A Quill Pen

Leaving Mother Lake:

A Girlhood at the Edge of the World

by Yang Erche Namu & Christine Mathieu

1 September 2005 book review
by Collie Collier

One of my vicarious pleasures as an avid reader of books is to visit places and people I'll probably never see. I enjoy this tremendously, both for the wonderful variety of locale and humanity, and because I consider ethnocentrism a curable fault.

I understand, of course, the perils of traveling only in this fashion -- I can "see" only through the eyes of the author, and when they're of another culture than the one they write of, there's always the danger of cultural or linguistic mistranslation. Nevertheless, a good sign for me is a book at least co-written by a native of the culture. When the co-author is also an anthropologist, my hopes for the book rise accordingly.

Leaving Mother Lake fulfills that authorial criteria nicely. Even better, it's about a culture so remote and unusual it's practically unknown in the Western world. I found the Moso of China truly unique as well as startling: they are a matrifocal society without marriage. Equally startling to me was the realization that the Moso author was a woman of about my age. To compare her life experience to mine was truly remarkable, an enlightening reflection on our respective cultures.

"O curse of marriage, That we can call these delicate creatures ours, And not their appetites!" -- Othello

In a nutshell, the Moso culture is one with no marriage ceremony at all. Family property is owned by the entire family, which stays together, maintaining their ancestral home their entire lives. This ensures the family's wealth stays within the family, rather than being constantly splintered into smaller and smaller amounts due to inheritance and dowries. Children are raised by, and considered part of, the family they are born into. Women choose their lovers, who visit at night, sometimes discreetly but openly and sometimes secretly. However, the male lovers remain part of their birth families.

A group of sisters, daughters, and granddaughters will manage the home, raise the children, care for the livestock (chickens or ducks usually, with the occasional pig) and grow the crops. The smartest woman of the oldest generation is (usually informally) chosen to be the matriarch and main decision maker of the family. She will listen to all sides of an issue, then make a decision to ensure everyone can work well and smoothly together.

Brothers and uncles tend to handle the various animals belonging to the family. For example, they'll take the yak herds up into the family pastures in the mountains, managing their breeding, wool collection, and culling as necessary. I think there may also be herds of sheep and/or goats form some families. The men also do the long-distance trading, traveling to the markets in Nepal or other cities in China in order to trade their goods for items they cannot make themselves.

At the time of the author's childhood, accompanying the trading caravans was still often a dangerous endeavor from which the men sometimes did not return. The male children were also occasionally given to the monasteries to become monks, as this would bring honor on families who could do so. Thus, for all the women are pretty much autonomous, they do the lion's share of the hard labor.

Curiously, I found Namu's narration concerning her life in her native village far more riveting than when she ended up "rejoining" the modern Chinese world in order to pursue her dream of being a singing star. In some ways I suppose that's shallow of me -- it obviously took enormous reserves of courage and determination for her to do so, and is an astonishing story in and of itself. Nevertheless, the modern world is one I know already, whereas her home culture is one which both fascinates, and forces me to re-evaluate my beliefs and my relationships. I enjoy mental challenges.

"Marriage is a great institution, but I'm not ready for an institution yet." -- Mae West

Regarding mental challenges, the American author, Mathieu, closes with a postscript which contains a bit of fascinating cultural exploration. As she notes, marriage can be a useful social mechanism for determining who inherits the family name, wealth, social status, privilege, or whatever else may be considered valuable in a society.

If there isn't an established, accepted means of smoothly transferring family wealth and raising children, the society as a whole suffers, and may fracture to varying degrees. Thus it's clear that having unambiguous lines of inheritance, and well-understood roles for whomever is responsible for child rearing -- such as is provided by marriage -- is a good thing.

Unfortunately, for marriage to work (especially in patrilineal societies) men have to be sure their families are uniting with other suitably equally privileged families. Also, they'll want to be sure it's their children they're giving their wealth to. This has two unpleasant results:

First, romantic love must be culturally downgraded as a means for creating a marriage, so there's no worry of one's child wishing to unite with someone of an inappropriate family of inferior social status. Secondly, in order to be sure the women in these patriarchal societies breed with only the "correct" males, female autonomy must be removed or severely curtailed.

