Especially Asia is rich for the topic presented here, it has hosted numerous examples of matriarchal cultures, which suvived until today.
The Indigenous peoples of western and southern China, who are not Chinese, all together number about thirteen million people. Many of them preserved the matriarchal structure or, at least, some matriarchal elements of their ancient cultures. Several Indigenous nationalities of China were presented in Beauclair 1970. Goettner-Abendroth 1998 presented her field work on the Mosuo, while Mosuo scholar Shi, in his Indigenous language: Lamu, 2002, 2009 focused on mother-centering of his own society, and Yan 1986 and 1995 homed in on matrilineage among the Mosuo. Another ethnic minority is the Lahu people (related to the Tibetans), today numbering about half a million. The Lahu people practice a special form of matriarchy, as discussed in Du 2002.
Beauclair, Ines de. Tribal Cultures of Southwest China, Taipeh: Orient Cultural Service, 1970.
Many of the Indigenous nationalities existing at the margins of China were presented by Beauclair. Although she described the matriarchal aspects of the cultures, she did not explicitly label them as matriarchies, in this period before such discussions were credited.
Yan, Ruxian, ed. Marriages and Families of Chinese Minorities, Bejing: Chinese Women's Publishing House, 1986.
The Mosuo people, related to the Tibetans, were described here by the Chinese anthropologist Yan. Analysing the matrilineal kinship system of the Mosuo, she showed their ancient origins, providing all the Mosuo relationship terms in detail.
Yan, Ruxian, ed. Women of Ethnic Groups: Tradition and Development, Yunnan People's Press, 1995.
Because of its mother-centeredness, Yan termed the Mosuo society a “living fossil,” calling it “backward,” which is in accordance with the patriarchal Chinese government's disparaging evaluation of these traditional cultures.
Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. Matriarchat in Südchina. Eine Forschungsreise zu den Mosuo. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer Verlag, 1998.
In this study (whose title means, “Matriarchy in Southern China”), Goettner-Abendroth presented her field work on the Mosuo, elaborating on the classical matriarchal patterns of this society at its social, economic, political, and cultural levels, using her definitions elaboratd in Modern Matriarchal Studies. Her positive view of this society includes numerous statements from Mosuo women and men, regarding their own culture.
Shi, Gaofeng (Lamu, Gatusa). Lugu Lake. Mother Lake: A Trip Back to Lugo Lake, the Last Matriarchal Society. Beijing: Zhongguo lü you chu ban she, 2002.
Here, Lamu Gatusa (his name in Mosuo language; in Chinese it is “Shi Gaofeng”), an Indigenous Mosuo and anthropologist of the Yunnan Academy for Social Sciences, elucidated the mother-centering of his traditional Mosuo culture.
Lamu, Gatusa (Shi Gaofeng). “Matriarchal Marriage Patterns of the Mosuo People of China”. In Goettner-Abendroth, ed. Societies of Peace, Toronto: Inanna Publications, 2009, 240–47.
Presenting at the First World Congress on Matriarchal Studies in 2003, Lamu outlined the marriage patterns of the Mosuo people, labelling his own culture “matriarchal”.
Hengde, Danshilacuo (He Mei). “Mosuo Family Structures.” In H. Goettner-Abendroth, ed. Societies of Peace, Toronto: Inanna Publications, 2009, 248-255.
A student of Lamu, the Indigenous scholar Hengde Danshilacuo (her name in Mosuo language; in Chinese it is “He Mei”) provided a comparison of the variants of clan-based, matriarchal family patterns and monogamous, patrilinear ones that co-exist among the Mosuo, putting her positive emphasis on the traditional matriarchal patterns.
Du, Shanshan. Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs: Gender Unity and Gender Equality among the Lahu of Southwest China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Chinese anthropologist Du took a close look at the Lahu in Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs, the study's title borrowing a Lahu aphorism that captures the spirit of their cultural parallelism, which practices an egalitarian form of society without being mother-centered. Instead, male and female counterparts have exactly balanced roles in an overall spirit of exact equality. In this sense the Lahu socitey is non-patriarchal and might have had matriarchal patterns in the past.
