image of book goes here
Shanshan Du

Chopsticks only work in Pairs:
Gender Unity and Gender Equality among the Lahu of Southwestern China

New York: Columbia University Press, 2002,
256 pages, 15 figs, 1 chart, ISBN: 0-231-11956-9, cloth

reviewed by Christine Mathieu

  1. The people officially classed as Chinese minority nationalities have been the subject of Han colonisation for 2000 years. In the course of this colonisation, they have resisted, absorbed and transformed Han cultural and political modes imposed upon them in turn by military force and the policies of imperial administrators, and, in more recent times, those of communist cadres. Over the past two decades, however, the minority peoples of Yunnan have also begun to fascinate, not only Chinese but also foreign scholars, for the phenomenal range of social customs they have preserved into contemporary times. To echo official Chinese state discourse, from the walking marriages of the matrilineal Mosuo in the north to the graceful peacock dances of the Dai nationality in the southern part of the province, Yunnan offers the world a treasure trove of cultural diversity, with accompanying 'exotic' gender and marriage practices. Although the field of Yunnanese scholarship is rapidly expanding, there is still a dearth of English Language publications on Yunnan and China's ethnic minorities. Shanshan Du's ethnography of the Lahu gender system, Chopsticks only Work in Pairs, contributes a fascinating, important and welcome study.
  2. Du begins with the mandatory theoretical introduction which frames her study in the larger analytical context of gender and feminist studies. She opens her discussion with a statement that whilst the 'concept of gender equality is becoming increasingly popular in the global village' (p. 1), it remains a beautiful dream. However, she argues, if we care to notice, we can in fact find gender egalitarian societies that are perhaps imperfect and scarce but that nevertheless do exist. Du thus presents the Lahu as proof of the existence of egalitarian societies, whilst at the same time clarifying that other gender egalitarian societies have gone largely unrecognised by feminists and anthropologists, because of the limitations of the Western intellectual tradition and feminist utopian agendas. To begin with, social theorists and feminist writers have not been able to resolve the differing views of what does in fact constitute gender egalitarianism. Arguments range from ideals of individual rights and the idea of 'sameness' (to be equal, men and women must be the same) to considerations of 'essential differences' between men and women and equality as complementarity, or even to 'segregation,' the view that men are universal oppressors and women can only be equal and free when, and if, they are free from men. Du also notes that although examples of gender egalitarian societies can be found in anthropological literature, anthropologists such as Sherry Ortner, Marvin Harris and Jane Atkinson have been reluctant to fully acknowledge gender equality, preferring qualifying terms such as 'possibly' or 'relatively' or 'almost' egalitarian to simply 'egalitarian' (p. 6). This reluctance, Du diagnoses as the bias of utopia. In my opinion, this is the most incisive theoretical contribution she makes in this first chapter. For Du tells us and very convincingly so, that theorists have evaluated gender equality on the basis of a double standard of perfection (i.e. a utopian vision) which they would not normally apply to male dominated societies. A society can be acknowledged as male dominated, even if men do not dominate at all junctures of the system, or even if gender hierarchisation is not always coherent. Du's point is well taken, even though this commonsense argument does not take into consideration that in actual fact, theorists have begun refining (some would say apologising for) the evaluation of hierarchical gender relations and values in what are generally considered strongly, if not extremely, male-dominated societies, by emphasising the absence of absolute male oppression and absolute female subjection, the essential complementarity of the male-female dichotomy, the complexity of actual practices versus ideals of gender relations, and the lack of cross-cultural or emic perspective.[1]
