Orientalism has largely defined the modern scholarly approach to the treatment of sexuality in the
Feminine allure and palatial luxury go hand in hand in memorable orientalist descriptions of sexuality in the East in the
The reassuring thing about the excess of femininity in the East, moreover, is that it is all securely contained by the most powerful and well‐organized patriarchy in the world. Manzi and Caugigu, enfeebled by feminine luxury, submit themselves to the Great Khan. Men who become unmanly weaklings in their excessive fondness for the flesh, like the lord of Manzi, are bound to be conquered by the great Kublai Khan. On the other hand, men who take possession of many women as lords of their households and communities, like Kublai and his Mongols, rule over their womenfolk and such effeminized foreigners alike. The king of Caugigu is a subject of the Mongol emperor because he is consumed with feminine beauty. Where the lord of Manzi revels in carnal delights and the life of love and high sentiment, the Great Khan is a powerful polygynous man who runs an orderly imperial state. Similarly, Mongol men also rein in their women as heads of their families.
While in the East there seem to be plenty of women for Mongol men to marry, for a Mongol man “may take a hundred wives an he so please, and if he be able to keep them,” Mongol men “are very careful not to meddle with each other’s wives, and will not do so on any account, holding that to be an evil and abominable thing” (1: 252). And Mongol “women too are very good and loyal to their husbands, and notable housewives withal” (1: 252). The Mongols may marry their own cousins and their widowed stepmothers, and they practice levirate marriage (1: 253), but they keep their women under lock and key. Polo emphasizes that the Mongols enjoy polygynous excess, butin contrast to the people they conquer, they are not enervated by it.
At the same time that the Venetian traveler remarks on the sheer extravagance of sexual gratification for men in Mongol society, as many as “a hundred wives” for just one man, he also assures readers that a firm patriarchal order such as the Mongols’ keeps femininity under perfect control. Indeed, a Mongol man’s patriarchal authority is so fundamental and complete that he may take possession of his deceased father’s women as a way to keep female relations in the family, in the name of the father. Where the king of Caugigu marries for the beauty of a woman, a Mongol man marries to maintain and expand the patriarchal order. The titillation of polygynous excess in Mongol society for a European such as Polo lies in the idea of absolute patriarchy as the expression of magnificent power and unsurpassed supremacy in the empire in the East. And nowhere is this expression more conspicuous than in the court of Kublai Khan, the alpha male of the East, where four empresses are at his beck and call, besides a vast harem rotating six concubines at a time in order to attend to him at all times (1: 356‐358). The Great Khan’s polygyny reproduces patriarchal and imperial power at a furious rate, for he has a great number of sons, forty‐seven by wives and concubines according to Polo, and all great warriors and rulers, including his heir apparent and seven kings to govern different parts of the empire (1: 359‐360).
Polo’s descriptions of polyandry, however, challenge this simple orientalist scheme of gendered power relations between the triumphant sovereign masculine and the subservient multitudinous feminine. While his representation of polyandry, in which local women welcome sexual encounters with male travelers and visitors, may serve as the best instance of what Linda Lomperis calls “Eastern female sexual availability,” gender arrangements in the Tibeto‐Burman speaking region do not follow the simple logic of polygynous patriarchy ― one individual dominant male ruling over many women. Polo’s understanding of polyandry is more contradictory, convoluted, morally and politically, than his account of sexual relations under the Mongol imperium. While the orientalist frame of an effeminized, overabundant East subjugated by patriarchal forces of the world does not apply to his descriptions of polyandry as well as it does to the portrayal of polygyny, Polo still imagines the configuration of social value in terms of patriarchy. For him, a polyandrous society cannot be anything but a patriarchal one, because all societies are patriarchal.
Polo’s observations and views on polyandry are not as consistently favorable as those on Mongol patriarchy. “Female sexual availability” in Tibet appeals to the European as he believes it should to young men in general, but his attitude of undisguised contempt and abhorrence toward this place is a striking contrast to his faith in the Mongol imperium to maintain the proper order of gender relations and the natural hierarchy between men and women. I quote at length Polo’s remarks on Tibet:
Immediately following this promise of sexual adventure to young men traveling through the region, Polo mentions that the Tibetans are violent and dangerous. They are “an evil generation, holding it no sin to rob and maltreat: in fact, they are the greatest brigands on earth” (2: 45). Unlike the wealthy and respected polygynous Mongols, the Tibetans are “very poorly clad” and their economy primitive, based on salt as the basic currency for trade rather than on the Great Khan’s legal tender (2: 45). Elsewhere the narrator emphasizes again, “they are very great thieves,” “an ill‐conditioned race” (2: 49).
