… i have no idea… but if it is true i find it inspiring. We know from stories and reports and survivors’ accounts from every continent and time period that people have lived better lives in non-patriarchal societies. And we also know that patriarchal class societies are able to corrode these “matriarchies,” not only colonizing them but also distorting and overthrowing their traditional gender dynamics and communal egalitarianism, turning them patriarchal and capitalist.

What we do not have loads of stories about are societies which transitioned away from patriarchy. Societies where women reclaimed or regained power, and held it, and established sustainable systems which escaped the orbit of patriarchy.

So if this version of an egalitarian matriarchal society emerging from a patriarchal feudal one is true… it is something to take heart in. (And also to wish for more details about – like what happened to those patriarchal nobles?)


All of which makes for a weird post.

I don’t like writing about other people’s cultures. Especially not when i don’t trust any of the information i am passing on. Learning about people via anthropologists and documentary film-makers is at best like playing a game of broken telephone. At worst, you know (or more precisely, you don’t know!) you are being duped into believing the latest fairy tales being spun by your own culture.

Nevertheless, other people do exist. It would be stupid to pretend otherwise, no matter the serious distortion between them and what we are told about them. All over the world, people are people – human just like us – and yet their ways of life seem in some ways so much better than our own. Whether they like it or not, so often we look at them and come away feeling that we were not intended for this kind of life.

So there you have it. The story here is as much “Folks in patriarchal China and North America are fascinated at tales about matriarchy” as anything going on around Lake Lugo.

And the reason why we’re fascinated, and how our fascination increases as the degree of patriarchal domination in our home-societies increases… that is just plain obvious.

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