In a study of the close sister-brother relationships of the Japanese Islands culture, Mabuchi 1964 showed that there existed a brother-sister regency among the Ryukyuan people. Among the Ainu of northern Japan, female shamans enjoyed a long tradition, as shown by Ohnuki-Tierney 1973. Carter twice 2005, 2009 quizzed matriarchal traces in larger Japanese culture.
Mabuchi, Toichi. Spiritual Predominance of the Sister in Ryukyuan Culture and Society. Allan H. Smith, ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1964.
Japanese scholar Mabuchi documented the sister-brother double regency existing in the Ryukyu Islands, Japan's most remote Southern islands. Such s ister-brother alliances were not limited to aristocratic women, for all the women of the Ryukyu Islands were worshipped by their brothers, in a pattern typical of the Indigenous cultures of the Pacific.
Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. “The Shamanism of the Ainu.” In Ethnology 12.1 (1973), 15–29.
In this paper, Japanese scholar Ohnuki-Tierney emphasised the eminent role of female shamans in the traditions of the Indigenous Ainu people on Hokkaido, the Northern main island of Japan. The Ainu preserved one of the most ancient cultures of the Japan.
Carter, Susan Gail. Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, Past and Present: An Exploration of the Japanese Sun Goddess from a Western Feminist Perspective. Ph.D. dissertation, Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Press, 2005.
Here, Carter outlined the matriarchal elements intrinsic to the Japanese traditions of the Sun Goddess in the Shinto religion. The formalized, state-run Shinto of the emperors was separate from popular Shinto, in which the traditions of the female shamans of Japan survived.
Carter, Susan Gail. “The Matristic Roots of Japan and the Emergence of the Japanese Sun Goddess, Amaterasu-o-mi-kami.” In H. Goettner-Abendroth, ed. Societies of Peace, Toronto: Inanna Publications, York University, 2009, 394–404.
Carter further explored Shinto Goddesses in traditional Japanese religion and hinted at their matriarchal background.
High ranking Korean women had traditionally been shaman-queens, according to Kim 1976. Harvey 1979 biographically treated Korean female shamanism.
Kim, Yung-Chung. Women of Korea: A History from Ancient Times to 1945. Seoul/Korea: Ewha Womens University Press, 1976.
Korean scholar Kim reviewed the history of Korean women, demonstrating that, in Korea's earliest epochs, women had been shaman-queens, guiding their matrilineal clans and leading their people. Kim sketched of the debilitation of women's status through diverse epochs, up to 1945.
Harvey, Young-sook Kim. Six Korean Women. The Socialisation of Shamans. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company, 1979.
Harvey examined traditions of exclusively female shamanism in Korea, as seen through the biographies of six women. Originating in the most ancient of Korean history, female shamanism continued into the present, although it became a phenomenon confined to the lower classes.
Acharya 1979 analyzed the high position of early Newar women, while the Nepalese goddess cultures were reviewed by Kooij 1978 and Deep 1978. Also studying the Newar Nepalese were Trilok and Gupta (1981) and Koch and Stegmüller 1983, who looked closely at the central goddess festivals.
Kooij, Karl R. van. Religion in Nepal. Leiden: Brill,1978.
Kooij gave a generalized overview of the religions of Nepal, deepening the focus on the rich cycle of festivals of the Newar of the Katmandu valley, with specific attention to the mother goddess, Kali, as ancient.
Deep, Dhurba K. The Nepal Festivals. Katmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar, 1978.
A Napalese scholar, Deep, continued the conversation on the Nepalese Festivals, demonstrating that the worship of Kali constituted the oldest layer in the syncretic religion of the Newar, in a cult of nature worship exclusively dedicated to the mother goddess. Ancient Newar Indigenous traditions continued to have been practiced into modern times by rural farmers and the urban lower castes.
Trilok, Chandra Majapuria, and Gupta, S. P. Nepal – The Land of Festivals. New Delhi: S. Chand, 1981.
Indian scholars Trilok and Gupta focused on Newar religious practices, particularly in the Katmandu valley, paying special attention to the Durga Puja, the festival of the goddess Durga, and women-led practices.
