A Reading Find: The Real Shangri-la

The other day, A and I were talking about our kids. One thing led to another as it does, and soon we were talking about patriarchy and matriarchy. A, who has an encyclopedic knowledge (his nickname is Mr. Peabody though he is much cuter), told me about the Naxi (also spelled Nakhi) and the sub-group Mosuo. Among these people women are the heads of households, raising their children with support from brothers. They have boyfriends when and how they wish, but these men have no authority over them or their children. Historically, male authority was founded on anxiety over the paternity of their children. Control of women assuaged that anxiety, but it’s irrelevant when the nuclear family is composed of mother, children, and uncles.

Fascinated, I googled the Naxi and Mosuo. One thing led to another as it does on the internet, and I came across a wonderful travel book by Peter Goullart. He lived in China for about 25 years from 1924 to 1949, and throughout the 40’s he lived in the territory of these peoples in Yunnan province in the south-western corner of China near Tibet. He lived in the same town (Lijiang) as Joseph Rock, whose writings on this part of China formed the basis for Lost Horizon. I’ll write a review when I finish the book. But I can tell you that so far it is entirely delightful.

You can find The Forgotten Kingdom by Peter Goullart here. I saved the file, used Calibre software to convert it to epub format, and then moved it to my Kobo. And now I’m off to read.

Naxi musicians in Lijiang, Yunnan-photo by Peter Morgan
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9 thoughts on “A Reading Find: The Real Shangri-la

  1. Thank you for connecting me to this book. I just read some of the intro and the first chapter. It seems that I will like it but since I have to read it online it will take me some time. I’m going to try and find it offline.

  2. You can find it used at abebooks.com or new at amazon.com . The library here has a copy but only one at the reference library, but you may have better luck where you are. I’m about 1/3 of the way through it now and still enchanted.

  3. The form of matriarchy practised at Lugu lake among the Mosuo isn’t probably quite the same as what we imagine it to be. Nevertheless, the place is dubbed ‘The Woman’s Kingdom’.
    There is a separation of economic and love relationships, with the man visiting his partner at night, but leaving the next morning to return to his mother’s house, where he works and also looks after the children of his sisters.

    There’s more info about the place at http://www.travelpod.com/members/happysheep or if you want to visit try http://www.lijiangtravel.info or http://www.southwestchina.info

  4. I love it when a discussion turns up some fascinating piece of knowledge that really makes a change to our imaginative landscape. This tribe sounds amazing.

  5. Happysheep–thanks so much for the links. I found your blog entries titled old traditions and modern life: matriarchy” and “where women rule: really?”. Fascinating! What you wrote about the Naxi, even in these tourist-driven times, corroborates what Goullart wrote. He didn’t write about the Mosuo, but did write for a few pages about a matriarchal tribe: “The Nakhi called them Liukhi and they called themselves Hlihin.” He says they lived “seven days by caravan north of Likiang,” and his main involvement with them was in treating VD, but I don’t find any corroboration online that the Hlihin were/are matriarchal or their connection (if any) to the Mosuo. Do you know?

  6. Litlove, the book is entrancing. It was about life in the 40’s, not that long ago really, and yet it would have been 100 years ago or more for the way of life and yet so rich and vivid and complex in the most human ways.

  7. Yes, the people referred to in Goullart’s book were called various names including Hlihin. The name Mosuo probably came when the Communists used some Marxist analysis to categorize and name minorities and nationalities under the new nation.

    And yes, one of the features of possibly having several partners (though never at the same time) is a high incidence of STIs, some of which affect the fertility of Mosuo women.

    Sometimes some of the writing about the Mosuo paints an overly romantic view about their freedoms. Or just project what they would like to find:

    http://news.softpedia.com/news/Mosuo-One-of-the-Last-Matriarchal-Societies-36321.shtml
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,627363,00.html

    1. Thanks for the info! That’s very helpful. Interestingly in Goullart’s description, he wrote about the Hlihin men focusing on their attractiveness (clothes and even makeup) in the way that women conventionally do in other societies. It puts an interesting spin on our gender practises.

  8. The book sounds really great, and I’m looking forward to your review. It’s wonderful to learn about different ways of organizing society — we shouldn’t be limited by our common forms of family structure and relationships!

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