The house can be sold, but not our hearth. The Mosuo People, One of the Last Matriarchates in China ( de )

in: Mathilde ter Heijne: If It's Me, It's Not Me, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2008

Documentations like The Ladies of The Lake: A Matriarchal Society (Mahnaz Afzali) and A World Without Fathers or Husbands (Eric Blavier and Thomas Lavachery) on the matriarchal ethnic group, the Mosuo, impressively present the interviewed women’s undisguised sense of the economy of everyday life and their focus on pleasure when they speak of the advantages of a temporary erotic relationship between man and woman.

The Mosuo have little interest in lifelong marriage—they even seem baffled at such an idea. They seem as pleased as ever with the form of the “visiting marriage” they have practiced for generations. In this ritual, the Mosuo men have the role of the nocturnal visitor who asks to be let in, but who cannot demand it. The children issuing from these relationships remain in the woman’s family; the associated men take on the function of an uncle.

Studies on this almost extinct form of societal organization led Mathilde ter Heijne to undertake a 10-day journey in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan, where the village of Lijuazie is located near Lake Lugu and Mount Gamu, which is also venerated as a goddess.

The life of the Mosuo is characterized to this day by a strong, spiritual basic attitude. Official Chinese school policy, the growing influence of the media, and the ruthless and tasteless Chinese tourism industry, which, in its greed for everything exotic, offers even prostitution in the Mosuo style, make it foreseeable that the desire to live together in the mode of the bourgeois nuclear family will emerge, first in the heads of the children and then in the life ideals of young people. From a Western viewpoint and against the background of increasing divorce rates, the form of love relationship with a mutually accepted expiration date as practiced by the Mosuo seems very modern. This is why ter Heijne decided to capture the spiritus loci, including its architectural covering, and bought a 200-year-old “Zumu” wooden house—a central meeting place for the family clan. “What was important to the clan thereby was that the house be shown in various places in the world as an ambassador of the Mosuo culture,” says ter Heijne. “Only in this function did they agree to sell the house. But the hearth on the floor of the house was not for sale, because this is where the family contacts the spirits of its ancestors.”

With the individual components of the house and film and photo material, the ter Heijne team initially returned to Beijing, where the first exhibition was held with the title Mosuo Fireplace Goddess. At this exhibition, the artist presented not only the reconstructed Zumu house including its furnishings, but also a bronze casting of the artist’s alter ego clad in the Mosuo women’s traditional clothing, and a video that shows the developments destroying traditions in the Mosuo’s environment. A comic in English and Chinese lets the artist’s encounter with the Mosuo pass review. As part of the project, this pictorial and written document of an intercultural encounter is to return to the site of its origin. Mathilde ter Heijne chose the form of the picture story because it can also reach the children of the Mosuo. Her respectful external perspective thereby counters the hostile effectiveness of Chinese evangelizing for the nuclear family and for tourism.

To increase the effectiveness of the project Mosuo Fireplace Goddess and to make it possible to encounter the form of life of the matriarchate inside and outside of China, Mathilde ter Heijne had the Zumu wooden house reproduced in plastic. Beyond the distanced, museum-like form of viewing, the “copy” can be used in the framework of theater productions or even in children’s role-play. Mosuo Fireplace Goddess does not seek to present everyday life in a matriarchate as an exotic aspect of China, but rather to underscore the dark sides and losses of a progress that stands under the banner of hierarchical gender structures.

First published: Kunstzeitung

Hatje Cantz Verlag