In the far, far west of China, high in the Himalayas, is the little village called Shangri La (香格里拉 pronounced, in Pinyin, ‘Xiānggélǐlā’). Shangri La is not at the end of the road, it is well beyond the end of the road. For thousands of years, the farthest west people could go with wheeled vehicles, and the end of the ‘civilized’ world to travelers along the Silk Road, was the town of Lijiang, about 60 miles from Shangri La. People traveling along the silk road to India (and then on to Europe) would have to trade their wheeled vehicles for horses and mules in Lijiang, load up with supplies (there are no stores between there and India), and travel west in pack trains over foot paths. The paths that take you through the mountains have not been mapped, even to this day. People traveling west from Lijiang in the past needed guides and, even with guides, they were taking their lives in their hands. Many set out from Lijiang and were never heard from again.
In the 1990s, Chinese engineers spent massive amounts of money to build roads as far west as they could go. The road system has been extended to Shangri La. It can’t go any further. The mountains to the west are too steep to build anything. The only road over them, a railroad about 400 miles north of Shangri La which was finished in 2015, goes over a pass so high that it has to use pressurized cabins (as in airplanes) so people will have enough air to breathe.
The village has a water supply fed by a massive mountain spring.
The water originates as snowfall in the high mountains to the west, most of which are above 22,000 feet in altitude. These mountains are isolated from industry and human pollution; the snows that fall there are as pure and white as you will see anywhere on earth. In the summer, the snow melts and the water goes through the porous rocks. It travels through a massive underground system of caverns, down and down and down, until it eventually gets to Shangri La, where it emerges though a hole that is about 20 feet in diameter. This filtered water is the purest water I have ever had the pleasure to taste; it is a joy to drink. There is a local legend that goes back more than a thousand years that holds that, if you drink nothing but this water, you will never get sick, never grow old, and never die.
In the evening, just before sundown, there is a train of villagers that looks like a row of ants walking up to the source of the spring water with buckets and other containers. They can get water in town: the spring is routed through a system of rock canals that flow through the village and the water in the canals is every bit as pure as the water at the source. But perhaps they believe the myth and want the purest of the pure: they hike up to the source so they can get the water from there, then hike back down to their homes in town.
The people who live in Shangri La are not ethnic Chinese. Chinese armies only conquered as far as the road would take them, so the land beyond Shangri La has never really been conquered. The people there were never a part of the Chinese culture, didn’t have enough contact with Chinese to get their genetic heritage mixed in, and never adopted Chinese ways. They live differently than the Chinese people. They only really found out that China and the rest of the world existed in the 1990s, when the road companies blasted tunnels through the rocks to make their village ‘accessible.’
Women In Charge
The Chinese government has named all of the ethnic groups in its country so it can keep track of them. It calls the group that lives in the mountains around Shangri La ‘Naxi’ (pronounced ‘Nashi.’) The Naxi villages in the far western mountains have become tourist attractions and people come from all around to see them, because of the unusual way the people there organize their societies.
One important difference: The Naxi people have a matriarchal society.
In their society, the women are in charge. The family name is passed from mother to daughter, not father to son. Family homes go from mother to daughter, not father to son.
Women make the financial decisions for the family; the men stay out of these affairs.
It is not the place of men to interfere in these decisions.
One interesting thing that tourists are told involves the marriages of the Naxi people.
Since women are in charge of wealth, women are in a position to make decisions that are, in most other parts of the world, made by men. Women decide on the rules of marriage. Since mothers know their children will be cared for by the network of women that run the society, they don’t have to find a man and convince him to enter into a legal contract of marriage in order to get enough security to allow them to have children with confidence.
They could find men and ‘get married’ (as in Traditional in China and most of the rest of the world) if they wanted to do this. But they didn’t have any economic or social pressure to do this and, over the thousands of years they have lived in these mountains, they have generally chosen not to do this.
Why tie yourself down to one man?
After a few years, he will become tiresome. If you are tied to him legally, you would have to stay with him anyway. To the Naxi women (at least before the Chinese culture began to contaminate their system after the roads were in) the idea of a woman ‘marrying’ a man for life would have seemed silly. If you aren’t getting along anymore, you should have the freedom to leave.
The Naxi people call their marriages ‘walking’ marriages.
The homes are controlled by the woman’s family. If the woman finds a man she likes, she invites him to her home and he stays there as long as she is satisfied with him.
When she doesn’t want him around anymore, she sends him ‘walking.’
It is always her choice.
He can only stay as long as she wants him to stay.
The Lost Horizon and Book Shangri La
In 1920, the Austrian Botanist Joseph Rock traveled to China to study the flora there. He wanted to go to remote places and find find plants that neither the Chinese nor western botanists had yet categorized. The lower mountains of the Himalayan mountains are incredibly diverse, because even a tiny difference in altitude leads to a different microclimate and an entirely different habitat for both plants and animals. He made his way to Lijiang and then kept going west along the trails of the old Silk Road.
