Matriarchy in China: mothers, queens, goddesses and shamans


Matriarcado en China: madres, reinas, diosas, chamanes (Matriarchy in China: mothers, queens, goddesses and shamans). Madrid, 2011.

One ambitious project in which the search for traces of past matriarchal societies leads the reader to the old China culture, history and prehistory, and also to the history, culture, religion and folklore of most of the indigenous peoples living on the borders of the Chinese world. Among the peoples living in the north, west and south of the Chinese are discovered a lot of traces that point that in the past the role of the women on their societies was higher than now, in some cases even as the political and religious leaders of the society, and how the development of China as a territorial entity and the cultural and political influence of imperial, republican and communist China, brought an end to these societies. An overall picture of the role of the women in China never unfolded before, where the gender culture of the Han Chinese, as well as that of their minorities, is shown to the reader.

The book is structured in the following chapters:

Introduction: Where some general concepts about women and men, goddesses and gods, the matriarchy theory, are introduced to the reader, pointing the lack of information about China in most of the books related to the matriarchy, and the wish of the author to contribute to fulfill this gap. General theories about what can be called a matriarchal society, that will be the basis for the arrangement of the facts showed in the next chapters, are also presented there.


Chapter 1 is about the matriarchy in the West; it leads the reader to Bachofen, Morgan and Engels’ works; to the discovery of the Paleolithic goddesses, the researches on Catal Huyuk and the Old Europe by Marija Gimbutas and other scholars; to the traces of an original matriarchal system in the civilizations of Sumer and Egypt, as well as to facts that show a prominent role of the women in these societies in historical times, ending with some historical notices about the role of women in Greece, and the political and religious power they held in the archaic Greek society.

Chapter 2 starts showing how some of the facts that lead to the establishment of the matriarchal theory in the West, are also present in the old China. Some Chinese characters point that in the old times the Chinese “knew their mothers and not their fathers”,  other suggest the political power of women, and some more the political pressure against them. Legends about Women Kingdoms, as shown in the Chinese chronicles and mythologies, are introduced, as well as the main archaeological discoveries of what could be called the “Chinese Venus” and of sites where women were in an equal or superior position than men.  The feminine culture of the Taoist philosophy and the past importance of great goddesses and shamans in the old Chinese culture, complete an overview of the position of the women in pre-dynastic China.

Chapter 3 is a summary of the Chinese history from the Shang dynasty to modern times. As it is well known for the specialists, women in Shang dynasty enjoyed a higher and better status than in any other time of China's history. After a summary description of women’s position in Shang dynasty, and an overview of the theories that suggest that the first Chinese leaders were queens and not kings, the presence of peoples speaking Indo-European languages in West China, (maybe as near to the center as actual Shanxi Province) is remembered, as well as their influence on the Zhou Kings that defeated the Shang Dynasty and started the oppression of the women in China. It is interesting to note that this process was only alleviated in times when foreign dynasties, Turkish Tang or Mongol Yuan dynasties, governed China.

In the chapter 4 is stressed the importance of the folk culture of the Chinese people and that of the today called national minorities. Some instances are shown in which this method has been successfully used, and a division of the peoples living in China into nine ethno-linguistic entities is shown.

Chapter 5 is the world of the yin. In what could be seen as a contradiction of the historical facts presented in chapter 3, here is shown that male domination never was completely successful in China. Of course, the subjects on which this domination was exerted, the Chinese women, were living beings that continuously opposed the political and social movements aimed at their subjection. The all-powerful role played by the four main goddesses in Chinese history: Nuwa, Xiwangmu, Guanyin and Mazu; the evidence of an annual feminine ritual cycle; the role played by empresses in the court politics and some facts usually not talked about the position of women inside the family, all show that the continuous issued of laws and regulations against women was a result of that being rarely obeyed.  

While most of the information arranged in the first five chapters can be easily found in other works, with the chapter 6 start what I think is the main characteristic of this book, a detailed study of the traces of matriarchy in the history, culture and folk ways of Chinese's minorities. This chapter deals with the traces of matriarchy found in the peoples speaking languages of the Tibeto-Burman family. It starts with a description of the well-known Kingdom of Women of the Moso in the Lugu Lake; it goes on stressing the possibility that in the past, the Naxi (cultural and linguistically related with the Moso) lived also in a society where women had dominant roles. The importance of goddess, matriarchs and shamans among the Pumi and Qiang nationalities is later shown.  Powerful queens and clever leaders protagonize the section dealing with the Yi. The feminine aspect of a Hani mythology in which there is a handful of powerful goddesses, some of them veneered until today; the dyadic society of the Lahu, with women leading long-houses until the 1950s and a gender equalitarian society; the mother leadership of the Jinuo society, where only in the last centuries emerged the masculine power; historical notices showing that in the past, among the ancestors of the Bai people that established Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms the political power was transmitted with the daughters of the chiefs, and others stressing how the Bai women enjoyed great freedom; all these facts show the importance of women in these societies. An overview of the culture of the Dulong, Lobha, Menbha, Tujia, Lisu and Jingpo nationalities, completes the matriarchal panorama of the Tibetan-Burman peoples.

Chapter 7 explores worlds least known to the western reader: Goddesses, shamans, queens and political leaders, as well as a role in the family usually obscured, are attributed to some nationalities speaking Kam-Thai languages, as the Zhuang, Buyi, Dong, Shui, Dai, Li, etc.. Moreover, in their studies on the culture of the common ancestors of these peoples, scholars found an “old matriarchal stratum”, suggesting that their “economic, political and religious life was in the past governed by women”.

Among the peoples speaking Miao-Yao languages, the Miao and Yao nationalities, the patriarchal tendencies are evident, but the prominent role of the goddess in Miao's mythology, among them the Butterfly Mother, creator of all what exist in this world, and the fact that among the more isolated populations, and therefore less influenced by the Chinese culture, women enjoyed the same rights as men, can be a basis for further researches. A parallel situation is found among the Yao, with not so many goddesses popularly known.

Chapter 9 deals with some cultures almost unknown in the west, those of the Mon-Khmer speaking peoples in southwest China: the Wa, Bulang and Deang nationalities. Among the Wa still are preserved historical and mythical notices that remember the times when women governed the society. In their religion and folklore goddesses are also prominent, not only in the remote past, as creators of the world and the human beings, but also in the annual rituals performed to the Goddess of Grain. The gradation of the importance of the women among the Wa living in Cangyuan, Ximeng and Menglian, show that the familiar, political and religious roles of the women are more prominent in the areas less influenced by the Chinese culture.  

In the Chapter 10 we jump to northeast China, finding that in the old mythology of the Manchu people all the positive roles were performed by goddesses in a culture that has been called “of the 300 goddesses”. The substitution of goddesses by gods is documented among them. The old hunting culture of Ewenks and Oroqen peoples also shown as primitive matriarchies, were transformed with the material development of the society.

In the Chapter 11 some myths, folk ways and old chronicles regarding the Mongols, Kazaks, Uygurs and peoples related with them, are introduced, showing that, though their societies suffered big changes along the history, a possible old matriarchal society could be suggested.

The final chapter, number 12, makes a short summary of the data presented along this book. In this chapter two facts are emphasized: the presence of a superior position of women in societies considered more primitive than the Chinese, living around them in the south, southwest, west, northwest and north; and the historical records that show how the Chinese influence changed these societies imposing the patriarchal values that characterize Chinese culture.

This book provides, in fact a new reading of the Chinese history and culture, as well as of the history and culture of the peoples living in the periphery of China; it opens new fields of research and new ways to do it.

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