The social result of these two determinants is cultural degradation of the importance of female sexual pleasure. Other equally unpleasant social institutions to keep women silent and compliant are rituals such as foot-binding, suttee or widow-burning, female circumcision, or social norms which trap women in their houses for fear of being stoned on the street. Obviously this is not a good social situation for women.

Then there's the opposite cultural extreme, where individual freedom and sexual pleasure is privileged. In societies like this, romantic love is prized, since people will want a lover who is personally pleasing, as opposed to being from a suitable family.

However, a natural consequence of this cultural turn of events is the sacrifice (to some extent) of the economic stability and unity of the family. Family lines and property will not be considered as important as individual freedom. This is the situation we have in the US today: individual freedom at the expense of family economic stability.

As we've already seen, the opposite end of the spectrum isn't any better: long-term stable family lines which allow children to be raised in economically solid families -- but a stability bought at terrible cost: the loss of female freedom and sexual pleasure. We face a constant societal tension: individual vs. family needs.

"Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds... Love's not Time's fool" -- W. Shakespeare

Then there's the Moso. They can speak from personal experience of marriage, as the Communists tried for several decades to force them into the traditional Chinese form of marriage which the Communists considered the most "optimal" style of family life. Unsurprisingly, the Moso have, as best they can, quietly continued their traditional visiting relationships. Let me quote Mathieu, the anthropologist/author:

"The Moso have made an extraordinary cultural choice -- they have sacrificed neither sexual freedom nor romantic love nor economic security nor the continuity of their bloodlines. Instead, they have discarded marriage.

What they have gained is a society where all the essentials of existence (food, affection, property, and family lines) are birthrights established by the most evident fact that is the maternal tie. And interestingly, from the perspective of family continuity, not only women but men find fulfillment in this way of life...

The Moso advocate this idealized maternal way of life as the best possible, and the most likely to foster happiness and harmony. Visiting relationships, they say, keep relations between men and women pure and joyful, and people who live in large maternal houses do not fight like married people do."

What a fascinating concept they live! I love learning wonderful new ways to look at sometimes-tired old social habits. This one is certainly appearing at a critical time of tension between individual and family needs in our social history. While I don't think the Moso custom of matrilineal ancestral family homes is directly applicable to our culture, I do feel emphasizing family lines more, and marriage far less, would be a healthy trend for our society to take.

Currently we legally privilege marriage with a variety of cultural assumptions, such as couples receiving insurance together; or having access to each other during emergency hospitalization; or being able to make monetary or medical decisions for each other; or being able to purchase things like legal protections or gym memberships for a reduced cost, as compared to two individual memberships. The list goes on for quite a while -- I think someone once figured out there were over one hundred legal goodies people automatically got at marriage.

But why must this be so? Consider all the furor we're currently having in US society about the definition of marriage. Is this really necessary? Marriage is a religious ritual for many, not a state-sanctioned need. That being the case, why do we privilege marriage?

What about the woman and her mother who're trying to raise her baby because the father ran out -- why can't the two women be considered as socially privileged as an opposite-sex couple who're also raising children? For that matter, if we want to be sure children have a strong economic and familial unit to grow up in, why are we insisting there can be only two adults?

We already have a plethora of scientific studies which show two working parents can just manage financially to raise children -- but that leaves the kids with no adults to raise them. What if we allowed the individuals themselves to decide what a family was, instead of letting the state do it for us -- what if a family came to mean enough adults that everyone could be happy and fulfilled, including the children?

Think about the possibilities -- a grandparent with her children living with her (married or not) would mean there were plenty of folks to look after and raise any kids, make sure someone could assist anyone injured or sick, keep grandmother alert and socially contributing, hold down enough jobs to have enough money to go around, and make sure there was enough economic safety net that taking a day off or getting a new job didn't leave the family in dire financial straits.

In what way is this example not a family? And yet, according to the state, if you're not married or the child of a married couple, you don't get to legally consider yourselves a family. Why is that? Why and when did we surrender to the state the right to define our families and our selves? Isn't it time to take that right back?