He found a place that he considered to be paradise.
The people lived much differently there than they lived in the rest of the world. His writings mentioned many things. The idea of the ‘walking marriage’ struck him as very inviting.
Boys and young men in both China and the western world are taught that we have an obligation that we must fulfill before we can have sex. We need to make a commitment to stay with the woman we are to have sex with for the rest of our lives. We must make this commitment before whatever God or gods we worship and enter into a legal contract that will be forever binding. If we violate this commitment, we will go to jail or labor camps to work for the benefit of the woman we had sex with and then, after we die, we will be sent to hell for an afterlife of torture for eternity as punishment. This is a huge commitment and is very hard for some men to make. Boys who aren’t willing to make this commitment are told that we are not allowed to have sex, ever. We are committing an abomination if we satisfy ourselves any other way. It is a sin and a crime to do so.
Who made these rules? With only a few exceptions, the rest of the world has a patriarchal society. In these societies, men control the wealth and make the rules. Rules about sex are made by men. These men have decided that sex is a right that only goes to men who agree to support women and their offspring for the rest of their lives. What do women think of this decision? This is hard to say. The men who make the decisions in patriarchal societies don’t have to ask them and, as far as I can tell, they don’t do this. Women are there to provide sex and boy babies for men. Their opinions don’t matter.
Joseph Rock had found a place where women were in a position to make decisions about their sex lives. To the women in Shangri La, Rock was exotic: he looked different, he talked different, he knew different things, and his biology (which I am sure was a topic of conversation to the women of Shangri La) was something to be experienced. At least one of the reasons Rock thought of Shangri La as paradise almost certainly involved the way the women there treated him.
But it had other features he found amazing. He wrote about the purity of the water and air. He wrote about the extreme longevity and lack of disease among the people. He wrote a lot about the social harmony of this society and the way the people got along. They had found ways to divide the work and wealth of the world that allowed everyone to prosper without having to do a lot of work. He wrote that we in the rest of the world would be wise to study the way these people lived so we can see what it is about the way they live that makes them so tolerant, so easy going, so forgiving, and so able to make agreements and settle matters that would lead to war in other parts of the world without violence.
In 1930 a British author named James Hilton came across Rock’s writings. Hilton had seen the horrors of World War One and fought in the trenches. He had seen that, as soon as the war was over, the governments of the war-torn nations began to work on new technology that intended to use in the next war. Hilton believed that this kind of lifestyle was not sustainable. He believed we needed to find another way to live. Rock had found a place where people lived differently. Hilton wrote ‘Lost Horizon,’ a book that brought the idea of ‘Shangri La’ to the world.
I learned about Shangri La when I was traveling with a tour group through China. When I got to Lijiang (the ‘end of the road’ until 1995), I thought it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. (It is an ancient city, walled, with no vehicles allowed inside the city walls, a pristine environment and some of the most friendly people I have met anywhere I have traveled.) The rest of the tour group was excited about flying to Beijing the next day and getting to the next attraction on their tour, the claimed highlight of the trip, the Great Wall. I couldn’t bring myself to go and told the tour guide I would be staying. I ended up at a rooming house with a young couple from Guangzhou, who told me about Shangri La. They were going there in a few days and asked if I might like to see the unique place. When I got to Shangri La, I found another rooming house and told my friends I would be staying there. I only had a few months until my visa ran out, but I stayed there until the last day.
Why leave paradise?
Hilton never actually went to Shangri La. He altered Rock’s story a great deal and the Shangri La in the book bears no resemblance, except the name, to the Shangri La where Rock and myself lived (some 70 years apart). Hilton was trying to use the idea of Shangri La to generate a message that, he hoped, would help us prevent a war that would destroy us all. Lost Horizon was a best seller in the western world, however, and its version of Shangri La is the one most westerners accept. I thought that the role of women was the most striking feature of the place.
Women’s Rights and Society
Like the issue of jobs, the issue of women’s rights is often portrayed as if is a natural feature of human existence, due either to the design of God (the Abrahamic God is said to have made man in his image and then made woman out of a part of man to be a companion to man) or due to some immutable characteristic of human nature.
But is it?
If this were true, all societies would deny women rights. Whoever humans lived, women would be objects and property. Women could protest this, but they would never be able to do anything about it. We can’t do anything about the will of God or the vagrancies of human nature. The people who run societies could claim until the end of time that they have to make decisions on behalf of women, and subject women to rules that men made, because no one has any control over the variables that put women in a subsidiary role.
But what if we could find just one example that shows us that women don’t always play the secondary role in society? All it takes to disprove a claim that ‘nothing can be done about a problem’ is to give one example where that problem doesn’t exist. If it can possibly not exist anywhere it can possibly not exist everywhere. The subsidiary position of women is not due to the will of God or the vagrancies of human nature. It has an entirely different source.
This chapter under construction.