Cover image for A society without fathers or husbands : the Na of China
A society without fathers or husbands : the Na of China
Hua, Cai.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Société sans père ni mari. English
Publication Information:
New York : Zone Books ; Cambridge, Mass. : Distributed by The MIT Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
505 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
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Material Type
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DS731.N39 H8313 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A fascinating account of the Na society, which functions without the institution of marriage.

The Na of China, farmers in the Himalayan region, live without the institution of marriage. Na brothers and sisters live together their entire lives, sharing household responsibilities and raising the women's children. Because the Na, like all cultures, prohibit incest, they practice a system of sometimes furtive, sometimes conspicuous nighttime encounters at the woman's home. The woman's partners--she frequently has more than one--bear no economic responsibility for her or her children, and "fathers," unless they resemble their children, remain unidentifiable. This lucid ethnographic study shows how a society can function without husbands or fathers. It sheds light on marriage and kinship, as well as on the position of women, the necessary conditions for the acquisition of identity, and the impact of a communist state on a society that it considers backward.

Author Notes

Cai Hua is Director of the Center for Anthropologic and Folkloric Studies at Peking University.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Marriage is the foundation of all societies, anthropologists have claimed. Yet the Na, an ethnic minority living in China's Himalayan foothills, have enjoyed a successful culture without it. The Na are a truly matrilineal society: heterosexual activity occurs by mutual consent and mostly through the custom of the secret nocturnal "visit"; men and women are free to have multiple partners and to initiate or break off relationships when they please. Children are raised by their mother's family, with the biological father playing no role whatsoever. Cai Hua, director of research at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences in China, lived among the Na for extended periods during the 1980s and 1990s and gathered comprehensive data on their history, religion, economic practices and social customs in particular, kinship systems. The resulting description and analysis, originally presented as his master's thesis, introduces a fascinating culture for whom "sexuality is not a piece of merchandise but a purely sentimental and amorous matter that implies no mutual constraints." (Hua does not mention whether homosexual activity is similarly tolerated.) Na men and women generally report high satisfaction with their sex lives. As in other cultures, though, physically unattractive, disabled and older individuals have few (if any) romantic options; high rates of sexually transmitted diseases also occur. This painstakingly researched book will provide social scientists with much useful information and will raise major questions about accepted views of family relationships and gender roles. Its dry prose, clinical tone and exhaustive scope, however, may prove daunting for general readers. (May 1) Forecast: Touted as a groundbreaking study, this book is clearly intended for specialists. Though thoroughly researched and meticulously presented, it lacks the kind of readability that could have made it a 21st-century Coming of Age in Samoa. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Cai (anthropology, College de France) has explored a truly unique society: the Na, a minority group of approximately 12,000 living in Southwest China near the Burmese border. A matrilineal society, Na families consist of sisters and brothers, along with other consanguineous members, living together and raising the sisters' children, who result from the night visits of various male lovers. The lovers have no connection with the family, have no responsibilities, and do not acknowledge their fatherhood; the children, in turn, do not know their fathers. Cohabitation, whereby a woman or man joins a family, or marriage occur only under extremely unusual circumstances. Communist efforts to bring the Na into mainstream values met with failure and laughable results. Cai has a dry and plodding scholarly tone with much repetition, but the book still makes for fascinating reading. Recommended for public and academic libraries.-Kitty Chen Dean, Nassau Community Coll., Garden City, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

The Na are a Chinese minority group that speaks a language related to Tibetan and that currently comprises some 30,000 people. They are unique in lacking the institution of marriage, and even of recognized paternity. The elite have picked up the idea of marriage from the Chinese over the last 300 years, but they marry for political reasons and treat the institution very lightly. The society is matrilineal to an extreme degree and runs perfectly well. The Na have persisted in their ways in spite of intolerance and persecution by Han Chinese in recent decades. Chinese ethnographer Hua provides a detailed account of the culture, especially its kinship and mating "modalities." He fleshes out the structural bones with case studies, statistics, and such historical detail as can be documented, wisely refraining from speculating on the origins and current functions of the system, except to dismiss earlier, ill-informed ideas. The book is thus refreshingly clear, focusing on the Na's own lives and feelings. Hua notes that the survival and flourishing of Na culture poses a strong challenge to almost all theories of the family, from structural-formalist to moral. Highly recommended to upper-division undergraduate students and professionals, and to anyone seriously interested in the kaleidoscopic variety of human marital and sexual adjustments. E. N. Anderson University of California, Riverside