The problem with not carping the diem and pinning the swirling wriggling thoughts and emotions down immediately, when they first arise, is that they start to take on a life of their own.
That’s bad enough when the thoughts are around something trivial, like a grocery list (“eggs, laundry softener, olive oil…eggs…renew driver’s license…milk…”). But I am finding it rather worse when they have to do with something really important. And fundamental – a word thrown about so much it has lost its original potency, derived as it is from the Latin “fundamentum”, meaning “foundation; beginning; basis”.
Wai Hong’s talk on her book, “The Kingdom of Women – Life, Love and Death in CHina’s Hidden Mountains“, on the women-centric, women-run Mosuo tribe in the mountains of Yunnan, China, has been eddying around my head in precisely this way for the last two weeks. Reshaping foundations, through revealing alternate beginnings, challenging the hitherto-unquestioned bases of so many of the operating systems that dominate our everyday life – like the water that is invisible to a fish.
And, in her sketches depicting this alternate way of being, inviting me to consider what we could relearn from this extraordinary community, what has been lost in the chronic absence of women’s fullest contributions in male-dominated societies which rely on myth and minimisation and violence to perpetrate this power structure…and how we all hurt so deeply from this imbalance.
What would a more caring, more communal, more balanced basis for a group of living beings look like?
Hearing Wai Hong describe the practices and underlying tenets of this tribe, which is both matrilineal (the bloodline is traced through the maternal line, i.e. from grandmother to mother to daughter and so on) and matriarchal (it’s the women who run society, make decisions, rule the family roost, form the backbone of the family unit – traditionally they did not have husbands, for more detail buy the book https://bookshop.theguardian.com/kingdom-of-women.html
or read https://www.theguardian.com/…/the-kingdom-of-women-the-tibe…) was a profound revelation of at least three things:
1) how utterly different a successful solution of the problem of a community of humans looking to survive and thrive together can look, in contrast to our prevailing norms
2) how pervasively and almost unbelievably patriarchal our prevailing norms really are, when held up side by side with this mature and organically-evolved culture of the Mosuo
3) how fundamentally *arbitrary*, therefore, the myths and storylines really are (encompassing both deliberate acts that have formed historical milestones, and happenstance of which there is an awful lot, given our collective and individual natural tendency to lose track of so much along the way) that form the “bedrock” on which these prevailing norms are founded.
Depending on how much you dare stretch your own thinking, this is -vast-. For me as a free-thinker for example, no religion practiced today is exempt to this condition. But even if you don’t go there, it seems to me at first consideration that most things circumscribed by prevailing gender lines drawn are open to reconsideration, dissolution, redefinition.
What could this mean? I’ll pick just one aspect as illustration – the lines and spaces of power.
I asked Wai Hong how strategic decision-making looks like within this society. I was curious to apprehend the flavour of it. How is power exhibited, and exercised?
My underlying agenda was to examine the “maleness” or “femaleness” of various traits carrying authority, such as “assertiveness”, “aggression”, “confidence”, “command”, etc. This unpacks itself into all kinds of interesting layers (would love to continue this conversation, Wai Hong – I’m sure you have lots of thoughts and observations on this piece).
For example, how is influencing done? Through direct persuasion and advocacy, and/or “soft power” exerted through non-verbal cues, contingent on a dense and living web of interrelationships and communal memory-keeping within the tribe? (Some of your comments hinted at this – the way the grandmother, CEO of the family, can make decisions with just “a look”, and how couplings are indirectly encouraged or desisted by family members through remembering who might have been with whom)
I was fascinated with how, in the centuries-long absence of a patriarchal, male-dominated framework such as that which has prevailed over most of the globe over the last two millennia at least, the qualities of leadership might correlate (or not) with the qualities that we have come to ascribe so facilely, but so fixatedly, to “masculine” or “feminine”. (Loved how you described that “don’t be such a man!” has a completely different connotation within the tribe)
Now overlay this with the cutting-edge work of neuroscience researchers like Dr Tania Singer. https://www.researchgate.net/…/links/53f327c10cf256ab87b07a…
Dr Singer is a regular at the Mind and Life Institute’s symposia, and something I heard from her at the Zurich conference in 2014 on altruism in economic systems has stuck in my mind.
