The Women’s Kingdom is a documentary produced and directed by Xiaoli Zhou and Brent E. Huffman in 2006 that takes a closer look at the Mosuo, an ethnic group living in the Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces in China. This short film explores a culture in which women don’t occupy the traditional roles in Chinese society, but instead they experience great freedoms and shoulder huge responsibilities.
What’s interesting about the Mosuo is that they’re one of the last matriarchal societies in the world (hence the nickname “Kingdom of Women”). A matriarchal society is one that is ruled by women. As the head of the house, women have the power to manage the money and jobs of each family member.
The Mosuo are also governed by matrilineal kinship, where family lineages are traced through women. In contrast, traditional Chinese families have patrilineal kinship, where lineages are traced through men instead of women.
As a science student taking a course about anthropology, I found this documentary to be very interesting and empowering. It made me think about what the world would be like in a female-dominant society with their ideas of love, family, and work.
The Mosuo women don’t believe in marriage in the typical sense. In traditional Chinese society, particularly in rural China, many of the marriages are arranged at a young age.
Instead, they have a common practice that has persisted for at least a thousand years called “walking marriage”. In their culture, a man walks into a woman’s house and the woman decides whether or not she wants him to stay. If the man is to spend a “sweet night” there, he must leave early in the morning. In this regard, the Mosuo are open and direct when expressing love.
Since walking marriage is based on love and not social status/class/career, it is believed that if a couple is no longer in love, then they would peacefully break up and go their own ways. It is also interesting to note that women can have as many sexual relationships as they want and not be stigmatized as they would be in conventional Chinese society — a fact that is taken advantage of by tourists who want to experience “walking marriages”.
Since households are run by women, family relations are treated differently as well. Mosuo children don’t live with their fathers; instead they live with their mother and their mother’s family. This arrangement would potentially minimize conflict in how the children are raised because they would only adopt the values of their mother. Besides their mother, children are also raised by their uncles as opposed to their fathers, who in dominant Chinese society, are greatly involved. But this doesn’t mean that fathers have no roles in the lives of their children in Mosuo society. Once in a while, fathers will provide clothing to their own children.
As a family, everyone works at a hotel or restaurant to entertain tourists and the money is split evenly. When not working on their family business, men typically work in farms and women may take up weaving to make extra money. Within “walking marriages”, couples work separately and therefore don’t share assets.
Such freedom in maintaining relationships, raising families and controlling businesses bring power to the Mosuo women. Although tourism improves living standards by bringing in money and attention, it also brings forward pollution and lifestyle changes such as higher beauty standards and guarded behaviour. This may be an ideal society with all of its choices, but the problems that they are presented with cannot be ignored.
The Kingdom of Women is surviving, however it must be kept in mind that it is one of the last matriarchies (if not the last) and we must be thoughtful of how our actions may impact theirs.