  3. Some issues regarding the theoretical argument raised in the Introduction, however, need addressing before analysing Shanshan Du's fine and sensitive ethnography. To begin, indeed, Du's opening line on the growing popularity of the concept of gender equality is an unfortunate one. Gender equality is far more than a popular idea: it is an issue of human rights, and a political struggle which has been on the agenda of industrial nations for well over a century. Another infelicity is the claim that 'the Lahu example demonstrates both the existence of gender egalitarian societies and the possibility of achieving such social conditions peacefully' (p. 1). For this contradicts the parallel argument that gender egalitarian societies do exist if we only care to find them. In addition, Du ought to be aware, since she cites her (p. 7), that Maria Lepowsky had described what she claimed as the first truly gender egalitarian society ten years ago in her book Fruit of the Motherland,[2] whilst the late archaeologist Marija Gimbutas spent several decades arguing for the existence of gender egalitarianism among the ancient Europeans. In fact, even in the 1970s, a number of anthropologists contested the theory of universal male dominance on the grounds that personal bias and limited analytical categories were skewing ethnographers' perceptions of gender relations.[3] Thirdly, given Du's excellent point that some societies ought to be considered gender egalitarian even if they are not absolutely egalitarian, one wonders that she should promote the Lahu as the only evidence that it is possible to achieve gender equality peacefully, because it would seem that some societies have already achieved this goal. After all, gender equality is guaranteed by law in much of the post-industrialised world.
  4. Du's theoretical discussion is also problematic insofar as she gives equal value to the polemical writings of feminists like Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer and ethnographers like Mary Douglas, Margaret Mead, and Maria Lepowsky, so that it is not clear whether she is attempting a critique of anthropological theory or a critique of feminist theory, or whether she differentiates between the two approaches. This is a serious methodological issue. Feminists like Greer and de Beauvoir speak from the political perspective of being in society, and they speak politically for what they believe ought to be and might become. Anthropologists attempt to speak for what is, what they see and what they interpret of a tangible social reality, which until recent years, stood preferably outside their own personal cultural and political experience. By treating feminist political writings and ethnography as equally valid and essentially the same means of analysing and commenting on cultures around the world, Du confuses politics and sociology.
  5. In fact, in trying to establish a causal relation between the theory of universal male dominance and the cultural bias of Western feminist thinkers and ethnographers, Du undervalues the significance of her own study. Traditional societies that are gender egalitarian are especially valuable to gender studies and to feminists not because they provide more evidence that ethnographers are too culturally obtuse to acknowledge that egalitarian societies do exist, but precisely because male dominance has been a prevailing means of organising human societies. In other words, it is because males have tended to dominate in most parts of the world that the Lahu example is so important. Because Lahu society, as Du so eloquently describes in the rest of the book, shows that in some traditional contexts—that is contexts where globalisation and industrialisation do not provide the impetus for the 'growing popularity' of the concept of gender equality—there are indeed many possible ways of constructing gender values and relations, and male dominance need not be one of those.
  6. Du is undoubtedly at her best when she moves into her ethnographic material. The book is here at its finest, very well written with much sensitivity and valuable insight. Du describes Lahu society as a realm where gender equality is enshrined in mythology, social rites, economic and political organisation. Lahu gender ideology is founded in an all pervasive belief in dyadic unity which has its beginning in a dyadic Creator (Xeul Sha) who embodies both male and female, from whom all things emanate, and humanity itself is descended. The Lahu thus conceptualise the organisation of the world and society as founded in human pairs—couples—whose marriage bonds are indivisible, and who work hard to produce the rice and offerings to Xeul Sha and to ensure continuing generations. In the Lahu dyad, however, male and female characteristics are almost entirely blurred. Lahu hold men and women to the same standards of moral and social behaviour, and make no gender-based distinction regarding essential personal qualities, standards of physical beauty, economic rights and responsibilities. Both men and women are expected to be nud, which means kind and soft, as opposed to hie, harsh, and which the Lahu consider antisocial and negative. They are also expected to 'work hard to eat' and to work together. In the economic sphere, Lahu have miminum gender specialisation, ploughing, cutting trees, blacksmithing and hunting are activities done by males whilst weaving is a female occupation. Du, however, specifies that aside from blacksmithing, this labour division is largely based on the relative physical strength of men and women and that even then, there may well be cross-overs based on individual capacity and context. Outside the economic sphere, Lahu married couples do everything together. Men assist their wives in childbirth, take care of household chores whilst their