Koch, Pitt, and Stegmüller, Henning. Geheimnisvolles Nepal. Munich: List, 1983.
Meaning, “Mysterious Nepal,” Geheimnisvolles Nepal described the religion of the Katmandu Newar, also emphasizing the important festival, Durga Puja, during which all aspects of the great goddess Durga coalesce. Durga as a living goddess takes the form of a pre-pubescent girl, called “Kumari.” The archaic festivals of the Newar have matriarchal roots, although a clear idea of this coherence is lacking with all these authors.
Acharya, Meena. The Status of Women in Nepal. Kathmandu: Tribhuvan University, 1979.
Acharya provided a comprehensive study of the high position of the Nepalese Newar women in early times, as reflected in the goddess festivals. However, despite the vivid goddess tradition in Nepal, she found that cultural encroachment by the Nepal's patriarchal Hindu neighbor, India, had fundamentally changed social organization, to the detriment of Nepalese women.
Briffault led off with an influential trilogy 1927/1996, in which, among many other subjects on women's status worldwide, he elaborated on polyandrous Tibetan marriage customs. Hermanns 1953, 1959 produced two works on women and family in Tibet, but his Catholic vantage point damaged his grasp. L ess prejudiced in his study was Seirksma 1963. Majumdar 1962 likewise considered multiple marriage.
Briffault, Robert. The Mothers. A Study of the Origins of Sentiments and Institutions. 3 vols. 1927.
New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1996.
Throughout his trilogy, Briffault examined older sources regarding the traditionally high status of women. Concerning Tibet, he clarified that with Tibetan multiple marriage, in which a group of sisters from one clan marries a group of brothers from another clan, it was a question of noting how many sisters or brothers were connected by the two families, usually not many.
Hermanns, Matthias. “The Status of Woman in Tibet.” Anthropological Quarterly, 26.3 (July 1953), 67–78.
A Catholic missionary, Hermanns tried to sort out the source of Tibetan women's status.
Hermanns, Matthias. Die Familie der A-mdo Tibeter. Freiburg-Munich: Alber, 1959.
Translating as “The A-mdo Tibetan Family,” the text drew on Chinese chronicles (905–581 B.C.E.) describing vast realms along the Tibetan-Chinese border as being ruled by matriarchal-style queens. Falsely concluding that the chronicles necessarily implied male inferiority in these queendoms, which would have been very atypical of Tibet, Hermanns decided that the Chinese histories of Tibetan queens' realms lacked credibility.
Majumdar, Dhirendra Nath. Himalayan Polyandry: Structure, Functioning, and Cultural Change, A Field Study of Jaunsar-Bawar. Bombay-New Delhi-London: Asia Publishing House, 1962.
Majumdar followed Briffault with this statistical study of the distribution of Tibetan polyandry, establishing that it was the preferred, legal form of marriage, found in the old, respected families, who maintained it as a national heritage.
Sierksma, Fokke. “Sacred Cairns in Pastoral Cultures.” History of Religions 2.2 (1963), 227–41.
Sierksma evaluated the same Chinese chronicles of queendoms as Hermanns, but treated them as reliable reports.
The Khasi in northeast India and the Nayar in southwest India have provided special matriarchal societal forms. Besides the Nayar, there exist a number of other peoples with matriarchal elements in the region of Kerala and other regions of southwestern India.
Peoples of Kerala
Working from the concept of “mother right” in considering the history of the southwestern Nayar was Ehrenfels 1941. Iyer 1948, 1961, 1968 focused on the whole region of Kerala in southwestern India, where there exists a dense concentration of peoples with matriarchal elements.
Ehrenfels, Omar Rolf von. Motherright in India. Hyderabad-Deccan-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941.
Ehrenfels worked from the Bachofenian concept of “mother right,” but his comprehensive work remains one of the best studies on the history of Indian matriarchies, especially of the complex Nayar culture. His insights into social and religious patterns accompanied an analysis of the problematic relationship between patriarchal Hindu Brahmins and the matriarchal Nayar and a thorough critique of women's oppression in Hinduized areas.
