Try to imagine a society in which there is no marriage. One where men and women take multiple sex partners in their teens, 20s and 30s, and never settle down with one. Imagine a society without husbands or fathers — one that has no word for father. Impossible? We assume the nuclear family — with a father, mother, and children — is the basic building block of society, and anything else seems unimaginable.
Yes, the situation in the passage above seems unimaginable — almost unthinkable, especially in the modern days whereby an ordinary family consists of a marriage couple and their kid(s). It has almost been hardwired into our brain that we “must” get married. Personally, I have been asked almost on a daily basis (as a single 34-year-old man), “When are you going to get married?”
My answer is always silence, mainly because I really do not know how to answer. Usually, I just smile. Often, I think it’s my personal life. Always, it’s difficult for me to conform to things, traditions, and norms, of which I do not fully understand the productive logic. Occasionally, I would use my standard line: “[I’ll get married] when I meet someone with whom I really want to spend the rest of my life with.” But that’s almost a lie, since I don’t plan to get married until I really understand its true purpose, which, thanks to the complicated nature of this project, could be a life-long project in itself. That said, quite often, this standard line isn’t good enough, especially when the inquirers are my older relatives. “Don’t be so picky, Non,” I could hear their voice in my head — “just pick someone — anyone — you’re too old to be single; you need someone, a woman, to take care of you.” Well, for those who have read a few posts on love on this very blog, you’d probably have learned that it’s never because of my pickiness that makes me single. Instead, it’s my own absurd criteria: the kind of person with whom I would like to spend my life has to be intellectual, non-possessive, and have good faith (as opposed to bad faith in Sartian term). Believe it or not, it’s not that easy to find a person whose personality, being, and soul thick all the boxes.
Although I thought that it’s already so so so absurd just to think that the idea of “picking anyone” is even on the table for a man (just because I am old?), this situation is much worse for the Chinese women, whose country targets them as the quick-fix to the rising problem of the gender imbalance. Long story short, because of the recently dismissed one-child-policy, China now has more boys than girls (as a result of intentional “gendercide” of the baby girls, and giving the baby girls up for adoption). The Chinese state, using the All-Chinese Women Federation (ACWF) as its mouthpiece, sees this gender imbalance as a potential source of social instability (and therefore population decline), and thus hopes to rectify it by “encouraging” people to get married. Guess what’s the strategy they have come up with?
Hint: this strategy is targeting at those who are vulnerable to they way in which the society see them.
The strategy they have come up with is to brand the women who are selective in choosing their mates “leftover women.” By the ACWF definition, “leftover women” are urban females who have not gotten married past the age of 27. Personally, I found this strategy to ridiculously absurd, as I could not wrap my head around the idea that a mindless policy as such would have any impact on such a modern society such as that of the Chinese. Chinese Women are now educated, intelligent, and independent. Why would they let a government arm such as the ACWF to tell them that they have to get married to someone they turn 27 year of age, other they’d be no longer wanted — leftover? It just seems absurd to me, which is partly because I personally really admire working women who are passionate about their professional life. I find working women to be very attractive, both physically and emotionally, as they are both mature, intelligent, and beautiful in the way that they chose to be. That said, I may have underestimated the gravity of this “leftover women” phenomenon. As many scholars and journalists have written about, this “leftover women” phenomenon has a profound impact on the social anxiety and market economy in China. Many educated urban professional women are anxious about being branded “leftover.” I don’t think these women , initially, are willing to change their standard just to get married with someone, but once the branding technique has been put in place, they are “feeling the effect” of being branded as outcasts when they are still single past the age of 27.
Today, just by looking around, we can see many various observable signs of the contradiction between this form of “traditionalism” regarding the role of women and their “proper” behavior, and the ideas of modernity and individuality brought about by the rapid economic development. By creating the stigma of being unwanted, ACWF is responding to the request from the central government to help easing the problem with gender imbalance in China’s urban areas, with the assumption that married citizens are more stable citizens. In other words, by ways of ACWF, the Chinese state is using what the French post-structuralist Michel Foucault calls “biopower,” or a technique for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations, to its advantage. The educated urban professional women are anxious about themselves being “unwanted,” when, only by looking closely, there is no actual underpinning factor to think that they are. In other countries, not only is it completely ordinary to get married in one’s 30s, but it’s also more than okay to not getting married if one does not think one has met the right person. While there is no reliable data to indicate that whether or not this state intervention has an effect on social stability (perhaps it’s still too soon) — whether or not women tend to get married earlier to avoid the stigma introduced by the state —it cannot be denied that this state intervention has an impact on the society.
