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Film Review: The Fall of Womenland

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A Mosuo woman and child outside of Lijiang
A Mosuo woman and child outside of Lijiang

The Mosuo (摩梭) people of northwest Yunnan and southwest Sichuan have become a cultural curiosity. Their culture is referred to both in China and abroad as one of the world's last remaining matriarchal societies, even if it is not technically true. However, no matter how much has been written and documented about the Mosuo, they are still a little understood and often maligned people.

GoKunming was intrigued then when we discovered a documentary about the Mosuo which was written and directed by a Naxi (纳西) woman. Although the Mosuo and Naxi are culturally distinct, they are nonetheless grouped together by Chinese scholars.

The Fall of Womenland (迷失的摩梭) was released in 2009 by director He Xiaodan (何晓丹), a naturalized Canadian citizen who was born in Yunnan. Upon its release, the film was not distributed widely and now appears to only be available online as a teaching resource for university sociology and women's studies courses.

The Mosou today number around 40,000 and live largely in the Lugu Lake (泸沽湖) area which straddles the border of Yunnan and Sichuan. Both domestically and abroad the Mosuo are known predominantly for their 'walking marriages' (走婚) and it is with an explanation of this custom that The Fall of Womenland begins.

The documentary explains the rudimentary aspects of walking marriages, wherein Mosuo men and women are never formally pronounced man and wife. Instead, women choose who their sexual partners are and how long the relationship lasts. Furthermore, monogamy is not a requirement in these partnerships.

Couples never live together, staying instead in their respective mother's homes for their entire lives. They spend time together only at night with men departing for home before dawn. One elderly women interviewed early in the film says this custom means fights between couples are relatively rare and divorces non-existent because each partner is free to do what they please.

A flattened pig, used in Mosuo coming of age rituals
A flattened pig, used in Mosuo coming of age rituals

Filmmaker He also briefly shows black and white footage of the Mosuo coming of age ritual that is performed when girls turn 13. With one foot on a dried and preserved pig, and the other on a bag of rice, girls are formally clothed in a dress for the first time. According to He, who is also the film's narrator, the pig and bag of rice signify a life of abundance and wealth.

From this opening the movie moves quickly to document the repeated waves of change the Mosuo have endured over the past fifty years. During the Cultural Revolution, cadres from Beijing insisted Mosuo couples enter into formal, and officially recognized, marriages. Those marriages were quickly dissolved when the cadres departed.

A more recent issue facing the Mosuo has been the arrival of mass tourism. Lugu Lake is famed for its beauty but hordes of domestic tourists also flock to its shores curious to observe minority culture. Many find the Mosuo tradition of passing surnames and property from mother to daughter strange. What outsiders often fail to understand, the film argues, is that although women control family money and make most business decisions, men hold political control.

The problem, which the film addresses at length, is that Mosuo women are frequently portrayed to tourists as fickle and promiscuous, while the men are painted as non-working and lazy. This depiction has led not only to ever-growing numbers of inquisitive tourists, but also to an influx of misguided thrill-seekers looking to consummate their own versions of a walking marriage.

The Mosuo interviewees discuss how their traditions are misunderstood and intentionally misconstrued. They also lament the erosion of their culture at the hands of modernization. The sense of frustration and resentment in the interview subjects is palpable and He espouses her opinion that Mosuo culture is doomed in bleak voice-overs near the end of the documentary.

The Fall of Womenland is at its best when He is not interjecting her thoughts and instead allows the Mosuo to speak for themselves. Her interviews are a wonderful window on Mosuo culture and go a long way to explain how some minority traditions do and do not easily fit into today's China.

A screenshot from The Fall of Womenland showing a couple involved in a walking marriage
A screenshot from The Fall of Womenland showing a couple involved in a walking marriage

At the beginning it appears the film may be nothing more than a simple rehashing of the walking marriage tradition. But He manages to delve much deeper into Mosuo culture, largely by simply letting people describe their views and what is important to them.

The people interviewed for the documentary are eloquent and speak thoughtfully about actively trying to preserve Mosuo culture. They are also honest regarding the many who are torn between tradition and the culture of modern China they see on television and in movies.

The Fall of Womenland is available to view online here, but requires registering for a ten-day free trial. It can be viewed in its entirety for free in Spanish as well.

He Xiaodan image: National Geographic
All other images: Yereth Jansen

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Can someone who is computer savvy download this movie and make it available to others please? I will gladly accept the Spanish version.

Yeah for real. After a thorough search for alternative sites to view from both China and abroad, it amazes me that for one, in Chinese webpages, the movie's title in both English and Chinese is not existant, and two, someone would go to so much work to make a documentary of this nature, only to make it so difficult to gain access to.

Patrick, how did you find the movie in the first place?

@sean1: I received an email from a Swedish journalist who is looking to write an article about women's groups working with the Mosuo. She mentioned the movie. If anyone has any information about outreach programs in the Lugu area, please get in touch with me through the contact form.

As for why the movie is so difficult to find, it may be on some naughty list. It was a bit difficult for me to even verify the characters for He's name. As for international availability, maybe the fees for universities to buy a copy ($295) are enough. This is all just speculation though.

cinemaguild.com/catalog/index.html it is available here.

Purchase: $295.00 US
Code: 2364
Get together and buy it.

(I'm in Canada, but I think you can access the site).

most movies that are not made by Hollywood are hard to find.

I just came across this series of photos titled 'In the Kingdom of the Women' on the Guardian website


I hadn't looked at the photos before I posted them. Having done so they're nothing special. I was at Lugu Lu recently and it really is beautiful - I just hope it lasts. It's got a way to go but the warning signs of a mass tourism ala Lijiang are all in place

The new highway is nearly complete and the airport will open next year. Expect floods of people to go who never bothered to go before because of the 6-7 hour bus ride.

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