Iyer, L. A. Krishna. Kerala, Past and Present. Vol. 1: Prehistoric Archaeology of Kerala. Trivandrum, India: L. K.B. Ratnam, 1948.
Iyer's first volume on the region of Kerala was a preliminary look at the ancient traditions there, trying to piece together the complex past from archaeological evidence.
Iyer, L. A. Krishna.Kerala and Her People. Palghat, India: Educational Supplies Depot, 1961.
Here, in search of origins, Iyer focused especially on the hill peoples of the region of Kerala, considering them as pre-Dravidian.
Iyer, L. A. Krishna.Social History of Kerala. Madras: Book Centre Publications, 1968.
In reviewing customs, religious practices, and beliefs, Iyer here gave numerous indications that matriarchal patterns once prevailed over all Kerala and other regions of Southern India, including all the Malabar Coast, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Sri Lanka.
Schneider and Gough 1961 focused on festivals, while Indigenous Nayar and scholar Shanker de Tourreil 2009 emphasized the modern challenges, which the Nayar face.
Schneider, David M., and Gough, Kathleen, eds. Matrilineal Kinship. Berkeley-Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961.
Schneider and Gough described matrilineage among the Nayar, including much on typical Nayar festivals, of which the initiation celebrations for girls were the most elaborate.
Shanker de Tourreil, Savithri. “Nayar of Kerala and Matriliny Revisited.” In Heide Goettner-Abendroth, ed. Societies of Peace, Toronto: Inanna Publications, 2009, 205–16.
The Indigenous scholar Tourreil anaylzed the decline of the Nayar matrilineality and matriarchal culture as a result of modern, outside, economic and social pressures.
Gurdon's 1907 was one of the oldest and hence least defined texts on the Khasi of northeastern India, but it provided much information. Roy 1981 went into exquisite detail on the female-male double reign with the Khasi. Pakyntein 2000 and Mukhim 2009 put the Khasi in the context of modern pressures.
Gurdon, Philip Richard Thornhagh. The Khasis. 1907. Delhi: Cosmo Publication, 1975.
Related to the Tibetans, the Khasi were first described in Gurdon's old, but still important work. Gurdon not only provided much information about the classical, matriarchal patterns of the Khasi people, but also reflected on the structures of the culture as “matriarchy.” Lacking a clear definition of matriarchy, however, he was unable to come to any solid conclusion about it.
Roy, Hira Lal Deb. A Tribe in Transition: The Jaintias of Meghalaya.New Delhi: Cosmo Publication, 1981.
Roy studied Khasi social and religious patterns and the spiritual-political organization of their female-male double reign in “Syiemship.” The Syiem of each region was the son or nephew of the high priestess, the “Syiem Sad.” The mother (aunt) allowed her son (nephew) to act as her delegate, a widespread pattern in matriarchal society.
Pakyntein, Valentina. “Gender Preference in Khasi Society: An Evaluation of Tradition, Change and Continuity.” Indian Anthropologist, 30: 1&2, 2000, 27–35.
An Indigenous Khasi as well as a scholar, Pakyntein evaluated the changes to her traditional, matriarchal Khasi-Pnar culture under modern pressures.
Mukhim, Patricia. “Khasi Matrilineal Society—Challenges in the 21th Century.” In H. Goettner-Abendroth, ed. Societies of Peace, Toronto: Inanna Publications, 2009, 193–204.
The Indigenous Khasi and scholar, Mukhim, considered the modern challenges to the matrilinearity and matriarchy among the Khasi people, finding both to have been in decline. She saw the cultural transition in progress as disadvantageous, especially to Khasi women.