The state intervention of the Chinese state — by ways of telling many educated urban professional women that they may be unwanted — gives rise to numerous public discussions regarding the phenomenon, mushrooming of both online and offline matchmaking activities, and dynamic activities especially in housing market and urbanization.
Lately I have been thinking about the question of marriage: Why are people still getting married? As a fan of the kind of love (that will last) that Jean-Paul Satre had with Simone de Beauvoir (about which I have written in the past), I admit that may have a too-romantic (and existentialist) view of love. But really, why do we, modern people, still need to get married? The originally the idea of marriage is tied to religiosity and traditional beliefs. Now that we see the decline of both thanks to the rise of modern society which is both more atheist and more rationale, why do we, modern people (I’d like to say this again and again) still get married? I mean, if the two people want to be, live, and spend your life with one another, why do we still need someone, or some event, or some people, to endorse the legitimacy of such commitment? What matters me the most is the idea that there will always be the idea of divorce. It would make sense to get married, if getting divorce is not an option. But it is! So, what’s then is the point of committing to someone, just to know that there’s a possibility to break such commitment? I may have liked what I know about Sarte and de Beauvoir so much that one should be spending time thinking about one’s own life (“introspecting,” in Hobbes’ words) in order to excel in one own’s sensibility than to spending time to think about marriage.
The purpose of this post — once we get to the third of this trilogy — is to share with you my version of an ideal society, in which men and women are not just completely equal, but also respect each other. Just to give you a hint, my ideal society is not just a dream, but can be achieved. In fact, a few communities in the world is operating using the framework similar to that of my ideal society. The key to the complete equality here is simple: removing taboo from sex.
Do you still remember the society without fathers or husbands that I mentioned in the beginning? Yes, the unimaginable community. A French-trained anthropologist (who is now a professor at Peking University in Beijing) Dr. Cai Hua has found something else in an independent area of a province in “Zomia,” a geographical term coined in 2002 by historian Willem van Schendel (later on popularized by the political scientist James C. Scott in his writings about anarchist societies of mountain people who do not want to be subjected to any state’s rules) to refer to a mountain range in mainland Southeast Asia that has historically been beyond the control of governments based in the population centers of the lowlands. This area is at the southwestern edge of China near the border with Burma. This is not a “new” or “experimental” society. In fact, the Italian merchant traveller and world explorer Marco Polo, who visited China in the thirteenth century, wrote about a people he encountered who did not mind if visitors had sex with their women, “provided the act be voluntary on the woman’s part.”
The people, who call themselves the Na, number about 30,000. In Chinese, we know them as the Mosuo. They tend to be farmers of rice, wheat, corn, and oats; most households spin their own flax and brew beer. Their religion is a mixture of ancestor-worship and Tibetan Buddhism. Genetic fathers have no recognized kinship with children and play no part in their upbringing. Dr. Cai Hua studying this society was told by a 67-year-old Na woman when asked why she did not have a husband or father:
No one asks that kind of question. If you hadn’t mentioned it, no one would ever have even thought about it.
In procreation (i.e., having sex), the Na believe that males are “waterers,” like rain falling on seed, and females are primarily, if not solely, responsible for childbirth and child rearing. Men and women, therefore, take multiple sex partners. Men normally make furtive nocturnal visits to women’s homes and must return home before sunrise, and develop no economic and or social bonds with their sex partners. One of the Na women said to Dr. Cai:
An attempt to monopolize one’s partner is always considered shameful and stupid…and the villagers will mock it for a long time.
Simply put, we can think of this society as one that is matrilineal, or the society that is a reverse of a patrilineal, or the system of kinship based on relationship to the father or descent through the male line. Children belong to the mother’s lignée (line of blood-related descendants of a common ancestor), and the basic relationships in a household are mother-child, and brother-sister. Siblings live and eat together all their lives and help to raise whatever children the women bear. “We are closest to our mothers, our maternal uncles, and our brothers and sisters,” a Na man told Dr. Cai. “To leave your mother and sisters for a wife, that would be shameful.”
Incomprehensible as this might appear, especially in today’s context in which no society is able to operate outside the framework of the nation state which tends to insist on a nuclear family structure for its citizens, this society is one of an archetypes of an “ideal society” that I would like to think should be examined carefully by us, people of the modern society.