Here is the full text of my review of “The Kingdom Of Women” by Choo Waihong, which was published in a slightly different form by South China Morning Post.
Lost tribes, cut off from the babblingly interconnected world we now inhabit, continue to tickle the world’s imagination. Like species which have taken an entirely distinct path of evolution upon an island’s separation from the mainland, lost tribes suggest counterfactual modes of development. There’s also the way that they form metaphors for a lost innocence, separated from the corrupting influences of civilization in a sort of prelapsarian idyll. (It’s no coincidence that a number of films touched on this theme in the hippy-era late 1960s, from the Pink Floyd-soundtracked Obscured By Clouds to Dennis Hopper’s metafictional The Last Movie.)
This book by Choo Waihong suggests all of this, and more. In fact, her book is the tale of her encounter with what might be the last society on earth that is both matriarchal (female-dominated) and matrilineal (where bloodlines run from the mother rather than the father). The Mosuo tribe in western Yunnan survives on subsistence farming, has no institution of marriage, has adopted many practices of Tibetan Buddhism, has a largely communal economy, and which was largely illiterate (a handicap now fading as the Chinese state has opened more schools nearby). Choo first encounters them during a holiday upon taking early retirement from her job as a leading corporate lawyer in Singapore, and gradually comes to spend more and more time there, having a house built for her and gradually integrating into Mosuo society. She eventually becomes godmother to a young girl, helps sustain a local festival that was starting to pass into desuetude and funds the education of several promising youngsters. She then spends several chapters explaining Mosuo society, its rites and rituals, its forms and behaviors, making clear that as a feminist she thinks their matriarchal culture superior to the strict patriarchal society in which she was raised.
Choo is no Lévi-Strauss or Marcel Mauss – she totally fails to consider how a subsistence economy might affect Mosuo culture, for one thing, and seems unaware that many of its communal economic practices will be familiar to anyone with an experience of poverty – but we get some strong insights into the tribe’s matriarchal society and culture, and come away impressed by her passion for the Mosuo, her dedication to improving the lives of those around her and her feeling for women suppressed by the strictures of a patriarchal society. Some of the Mosuo society’s practices are fascinating, evidence of a society with an entirely different guiding principles. Children are born only to their mothers, as it were; fathers have no parental claim, though they can choose the degree of their involvement. There is, likewise, no institution of marriage. Women can have an axia (in our terms, a common-law partner) for as long (or as briefly) as they like – there is no practice of life-long monogamy. This, unfortunately, has given the Mosuo rather a reputation for “free love”, that euphemism for sexual indiscriminateness, which tourists rather pathetically try to use to their advantage. Mosuo women in fact approach relationships with the level-headedness of a society that scratches a living through grueling manual labor (chivalry being perhaps entirely coeval with surplus production?), neither treating the subject as taboo or as the cause of hysterical laughter. Choo rightly contrasts this with the dreadful treatment of “leftover women” elsewhere in mainland China and finds it superior.
Mosuo men thus have no say in the finances or land of their “family”, and little say in their upbringing of their children. But there are compensations. They are free to flirt and flatter, to peacock and to seek trysts (sese). They are admired for their physicality: whether they have broad shoulders, strong hands, and look strong enough to handle manual labour, which, of course, it is their duty is to provide. Serenading, performing and masculine swaggering are likewise part of male culture, developed from adolescence. Peacocking is of course critical to male courtship rituals throughout the animal kingdom. As in other tribal societies, Mosuo wooing is more performative than in cultures where material possessions take precedence. Improvising serenades, courtliness, eye-gazing and dancing and swaggering may all lead to a sese. Choo insists that Mosuo society is better for men, too. I am not so sure I agree.
All of this is to summarize the content of Choo’s book. But how good is the telling? While I can imagine the alacrity with which a commissioning editor agreed to her pitch, as the subject is fascinating, Choo’s narrative abilities are modest. Reading The Kingdom of Women reminds me of the letter poet Philip Larkin sent to a friend seeking advice on a book she wrote on the accidental death of her son:
[T]he reader wants that impure thing, literature – plot, suspense, characters, ups, downs, laughter, tears, all the rest of it… Your narrative isn’t a story… Now I can quite see that to “play about” with the kind of subject matter you have would seem heartless, frivolous, even untrue, an offence against decency or decent feelings, something you couldn’t do, and yet in literature it somehow has to be done – one might almost say it’s the mixture of truth and untruth that makes literature.
Choo has, similarly, given the reader a series of events about her experiences with the Mosuos. But for the reader this isn’t enough. Her tale lacks the narrative arcs and scene-setting and character development that make for a well-told story. Literature in its broadest sense is not just events blurted out the page, it is experience distilled and given shape, and it is in that shaping, sculpting and remoulding that we can perceive the artfulness of the writer. Choo as a first time author unfortunately lacks the experience and the judgment to know this, or to be able to put it into effect.
The early chapters, where she writes about her experiences with the Mosuo, are thus the weakest; the later, more thematic chapters on the forms and functions of Mosou society are rather better. The structure is the right one, for we need to know her story amongst the Mosuo before she draws upon her experiences to draw conclusions and yield insights. But these early chapters, which should have vivid drawings of the setting and the personalities of the Mosuo tribe, unfortunately feel more concerned with Choo’s minor undertakings in settling there. She may feel that this is how things happened, and that she is being true to her experience. But that’s not enough. We need distillation, reshaping, artistry.
In chapter 1, for instance, Choo describes how she first came to Lugu Lake, where the Mosuos live. She depicts the Gemu Moutain Goddess Festival, and encountering “a friendly face” who guides her through the ceremony. This is a girl named Ladzu. It’s not until chapter 4 that we learn that Ladzu is 14, nor do we get any more physical or mental characterisation. Choo mentions Ladzu’s mother Gumi several times without thinking to describe her at all – there is literally nothing about her age, physical appearance or personality. On several occasions names pop up and you struggle to remember who they are. The setting likewise feels vague (she describes Lugu Lake as “an intense azure blue, the bluest blue I had ever seen”, as though repetition will suffice), and the narrative jumps here and there too often for comfort. Her prose, similarly, does not impress.
The Kingdom of Women has a strong premise and story to tell, and it just about gets by on the strength of that. But ultimately it feels more the story of Choo Waihong, not of the Mosuo. In fact, her identification with the tribe feels more about her naïve desire to be celebrated. At one point she says:
In many ways I really believe I am accepted because I am a woman welcomed in a woman’s world. In this female-dominated bubble, no one thinks it strange that I am a lone female who goes about happily on my own. The Mosuos, both women and men, are accustomed to the presence of a strong woman mainly because every home has one.
The Mosuou are really a kind of flattering mirror for Choo, which is a pity, for obstructed by the author’s self-regard, The Kingdom of Women is a fascinating portrait of a lost people which struggles to be told.