China's "Kingdom of Women"
LUGU LAKE, China—Elvin, the bus driver, is about to be pissed. Luoshi village, on the southern side of the lake, has all the hallmarks of hasty development. Freshly hewn logs are stacked in piles, raw materials ready for the next strip of guesthouses and souvenir shops. The accommodations Elvin is pushing are smack in the middle of Luoshi, and the parking lot is packed with tour buses. The place reeks of diesel and kickbacks.
Candy smells it, too. "I think he gets money from that hotel. He says all passengers must stay there—that other places are too expensive and not safe."
Lugu Lake and the Mosuo people were put on the map by a songstress known as Namu. Brash and beautiful, Namu spent her childhood herding yaks in the high Himalayas before making a break for the bright lights of Beijing. Vocal talent secured her spot at the prestigious Shanghai Music Conservatory, but self-promotion (and fascination with her free-loving heritage) made her a star. Soon, all China knew about a land where lovely girls sang at courtship dances and picked lovers as casually as flowers. This exotic ethnic erotica was particularly interesting to the Han majority, who make up about 92 percent of mainland China's population. The tourists—mostly men, mostly Han—began to arrive in droves, hoping to spend some time in a Mosuo girl's babahuago (bedroom). Good Time Chao Li can do a little dance, make a little love, and get back on the bus.
The practice of "walking marriage," where women choose no-strings-attached lovers (for a night or a lifetime), grabbed the world's attention. But the relationships are almost never one-night stands, and the reality of the Mosuo's matriarchal society is considerably more complex than most titillated tourists seem to grasp. The family structure is indubitably matrilineal. For the majority of modern Mosuo, a "family" is a household consisting of a woman, her male and female children, and the female children's offspring. The "grandmother's room" is command central of the family compound, and only women have private bedrooms to call their own. Children and adult males sleep in the grandmother's or mother's room. An adult male will join a lover for the evening, then return to his own place each morning. Bed, but not bed and breakfast.
Any children resulting from stays at these bed-not-breakfasts belong to the female, and it is she and her relatives who share the responsibility for raising them. In the past, male kinfolk (on the mother's side) helped to support the family by fishing or by joining caravans that transported goods such as salt or silk through the harsh Himalayas to markets in other regions. Today, they still row tourists out onto the lake and work on the never-ending construction projects.
The advent of roads and electricity initiated many changes in the Asian equivalent of Appalachia. More than a decade after Namu splashed Lugu Lake onto mainstream China's cultural scene, the Lugu Lakers have begun to go Hollywood. There are more buses and more tourists, including families that come for a canoe ride to a photo op with the local scenery. (For every passenger on our minibus except Candy and me, Lugu Lake is strictly a one-night stand.) Namu has opened a large hotel in Zuosuo, on the northern shore of the lake. Luoshi has Internet cafes and an espresso bar, Sichuan prostitutes dressed in Mosuo costumes, and souvenir stands selling everything from postcards to prayer wheels. What it does not have, to our distress, is something that I need very badly. Contrary to what we were told in Lijiang, Lugu Lake does not have an ATM.
This presents a problem. The other passengers are being driven a few kilometers down the road for a canoe excursion, and we take advantage of the free transportation but pass on the lake tour. No sooner do the small crafts shove off than clouds gather. A cold wind springs up, and rain starts to lash the lake. Candy and I take shelter on a porch and start making friends.
Fortunately, this does not take long. Joe's real name is Xiao, but he says "Joe" will be fine. He wears a rakish cowboy hat and a confident air. The nearest bank, we learn, is two hours back in the town of Yanyuan. Joe waves his hand to encompass the neat buildings and the perfect lake. "What," he asks, "would we need a bank for?"
As luck would have it, one of Joe's cousins will rent us a clean room very cheaply, providing we don't demand amenities like hot water. I count our currency while Candy makes discreet enquiries as to the cost of beer. If we're frugal, we'll have enough cash to carry us through our stay. Deal.
When he finds out we aren't returning with the group to line his pockets in Luoshi, Elvin fires off a stream of machine-gun Mandarin. I ask Candy to say, "You're not the boss of us, buster." (She's been a reliable translator, but I suspect she conveys something slightly more diplomatic.) He glowers while I grab our backpacks from the minibus. Joe jumps up to carry them. We have found our Mosuo John Wayne.
Candy adores her boyfriend back in Chengdu, but her relationship hasn't rendered her blind. "Joe is very handsome," she observes neutrally. "He has a nice body."
I've been trading English slang for Mandarin lessons and share a new example. "In America, we call that 'ripped.' "
The canoes have returned, and Elvin guns the engine. We wave goodbye to our soaked traveling companions and follow our ripped new friend into the courtyard. He settles us by the fire pit and puts water on for tea. When Candy mentions potatoes, he rushes to put small tubers to roast in the coals. Thirty minutes later, we're licking our fingers and beginning the first toasts with small cups of the local firewater. Joe makes arrangements for an after-party to follow the obligatory "traditional" dance for the tourists in Luoshi. In spite of our original agreement—and without our asking—water is being boiled so that we can bathe beforehand.
I grin at Candy. "In America, we call this 'pretty sweet.' "