Particularly riveting to scholars for their Western paradigm breaking challenges have been the Minangkabau of Sumatra, six million strong, who are simultaneously Muslim and matriarchal, retaining the matriarchal Adat, their Indigenous traditional laws. Scholarship offers a bevy of contradictory opinions on the Islamification of the Minangkabau. Maretin 1961 saw Minangkabau matriarchy as doomed, while Bachtiar 1967 tried to assess the cultural competitions arising from divergent social systems. Schrijvers and Postel-Coster 1977 also considered the changes wrought on women's social position by Islam. Benad 1982 considered what agricultural change did to rural cultural patterns, with Benda-Beckmann 1983 describing the changes in terms of property relationships. Gura 1988 directly questioned what happened when women's economic power was disrupted. More summary work followed, with Kato 1982, on the historical changes and cultural conservatism, and Sanday 2002, who provided the single most important study, describing the structure of the traditional Minangkabau matriarchy and developing a definition of matriarchy simultaneously with, but independently of, Goettner-Abendroth and Mann. Dhavida 2009 reinforced Sanday's conclusions.
Maretin, J. V. “Disappearance of Matriclan Survivals in Minangkabau Family and Marriage Relations.” Bidjragan tot de Taal-, Land- en VolkenKunde 117, (1961), 168–95.
Maretin waxed glum on Minangkabau women's prospects, seeing primarily “survivals” instead of intact traditions.
Bachtiar, Harsja W. “Negeri Taram: A Minangkabau Village Community.” In Koentjaraningrat, ed. Villagers in Indonesia. Ithaca-New York: Cornell University Press, 1967, 348–85.
Bachtiar assessed the cultural competitions arising from divergent social systems, one traditional and one Islamic.
Schrijvers, Joke and Els Postel-Coster. “Minangkabau Women: Change in a Matrilineal Society.”
Archipel 13 (1977), 79–103.
Schrijvers and Postel-Coster considered the changes wrought on women's social position in the modern world. They emphasized that land and trade in the hands of women were the economic basis of the matriarchal Adat, or traditional laws, of the villages, a situation which they regarded as being endangered by modern encroachments.
Benda-Beckmann, Franz von. “Property in Social Continuity: Continuity and Change in the Maintenance of Property Relations through Time in Minangkabau, West Sumatra.” In L'Homme 23.1 (1983), 167–69.
In thoughts first published in 1979, Benda-Beckmann considered the impact on the social order of changes in property relationships among the traditional Minangkabau.
Gura, Susanne. “ Wie Frauen ihren Grundbesitz verlieren. Die matrilineare Gesellschaft der Minangkabau in Sumatra” Modernisierung der Ungleichheit: Beiträge zur feministischen Theorie und Praxis 23 (1988), 21–28.
In this paper (whose title means, “ The Way Women Lose Their Land”), Gura directly questioned what happened when women's economic power, based on land-holding, was disrupted.
Benad, Annette. Grüne Revolution in West-Sumatra: eine Studie über die Bestimmungsgründe des bäuerlichen Innovationsverhaltens. Saarbrücken: Verlag Breitenbach, 1982.
In her contribution to the discussion (which translates as “Green Revolution in Western Sumatra”), Benad considered what agricultural change did to rural cultural patterns.
Kato, Tsuyoshi. Matriliny and Migration. Evolving Minangkabau Traditions in Indonesia.
Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1982.
In this excellent historical study, including the original Malaysian Adat, or traditional, matriarchal law, Kato showed that the Minangkabau of the rural heartland are mutually linked to those outside the heartland, in all of Sumatra's and Indonesia's large cities. Each half support the other through long-standing gift economies, contributing significantly to the adaptability and vitality of the Adat, up to Kato's present.
Sanday, Peggy Reeves. Women at the Center. Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Ithaca- New York: Cornell University Press, 2002.
Anthropologist Sanday offered a densely detailed study of the Minangkabau lives. Whether rural or urban, the Minangkabau were known not only for their egalitarian male-female relationships, but also for their literary flair and business acumen. In the final chapter of Women, Sanday critiqued the conceptual confusions around the term “matriarchy” and re-defined matriarchy as a set of interdependent relationships.
Dhavida, Usria. “The Role of Minangkabau Women.” In H. Goettner-Abendroth, ed. Societies of Peace, Toronto: Inanna Publications, 2009, 228–229.
Sanday's conclusions were reinforced by the Indigenous Minangkabau author Dhavida, who set forth the pre-eminent role of Minangkabau women in her society.