Polyandrous Tibetans are tough and wild, masculine in this sense, but their women must carry on with foreign men before they marry locally. The polyandrous men of Cainduare the losers of the world. Polo describes Caindu, identified in modern ethnography as the Yongning region of Yunnan, China, a place bordering Tibet and Burma (Cai 35‐37):
Again, like Tibet, Caindu’s economy is primitive, based not on money but on salt and gold. While they share their women with foreign men, the Great Khan owns and controls their natural resources. The emperor regulates strictly the harvesting and valuation of precious resources such as pearls and turquoise in this area. Local people can access the wealth of their own region only upon the great Mongol lord’s permission, and poaching is punished with death. Just as they give away their women, they also do not own material resources.
Polo refers to both Tibet and Caindu as provinces of the Great Khan’s empire, but they are so primitive and remote that they are not fully incorporated into the Mongol imperial state. The polyandrous people have no use for the Great Khan’s paper money. The Tibetans are near savages, the people of Caindu helplessly wretched, and their kingdoms are all poor, in stark contrast to Manzi and Mongol society in their wealth and splendor. The meaning of domination and hierarchy just is not the same in the case of the polyandrous people as in the cases of the Mongols and the people of Manzi and Caugigu. The Mongols’ conquest of Manzi is a fitting display of the way masculine prowess seizes control of and makes use of a land overflowing with feminine surfeit and material riches. Parched and needy, Tibet and Caindu are gnarly terrains where their few women offer themselves to many foreign men in the hope of getting some of these men’s wealth as “seed” for growing their own resources. Despite the radical difference between polygyny and polyandry, however, Polo insists that both Tibet and Caindu are patriarchal societies, noting that Tibetan women remain faithful wives after they marry and characterizing the man as the “master of the house” in Caindu. The organization of power relations and the formation of value are gendered in these societies as in Mongol society, but their radical difference frommonogynous or polygynous patriarchy brings into questionthe political and ethical basis of patriarchy itself. What if there are multiple masters ruling over one woman, and most of these masters are not even local to the community? What does it mean to possess such a poor land that it turns to outsiders for nourishment and resources?
Just how Marco Polo understands polyandrous societies in the Tibeto‐Burman speaking areas of the world as patriarchal ― whether this reflects his belief in the inescapability of patriarchy or his observation of patriarchal forms beyond the monogynous or polygynous ― reminds us that polyandry is a little‐understood social phenomenon in most of the world and that our attempt to understand it engages our assumptions about gender relations, domesticity, and how they underpin the social order. Conceptualizing Polo’s writing on polyandry as ethnographic discourse, in this section of the paper, I compare it to other ethnographic accounts from different historical periods and cultures, in order to call attention to the underlying assumptions, on the part of the non‐polyandrous observers, about the basis and formation of a community and the relation between social and personal arrangements in the ethnography of polyandry. The way individual members of a family order their mutual relations in a polyandrous household is a major focus for modern ethnographers, all of whom come from societies that practice monogamy and polygyny. Marco Polo himself portrays polyandrous societies in Asia as patriarchal, but his descriptions of the household in these societies also challenge the patriarchal order as he knows it.
Besides Marco Polo’s references to polyandry in the Travels, there is only one other travel account of polyandry from the thirteenth century by an earlier visitor to the Mongol Empire, but it is not about any community east of Europe. The Franciscan William of Rubruck refers suggestively to polyandry in another remote part of the world:
Made disposable by the Mongols (called “Tartars” in this account) as a kind of medieval “cannon fodder” in the nomads’ westward military expansion, the Moxel or the Moksha, identified by modern editors as Finnish Mordvans (William of Rubruck 279), practice a custom of hospitality, in which they make available all that they own to their guests, including their women.
Like Polo, William of Rubruck characterizes polyandrous people as primitive backward people whose social system has not caught up with the advanced civilizations. Like Bartholomew Anglicus, who portrays Ethiopians in his vastly influential and popular
Having witnessed entire towns razed and resettled by foreign occupiers in the wake of Mongol expansion (e.g., 147‐148), William of Rubruck’s account of a primitive people drastically reduced by the Mongol war machine is yet another reflection of the friar’s interest in the global shifts and dynamics of power relations between particular peoples and areas of the world since the rise of the Mongols earlier in the thirteenth century. The landscape he travels through reminds him how the nomads from central Asia have remade the world, destroying entire communities, cultures, and ways of life, in addition to creating a new core of prestige, power, and wealth. The Moksha, for him, are yet another group of the poor losers of the world, moved around and dispensed with by a force beyond the grasp of their primitive existence. And their practice of polyandry, where they give away their own women to visitors, seems a sure sign that they will remain losers of the world.