She talked about the various neurocircuitries driving many different motivational systems within mammals, of which the article cited above is one. At that conference she highlighted three – testosterone, opiates, and oxytocin.
The key points here (hope I’m not mangling the science too badly through dodgy memory):
1) the testosterone cycle drives competitive and aggressive behaviours, while the oxytocin cycle drives prosocial and bonding behaviours.
2) everyone has some of everything. It is not so simple to say, men are driven by testosterone and women are driven by oxytocin. One of the most powerful testimonies shared at last year’s Power and Care was from a 62-year-old researcher who tested herself and her husband for oxytocin levels after meeting their first grandchild. Her husband’s reaction was delayed by 48 hours (!) but the degree of upward spike was not statistically significantly different from hers! Can you imagine the implications for male bonding with children, father or grandfather or uncle figure or brother etc?
3) for me the unspoken question posed by this is, what are the possibilities for therapeutic and deliberate -adjustment- of one’s own neurocircuitry, behaviour, etc? With what we are now discovering (thanks to increasingly sophisticated technology as well) about neuroplasticity, as someone with an immediate and long view on this as practitioner and future researcher, I find this new frontier almost unspeakably exciting.
To sum up, why I found the presentation of the Mosuo tribe so compelling is because it really helps to flesh out with its concrete example how we, where we are today, striving at various levels for a better balance all round to drive greater levels of personal and collective self-fulfilment, reduction of suffering and increase of happiness and life meaning, -could- deliberately aim to create specific conditions to bring this about.
Three quick examples Wai Hong brought up:
1) when making decisions e.g. apportioning land, the women speak up straightaway, there is no fear or embarrassment about stating their opinions, it is normal and accepted for the discussion to unfold like this.
2) there is SPACE in the society for women to have authority and leadership. Growing up as a young girl, one feels natural that one has a voice to be counted, that one is going to get to exercise control.
Just stop here and think about our society, in contrast. Think about the messaging that goes out everywhere, to young boys and girls. The toys. The colours. The storylines in books, TV shows, games, pop songs. The gender qualities held up for admiration. The almost complete ascription of beauty to the female; that a female can objectively admire a male as “beautiful” does not exist. (I’ve added a picture of a stunning exception, Dora Maar’s 1932 photo of the Italian ballet dancer Alberto Spadolini, from the current Tate Modern exhibition of Elton John’s collection of photographs.
Also another fascinating portrait, of Georgia O’Keeffe by her husband Alfred Stieglitz. Look at the unmistakeable strength and cool ambiguity of that face; if I did not tell you you would have been hard-pressed to identify it as male or female.)
3) the symbolic embodiments of power and authority in the actual physical environment of the civic community. In Mosuo houses, a tall pine tree is cut down and forms two pillars: the higher section, slenderer and weaker, is the men’s, while the lower section, broader and more weightbearing, is the women’s. Look around us. How many of our everyday symbols and embodiments of power – the statues and commemorations, the architecture, the imagery – tell a story that associates strength with masculinity?
Let me get this straight. I am interested not in thesis or antithesis. I am interested in synthesis.
We live in an incredible age, ripe with the possibility of bringing together old and new like never before. What drives me is the possibility – and the moral imperative – of exercising our choices wisely, so we can learn from the many mistakes of the past, open ourselves to fruitful new directions, and steer a more even course, fraught with less unnecessary suffering and inviting greater fulfilment.
Thank you, Wai Hong, for bringing this rich and precious story to us. Your Singaporean lawyerness was everywhere evident in your acuity of observation and precision of articulation, while your love of the writing shone in your crisp eloquence (and whiplashes of humour!). The dimension of searching out one’s familial roots is a haunting one, one I have had conversations recently with a dear friend undertaking the same retrospective journey, and in the wider matrix of us Singaporeans seeking to frame and embed our very identity, a resonating one that speaks for many of us. Even if you might not have set out explicitly to do so, you do our little red dot proud.