Thursday, February 26, 2009

Little Mystery in Big China

I have stated on more than one occasion that education can solve any issue. Imagine my smug little self after reading about the matrilineal society of the Na.

Most people have never heard of the Na tribal people, from the Yongning hills of the Yunan province in southern China. Clifford Geertz wrote an article (“Life without Fathers or Husbands”, copyright 2001 NYREV, Inc.) reviewing the work of Chinese Anthropologist, Cia Hua, describing the society of the Na.

"[Among the Na]... there is no marriage, in fact or word. Mothers exist, as do children, but there are no dads. Sexual intercourse takes place between casual, opportunistic lovers, who develop no broader, more enduring relations to one another.... Almost everyone of either sex has multiple partners, serially or simultaneously.... There are no nuclear families, no in-laws, no stepchildren. Brothers and sisters, usually several of each, reside together, along with perhaps a half-dozen of their nearer maternal relatives, from birth to death under one roof -- making a living, keeping a household, and raising the sisters' children."

Now before you, dear reader, consider rushing off to live in the Yongning hills of China, please understand that over the span of several dynasties, China has addressed this issue in several ways, from decreeing that the Na "must marry in the standard way" to passing a regulation "designed to encourage nuclear family formation by distributing land to men who would set up and maintain such a family" to "pronouncing it shameful not to know who one's genitor is, and imposing marriage by simple decree on any villager involved in a conspicuous visit relationship" to finally passing laws stating that "1. everyone under fifty in a relationship... must officially marry...; 2. every woman who has children must publically state who their genitor is, cart him off to headquarters, and marry him; 3. those who divorce without official sanction will have their annual grain ration suspended; 4. any child born out of wedlock will also not get a ration and must be supported by his genitor until age 18; and 5. visiting, furtive or conspicuous, was forbidden".

All these efforts failed, largely. It wasn't until 1992 that any real change in the Na culture occurred. The means that succeeded? Education.

"The expansion of the state school system, where 'all the textbooks are impregnated with [more universal] ideas and values', is leading to rapid and thorough [cultural change in] the Na:
When students graduate from middle school, they must complete a form that includes a column requesting information on their civil status. Unable to fill in the blank asking for the name of their father, they suddenly become aware they do not have a father, while their classmates from other ethnic backgrounds do..... The message... is clear.... There is only one culture that is legitimate, and that [is not the Na].

"In China, as elsewhere, it is not licentiousness that powers most fear. Nor even immorality. It is difference."

Did you notice that the education that is "fixing" the Na culture, is the state school system? Now, if you're a member of the Na society, you are probably enraged at what your kids are being taught as your people are entering into a state of cultural upheaval.

Can't the same thing be said of other cultures nearer to home? What is it, exactly, that "the state" is teaching? Is it the education that we want for our kids? Are we, like the Na, being conditioned to accept a particular knowledge that is "in line" with the government? And who's government? Can it be accurately defined by party lines, socio-economic lines, cultural lines? Sure, education can solve all problems, but "education" is a bit subjective. It's a bit like history, you know; the winning side gets to write the books.

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