Decades later, near the end of the thirteenth century, Marco Polo is not as threatened by the Mongol imperium as William of Rubruck feels when he visits shortly after the empire has made its last military advance against Europe. As Polo celebrates the magnificence of Kublai Khan and his empire at the height of the
The otherness of polyandry, in this way, deeply engages the observers’ sense of the hierarchical order and power relations between different peoples of the world. The polyandrous Mo‐so that Polo describes in southwestern China have long scandalized the Han Chinese as well. The negative responses of both Polo and Chinese writers to polyandry in southwestern China suggest that the East‐West divide that frames the orientalist analysis does not apply to polyandry as a form of sexuality, but such a phenomenon clearly has stood historically for otherness among writers from various parts of the world. The staunchly Confucian Chinese are closer geographically to the Mo‐so, and they tend to regard polyandry as a threat. There is commentary on the region and its sexual practice in Chinese writing as early as 25‐220 A.D. A Chinese writer contemporary to Polo identifies the matrilineal Mo‐so as an ethnic group whose women “are not ashamed to leave their sexual parts exposed. Once married, they no longer have any sexual taboos” (Cai 21). While Polo ends his description of Tibetans by cheering on pleasure‐seeking young men, a twentieth‐century Chinese writer seesdepravity and ruin behind polyandrous Yongning’s promise of sensual delight: “Many merchants from far away, when passing through the region, become attached to them and spend their entire fortune there. They remain with them until old age and fall sick and die there” (Cai 21). Early Chinese anthropologists in the twentieth century under the Communist regime considered them living fossils from an earlier stage of human development (Cai 25‐27). Government policies toward the Mo‐so have consistently sought to suppress their practice of polyandry and assimilate them into the patriarchal order of the Han Chinese, the most notorious being the “monogamy campaign” against them in the Cultural Revolution (Cai 28).
Even today, the perspectives and representations of outsiders are largely responsible for our knowledge of polyandry, despite the historical reality of such a practice. Since the early twentieth century, there has been a steady traffic of ethnographers from patrilineal societies in and out of China’s Yunnan Province to study the Mo‐so in Yongning. “Polyandry” for anthropologists generally refers to any socially legitimate and morally acceptable arrangement in which a woman has more than one male sexual partner. Modern anthropologists study polyandry in the framework of kinship, family, and domestic arrangements, and such an approach is meant to emphasize the dignity of polyandry as a normalizing institution within a given society (e.g., Levine,
Polyandry can be found in particular places on all of the continents (Cooper 58), but there is no universal connection ― social, cultural, or biological ― among all the polyandrous societies of the world (Berreman 72). The most well‐known and widely studied polyandrous societies today are in parts of Central and South Asia, from the Indian subcontinent, the Himalayas, to Tibeto‐Burman speaking regions south of these mountain ranges. Besides the Mo‐so, who base kinship on the female line, Tibetans practice various forms and traditions of polyandry, patriarchal and otherwise. While aboriginal tribes in modern India such as the Todas have been a source of fascination to ethnographers studying polyandry, the practice of wife‐sharing is documented in the
So radically different are the domestic and marital arrangements of polyandry to the ways of the dominant civilizations in the world that even modern ethnographers have difficulty imagining how sexual relations take place in a polyandrous household. Because ethnographers of polyandry come from nonpolyandrous societies and write for readers from the same monogamous and polygynous environment, they feel bound to explain and describe to readers how sex can take place in polyandrous arrangements. Ethnographers have no difficulty understanding sex as an accepted cultural phenomenon in a polygynous marriage, where a man lives with multiple wives in a household, but they find it difficult, or assume that their readers will find it difficult, to imagine how sex takes place when a woman has multiple partners, especially if they all live at home. Nancy Levine describes in detail the protocols and scheduling of a Nyinba woman’s sleeping arrangements with her many partners within a household where the entire extended family lives (
The otherness of polyandry can prompt even a modern ethnographer such as CaiHua, one of the first anthropologists to popularize the polyandrous Mo‐so in his ethnographic study, to make the claim that because the Mo‐so household is radically different from the traditional patriarchal household, it cannot constitute a family unit. Repeatedly in hisworkA
Polo’s accounts of Tibet and Caindu, not untypical of travel literature from the pre‐modern world, portray the foreign and the exotic as the “civilized” world turned upside down. The polyandrous people are the direct inversion of civilized thinking and behavior. Where Europeans value virtue and purity in their women, the Tibetans respect only women who have had premarital encounters. Where most men guard and protect their possessions, the men of Caindu welcome, unconditionally, strangers’ free use of their property and women, as a piece of good fortune. Surrendering to the foreign travelers, for the polyandrous people, is a mark of ownership and productivity, and women’s dignity lies in their sexual impurity. Such descriptions of communities in Central Asia characterize the other as the subversion of all that the medieval Christian European holds dear.
