Leaving the Motherland

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Chinese know Yang Erche Namu as she of the endless autobiographies. At last count she had written eight. Most are kiss-and-tell pulp, chronicling her many affairs with foreign men who wrap her in Versace miniskirts as she jaunts through Paris, Geneva and Milan. On chat shows Namu is China's favorite walking, talking, ethnic minority, an exotic with long, black tresses who attributes her dalliances to a free-love upbringing among her people, the matrilineal Mosuo. Lately she's marketed herself as an oracle of femininity. In her advice book, Namu Can Do, So Can You, she suggests that Chinese women thrust out their breasts when they need favors from men and urges them to smoke because "holding a cigarette in five beautiful fingers is really seductive."

This is the Namu familiar to many Chinese, a crass celebrity famous for her fame. Her self-promotion so irks her own people in their remote homeland at the foot of the Tibetan plateau that many insist she is not Mosuo at all, just a mixed-blood descendant of 13th century Mongolian invaders dispatched by Kublai Khan.

English-language readers, however, now meet an entirely different Namu. In her excellent childhood memoir and first book in English, Leaving Mother Lake, she expresses herself as a complicated and layered character; a spiritual storyteller with perfect pitch and such an intense yearning to leave her village that she is willing to sacrifice her relationship with her family to do so. Namu has performed a neat trick in exoticizing herself for two different cultures. The real woman lies somewhere in between.

In the process of telling her own tale, Namu opens a window onto one of the world's last matrilineal societies. The Mosuo number only some 30,000 and live near pristine Lugu Lake, which lies at the base of the sacred Gamu Mountain, the protective site of their mother goddess on the border of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in southwestern China. They practice their own shamanistic religion, called Daba, and also Tibetan Buddhism. But it's the role of Mosuo women that sets them apart from other cultures: they don't marry. Instead, womenfolk take a series of lovers throughout their lives, and the children of these "walking marriages" remain in their mothers' homes under a matriarch's supervision. Nor do women lie back in their "flower chambers," staring at the ceiling and thinking of the mother goddess. "You must please yourself first," Namu's mother instructed her, adding that "making love is very good for the skin."

Namu's co-author, anthropologist Christine Mathieu, wrote the book based on months of interviews with Namu. And Mathieu's presence helps keep some of Namu's outrageousness in check. Mathieu says, for example, that Namu first described her father as riding into her village on a white stallion and wooing her mother with the line "Hey baby, nice bum." It was a good story—but total fiction. And Namu has shocked audiences at book readings in the U.S. by stating that she would never take a Mosuo man because she can't stand "their stink." Such comments are familiar to many Chinese and to me—I've known Namu for a decade and have observed as she mingles fantasy and fact based on what she thinks will sell. "My challenge," Mathieu acknowledges, was to "make her story accessible to a Western audience" without whitewashing Namu's strong personality.

Mathieu succeeds by refusing to portray Namu as just a simple girl with big dreams. The book focuses on Namu's difficult relationship with her mother—no small hurdle in the Land of Women—and with pretty much everyone else. Namu spent years isolated in the mountains herding yaks with an uncle who never speaks. She jealously punishes her sister by feeding her a sausage of human feces to protest her sister's larger portions of meat. By the final pages of the book, Namu has beaten two people bloody, devastated a suitor, demolished a kitchen with an axe and fled her village with her mother flinging stones at her back. Through it all, she remains likable: you have to root for a girl trying so hard to leave her village on her own terms, something her mother tried to do but failed.

Leaving Mother Lake ends two decades ago with Namu departing her homeland and entering adulthood. Her life of Chinese celebrity began shortly after—and is ending now. These days Namu rarely gads about Europe on the elbows of wealthy Western men. Versace has given way to Chinese-style gowns, and her books have grown thinner as she runs out of things to say. She is, she says, negotiating to become the "cultural ambassador" for Red Pagoda Mountain cigarettes. Gone are both the glamorous Western life that she sold in Chinese and the Mother Lake upbringing that she sells in English. The reconciliation of the two distinct sides of Namu would make for an excellent sequel.