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Rough Cut: The Women's Kingdom
Behind the Lens: Interview With Xiaoli Zhou

Filmmaker Xiaoli Zhou discusses the increasing pressures on "the women's kingdom" from the outside world and some of the challenges of working as a journalist in China.

How did you first hear about this ancient society of matriarchs?

The Mosuo have been a favorite of the Chinese media for more than a decade, and soon enough, the area became one of the hottest tourist destinations. No exaggeration, everybody in China knows about this kingdom of women, or kingdom of daughters -- it's just that famous. I wanted to go there because I was curious about how a society would work without marriages and how much freedom a woman could embrace in a country where men are generally considered to be more powerful than women.

The women in your story come across as strong and unencumbered. How different are they from the Chinese Han women raised in the cities of China?

The Mosuo women are confident and independent and capable. Family harmony rather than personal achievement is one of their most important values in life. They work hard, and they don't depend on men for money.

Cha Cuo [a Mosuo woman in the video] said to me while I was there, "Why would you ever want money from the guys? I can raise my children by myself." She was so self-assured. You don't always hear that from the Chinese Han women who still think men play a large role in financially supporting the family.

What did the young women you met in these rural villages think of you doing a story about them for an American audience?

They were concerned about the [Iraq] war. They learned about it from television and asked me if it was safe to live in the United States. I told them the war wasn't inside the country, and they laughed. They are worried that their peaceful life may be disturbed someday by what's going on in the outside world.

Do they mind the outside world looking in with so much curiosity?

In both the villages where I stayed, the local Mosuo told me that they welcomed stories about them, but the stories had to tell the truth. They don't believe reporters or filmmakers are willing to learn about the Mosuo culture when they spend only a few days in the main tourist village. Lots of stories about the Mosuo have distorted the facts and created a lot of misunderstanding about their culture and traditions.

What sort of misunderstandings?

Tourists visit after they've read stories about the Mosuo culture, which has been described as a "free love" society. Many think the Mosuo people don't take love seriously. Some believe it's a backward society where people have sex without making any commitment to their partner. That's why some tourists go with the hope of having an exotic experience. But both the Mosuo women and men I talked to say they take love very seriously. Since the couples don't live together and are not financially dependent on each other, they're even more emotionally attached. It's true that when the love dies, they are free to move on to a new relationship, but sometimes the love lasts forever. It's common to hear the story that one of a couple couldn't survive the death of the other. I interviewed Cha Cuo's sister whose walking marriage partner passed away because of sickness over a year ago. He was the father of her two children. During the interview, she started to cry. She told me they had practiced walking marriage for about five years, and she hadn't dated anyone since he died. I could feel the love she had for him.

What tempts the Mosuo to leave the women's kingdom?

Since tourism started bringing wealth to the village of Luoshui, the young Mosuo women and men have become curious about making more money and seeking a different life. Plus, the younger Mosuo watch a lot of television. They like the so-called sexy vitality of urban life they see on screen. Some do leave the "kingdom" to experience the outside world or to have an adventure, but many of them return home eventually.

What usually causes them to return?

Often, they are not prepared for these outside societies. Some told me they didn't like to compete with so many people. They felt they were different from others; people wouldn't be as frank and honest as they were. They find the city life exciting, but also strange. Some choose to return home because it's a place they can always count on -- a culture of love and sharing and tolerance.

There's very little in the video about the reactions from the tourists -- particularly the male Han Chinese visiting. What impressions did you get from these tourists about their visit? And what did they say to you about Mosuo women?

I didn't interview any male Han tourists on camera. I talked to a couple but off the record. They thought the walking marriage tradition was very sexy and attractive. One of them told me, "It's good because it doesn't suppress human nature." In fact, I think the woman tourist I interview in the film speaks for both sexes about why they are attracted to the Mosuo culture. I spoke to one male tourist from New Zealand on his second visit to the area. He said as long as he keeps on working in China, he would love to visit the Mosuo at least once a year just for the "peacefulness and tranquility" he found there. He told me he found a lot pride and dignity among the Mosuo women.

What about the Mosuo men? Did they seem as liberated and as comfortable with life as the women?

The men seem to have lost their primary purpose in the Mosuo society, as they no longer need to take long caravan trips to trade goods. In the more isolated villages, the young men help with farm work and look after their sisters' children at home. Some may try to do a little business in the nearby towns to make extra money for the family, but it's never easy. The old don't have to work. They look emasculated. They drink and have a lot of time to kill. But the women don't control the men; they respect them. If a decision needs to be made, every family member has a say.

You worked as a journalist in China before moving to the United States two years ago. How different was it to report in China? And what sort of challenges did you face?

Traditionally, China's media organizations are regarded as the "throat and tongue" of the Party. There are always certain stories "off limits" to reporters for various reasons. I haven't had enough work experience here as an independent journalist or filmmaker, but I'd assume it's much harder to tell good stories in China. Regardless of the sensitivity of the projects, people don't tend to talk to you. If you're on the street doing interviews, many refuse to be interviewed for the record. It takes a lot more effort to get people to trust you. But it's changing as the society opens up. I can certainly feel that. There's now more tolerance from the government for negative stories. There are more young journalists that try to put hard-won information in front of the average Chinese audience. And as people read more of these reports, they too become more outspoken. I've become very interested in reporting on the environment, which I think is one of the biggest problems China faces these days.

If you returned to report another story on the Mosuo, say five or 10 years from now, what do you think will have changed?

I'm sure tourism will have spread to the outlying remote villages and more Mosuo people will have to sell their unique culture and become these caricatures of their former selves. It's very likely that along with China's many other great minority cultures, the Mosuo culture will be assimilated into the majority Han and become homogenized by urban cultural life.