Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Women and money: histories and fantasies (30 days of blogging day 15)

So, as most people who know me are aware, my last two years in China weren't my only two years in China. Back in 2007, when I was even younger and much stupider and not nearly as feminism-conscious as I am today, I spent a year teaching in far west China, in a province Autonomous Region called Xinjiang. I went to central asian style discos a lot, ate pilaf, did a fair amount of hiking, was a background extra in a Pepsi advert, rode camels, figured out the routes for almost every bus in the city, and survived a -40 degree winter with only my dreams to keep me warm. I also lived in an apartment which didn't have a reliable internet connection and therefore spent my large amounts of antisocial downtime either watching very cheap illegal DVDs or reading stacks of books that I had sent, traded with others or on rare occasions actually bought from the terrible English language selection in Urumqi's bookshops.

I remember some of these books quite well. Because it was usually my mother on the other end of the post process, I ended up reading a lot of things she had been recommending for years, like Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series (which are incredible by the way) and Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange (also brilliant). When I was at the mercy of bookshops, I ended up reading a lot of horrendously dry "classics" like Doctor Zhivago and the Red and the Black and only narrowly avoided slogging through every Sherlock Holmes story ever. The low point was probably reading the simplified memoirs of a random CCTV 9 news anchor, who told "hilarious" stories about life in Beijing as a foreigner that were clearly aimed at Chinese audiences who wanted to reinforce how incapable foreigners are of ever adapting to Beijing.

One of the books that's stayed with me the most, however, is probably one of the most obscure: Forgotten Kingdom by Peter Goullart, which you can download in its entirety from that link. I picked it up during one of my periods of travelling, when I was in the southwest part of China in a town called Lijiang. These days, Lijiang is a bit of a tourist disaster, having seen its Old Town "restored" as an overly bright and twee maze of identikit tourist shops. Before this, however, Lijiang was the home of the Naxi, one of China's 55 official minorities and a really interesting example of a society where women dominated, at least within the economic sphere. Goullart spent a few years living in Lijiang just before the Second World War reached the mountains, and Forgotten Kingdom was his memoir and record of the culture he left behind.

The only way I have of explaining the Naxi is to paraphrase a book I haven't read in six years, and I have not checked how good a historian or anthropologist Goullart seems to be, so what follows may be my misremembering of a misrepresentation, but bear with me. The book's representation of Naxi culture (which is repeated by the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, so what more reputable sources could you need...) states that although men hold official political offices, at some point in their culture the people of Lijiang had decided that women held a status so much lower than men, that it was unreasonable to expect men to do very much work at all, and that it would be better for lowly women to deal with all of the economics of household maintenance. Women were so unclean they were kept from sitting to eat at the same tables as men, and forbidden from being on the upper level of a house when men were downstairs (the only justification I can think of for this is period related, which if it's correct is a pretty hilarious example of male overreaction to menstruation. The unending fear that a woman might be upstairs and then drip on you. It must be very tricky being a man!) but they also had all the money, did all the trade, and eventually ended up leaving their kids behind with their relaxed men, because a woman's place is in the shop. 

The society apparently ended up in a situation where men were officially on top, but in reality had to beg their wives for a fiver every time they wanted to go out with their mates because men were not supposed to have money of their own. Power relations were complicated! There was some more stuff in the book about rates of arranged marriage and teen suicides and I feel like if I go back to it now as a more critical, self-identified feminist, I'll find a lot of interesting gender representations and author impositions that 19-year-old me would have passed right by. 

I am reminded of this for two reasons. First is the potential appointment of Janet Yellen to the Fed (CREDIT TO STEPHAN for ongoing commitment to the cause of sending Adrienne links), but we'll get to that tomorrow. The second is the time I spent in Oxford discussing alternate universe fantasy RPG worldbuilding with two of my most brilliant friends. I am the kind of person who knows other people who invent vastly complex, fully populated cities complete with their own crazy religion and crusading past (and plague, there's always a plague), then invite other people to come and invent power hungry (or in my case, stunningly ignorant but perpetually good-natured*) factions to interact in intricately plotted text adventures - and also sometimes real dungeons and dragons style stuff with dice and everything, I think? Anyway, said RPG and my place in it both take up a lot of my creative energies at the moment, and it's a nice low-maintenance way to keep in touch with my, er, fictional side

Being A Feminist always poses interesting questions when it comes to fantasy and science fiction. Most of the discussion around women in geekery tends to focus on the behaviour of audience and creators, and how the community handles its feminine side (A: badly...), but to me it's equally as interesting to consider how, when we are effectively given a blank slate to draw our worlds on, we imagine gender to come about in those worlds. I've already discussed this a bit in Mass Effect, and how disappointing it is that the creators chose Invisible Women and "embodies cosmic traits of Fundamental Female Traits and Life Cycle" as its two dominant gender tropes. But if we're not dismissing women or assuming they're just there to Be Women, what should they do? Do we invent a world where gender (and race and sexuality and and and...) Really Doesn't Matter, and everybody is just a big utopian rainbow of everything humanity has to offer? Or do we assume that all sexism in our society would be natural in all societies, and give women in fantasy/sci-fi the same problems to overcome as real women have to in the real world? Where are the interesting stories at?

The answer I went for when dealing with my friend's city (which itself has a complicated mix of gender representation, because he is awesome at thinking through this stuff just as much as I do, hurrah for feminist men because even though it's annoying when they sometimes take over our spaces and platforms, the world is just much better when they exist) was to dig out the mental marker I always start from in worldbuilding like this: take the Naxi as an example of how a (possibly!) fundamental "men are strong and women have periods and babies, so men are better" bias can lead to a society of strong, independent, powerful women. If men are strong but have no jobs at home, perhaps they all leave the city for long periods of time, and the entire property rights system slowly becomes the preserve of women alone? Perhaps at some point they built a big wall around everything and had a little Lysistrata style gender war about who is on top, and unlike Lysistrata the women weren't written by men into saying "oh we're weak and just want you really"? Throw in a slight "everybody in city X has one profession" bias because, hey, it's fantasy and motifs like that are fun and make dialogue easier, and boom! Female driven fantasy that, to me, is a bit more satisfying than having to revert to either "strong woman fights The Man and also The Man Is A Wizard" or "woman exists because everyone exists and is beautiful, woop woop!"

I spoke a bit on Monday about how much I like the idea of getting to know the underrepresented women of history, because the depth and range of women we know nothing about is both inspiring and disturbing. Perhaps my message for today is to expand that to the worlds of women in general (wow, that's in the subheading of my blog and everything. This is a thematic post!) 19-year-old me wholeheartedly recommends Forgotten Kingdom, and whilst 24-year-old me doesn't automatically do the same, my continuing love and nostalgia for that side of China (or at least, my perception of it) mean that I'd love for more people to know more about the Naxi, and about how narrow our version of "natural gender roles" is when we compare it to other ways of organising the world. Women can do everything, even money! Tomorrow, we cross the Atlantic to talk about how modern America is coping with this concept.

*I wonder if anybody else who plays Shareen reads this blog? I know we are all supposed to be hidden from each other to greater or lesser degrees and I'm sure now if you meet me, you'll know who I am, but honestly my faction's motivations are such that I can't see how this matters. Use this secret knowledge for your own nefarious ends if you must, secret people of the city!