Archive for September, 2007

Of Mice and Matriarchs

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

bridal possession

[mouse click on a photo to enlarge it]

On my hotel room wall in Hanoi hung a print of mediocre artistic quality, but provocative content. Stretched out on the long horizontal axis was a bridal procession — I suppose in the Vietnamese tradition, but familiar to me as Chinese tradition. Ranks of musicians and well-wishers and sedan-chair porters, bearing the bride. The figures were all bipedal mice, in human attire. On the far right of the painting sits the expectant groom, with an appropriate gleam in his eye. Unmistakably a cat. Such an apt caricature of the dynamics of traditional Chinese marriage: the bride is virtually delivered up to into servitude, sexual and otherwise, to the groom and his family. What good are girls? You feed them until about the time they might begin to prove useful, and then they get married off. A boy or two, of course, balances things out, and puts you on the receiving end. With a little luck in the horse trading, you’ll end up with a filly of even stronger back and broader beam than you were able to spawn. But this one-child nonsense upsets the equilibrium.

The picture associates in my mind with a unit in my Chinese Reader on the strong Chinese sense of family, the prime example of which was the seriousness given to the matter of a girl’s latching onto a socially acceptable (= financially promising) guy, and, please, by all means (several specified), before 30.

Now think back to LIjiang, in Yunnan, the heart of the former realm of the Naxi people. In the good old days before Han-Chinese domination, the Naxi, so all the guides and guidebooks make a point of instructing us, was a matriarchal society. The girls, confident heiresses that they were, and freed from having to focus their major effort on glomming onto a financially stable guy, spend their spring evenings gamboling on Yak Meadow, granting and terminating audiences with would-be suitors like the Queen of Hearts flicking off heads.

Just imagine a latter day Naxi orphanage filled with cute, but useless, little boy babies awaiting adoption by an enlightened Occidental couple.