Imagine a society without fathers; without marriage (or divorce); one in which nuclear families don’t exist. Grandmother sits at the head of the table; her sons and daughters live with her, along with the children of those daughters, following the maternal bloodline. Men are little more than studs, sperm donors who inseminate women but have, more often than not, little involvement in their children’s upbringing.
This progressive, feminist world – or anachronistic matriarchy, as skewed as any patriarchal society, depending on your viewpoint – exists in a lush valley in Yunnan, south-west China, in the far eastern foothills of the Himalayas. An ancient tribal community of Tibetan Buddhists called the Mosuo, they live in a surprisingly modern way: women are treated as equal, if not superior, to men; both have as many, or as few, sexual partners as they like, free from judgment; and extended families bring up the children and care for the elderly. But is it as utopian as it seems? And how much longer can it survive?
Choo Waihong set about finding out. A successful corporate lawyer from Singapore, she left her job in 2006 to travel. Having trained and worked in Canada, the US and London, she felt drawn to visit China, the country of her ancestors. After reading about the Mosuo, she decided to take a trip to their picturesque community – a series of villages dotted around a mountain and Lugu Lake – as many tourists do. But something beyond the views and clean air grabbed her.
“I grew up in a world where men are the bosses,” she says. “My father and I fought a lot – he was the quintessential male in an extremely patriarchal Chinese community in Singapore. And I never really belonged at work; the rules were geared towards men, and intuitively understood by them, but not me. I’ve been a feminist all my life, and the Mosuo seemed to place the female at the centre of their society. It was inspiring.”