wives recover and share childrearing when the couple returns to work in the fields. Children of both sexes take their cues from their parents and play at parenting and cooking. Lahu kinship fully expresses the unity of the male and female pairs as social bonds are organised in radiating circles of relatives centered on a head couple, mother and father of grown up married children. Descent and residence rules, likewise, reflect gender egalitarianism. Lahu kinship is bilateral, and married couples reside with one set of parents and then with the other, for a period of three years each, before settling next to either set, according to economic and personal needs and wishes. In the same vein, property is held in common by married couples. Finally, the political sphere shows the same dyadic organisation around village head couples who gain their positions through elections.
  7. Importantly, Du stresses that although Lahu society is egalitarian, it is not an exotic paradise. She makes the point that Lahu gender egalitarianism is not based on individualistic aspiration but indeed on an ideal of the indivisibility of married couples, and she describes the very real stresses which the ideal system places on every day life. She also describes the stresses placed on the Lahu's gender system by their integration into the Communist system and more recently into the market economy. In appointing only males, rather than couples, to cadre positions, Communist authorities ignore Lahu traditional political modes. This has happened in other parts of Yunnan, and several scholars have noted the decline of women's status among other ethnic people following their closer integration into the Chinese state—both in imperial times, and under communism.[4] In ethnic regions, Communist authorities almost exclusively appoint male cadres whilst reserving the appointment of women cadres for work in women's issues. Among the Mosuo, for example, the authorities have appointed only married men although the Mosuo traditionally refrain from marriage altogether. The integration of Lahu economy in the cash economy is also putting pressure on the traditional gender system. As they seek work in factories, husbands and wives who are separated for long periods of time might grow apart and have extra-marital affairs. Faced with the potential disintegration of their traditional life, Lahu cadres have made use of the Communist state's reluctance to grant divorces to buttress their own traditional prohibitions on divorce. The result has been an epidemic of love-pact suicides by illicit lovers who seek in death what they cannot obtain in real life.[5]
  8. In conclusion, Shanshan Du does presents a fine discussion on the different forms which gender equality may in fact assume. Most importantly, she makes the point that where Lahu gender ideology fosters the concept of equality as 'sameness,' it converges with the ideals of Western feminists, but insofar as this ideal is grounded in traditional notions of collectivity, it does not correspond to feminist ideals of individualism. She concludes with a wish that her study might help enhance our cross-cultural understanding of gender values, and thus promote gender equality in our own societies. There is no doubt that anyone interested in gender and Yunnanese studies will find Shashan Du's book essential reading.


    [1] See for example: Elizabeth W. Fernea and Robert A.Fernea, 'Symbolizing Roles: Behind the Veil,' in James Pradley and David W. MacCurdy, Conformity and Conflict, Readings in Cultural Anthropology, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2003, pp. 253-60. Also, Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund, Female 'Circumcision' in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2000; and Ellen Gruenbaum, The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

    [2] Maria Lepwosky, Fruit of the Motherland: Gender in An Egalitarian Society, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

    [3] Anette Weiner, Women of Value, Men of Renown, St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1977.

    [4] For the transformation of gender among the Naxi during Imperial times, see, Christine Mathieu, A History and Anthropological Study of the Ancient Kingdoms of the Sino-Tibetan Borderland, Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003; for information on the position of Mosuo women and married men in village politics in the Communist order, see Eileen Walsh, 'The Mosuo—beyond the myth of matriarchy: gender transformation and economic development,' Ph.D. Dissertation, Philadelphia: Temple University, 2001. For Yi women's position in post revolutionary China, see, Stevan Harrell, Ways of being Ethnic in Southwest China, Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2001, p. 99.

    [5] On Naxi love suicides, see also Mathieu, A History and Anthropological Study of the Ancient Kingdoms of the Sino-Tibetan Borderland, ch. 8.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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