The domestic household is key to understanding polyandrous culture for non‐polyandrous observers. Ethnographic writers compare the way a polyandrous household is ordered and managed to the structure and relations of a monogamous or polygynous household. At the same time that he characterizes the polyandrous household as the subversion of the traditional patriarchal household, Marco Polo shows that he also cannot imagine domesticity beyond the patriarchal order. Even though Tibetan women seek outside men to gain sexual experience, their men keep them faithful and under control after they marry them. The men of Caindu are ignorant losers, but as masters of their households they are the ones who welcome strangers into bed with their women. Patriarchy, therefore, remains paradoxically the basis for the practice of polyandry in these two countries.
In his accounts of Tibet and Caindu, Polo undertakes to imagine polyandry as at once other and patriarchal. At the same time that he portrays the polyandrous people as perverse, then, he also manages to call forth observations on the many “perversities” of patriarchal thinking itself.Tibetan patriarchy requires young women to sleep with many strange men before they can become faithful and virtuous housewives. They have to offer themselves to outsiders before they marry, so that their husbands value them and watch over them closely when they are married. Paradoxically, in Polo’s account of Tibet, premarital promiscuityis the basis of an honorable, traditional monogamous marriage. Also paradoxically, the basis for patriarchy is actually its own subversion; a sound traditional marriage where the husband exercises authority over the wife is possible only after the wife has behaved quite loosely before marriage. The people of Caindu believe that foreign men’s visits to their women enhance the welfare of their household, and that they will enrich their possessions so much more when they share them with outsiders. Polo’s scorn for the men in these remote regions of the world is part of the travel writer’s way of drawing a firm line between his own patriarchal order and the unconventional system of these very sharing and giving patriarchs. At the same time, his discussions of these societies suggest that patriarchy is not an absolute order and it has its own permutations and dynamics.
Polo is anxious to draw a line precisely because the phenomena he describes are not essentially Tibetan or Tibeto‐Burman. In fact, they are permutations of any patriarchy. In a conventional patriarchal society, the value of a woman in the marriage market goes up as she is desirable to more men; in Tibet, young women’s sexual experiences show that indeed she has been desirable to plenty of men and should be highly valuable as a wife. The “charms” of a woman who has had many premarital trysts are proven for the Tibetans, so that she is certain to please her husband when she gets married (2: 44). The valorization of the virtue of a wife in a conventional patriarchal society rests very much on men’s anxiety that their women are already or may be tainted sexually by other men. Tibetan women’s past sexual impurity is a reminder to their husbands to watch over and value them as wives, who “are kept with great care from light conduct afterwards” (2: 45).
The treatment of women under patriarchy as men’s possessions does not dictate, essentially, how men dispose of their possessions. While Mongol men acquire and keep their women under strict supervision as they go out and conquer the lands and people around them, much to Polo’s approval, the Mo‐so believe that sharing their property with others is an investment. They believe that their wealth and possessions will grow precisely when they share them with others. In this sense, local men believe that sharing their women with outsiders enhances rather than subverts their patriarchy. Male visitors may actually bring “great increase of temporal prosperity” (2: 54) to their household when they visit their women. The “great increase” that male outsiders bring to the polyandrous home in Polo’s description of Caindu, as I imagine, may range from material gifts for the women they bedtooffspringfrom such encounters. And Polo’s very suggestive account implies that this is the way that the people of Caindu multiply and expand their household.
The conditions of sexuality in Tibet and Caindu that Polo describes simply are what traditional patriarchy seeks to contain, but only imperfectly, because of their basis in the patriarchal logic itself. In major patriarchal civilizations, they are stigmatized as anomalous behavior, but preponderantly androcentric systems generate such men and their attitudes towards their women. Many shocking cases of polyandry, as we know from modern ethnography, in fact stem from male ascendancy that reduces women to men’s property. One such case is that of wife‐sharing between father and son in Tibet, usually between a widower and his grown son (Levine,
The household, then, as the most basic component of social formation, is also where radical social change must begin. Beyond Polo’s concern with patriarchy run amok in polyandrous Central Asia, I want to suggest that polyandry, conceptualized as a gynocentric (rather than androcentric) practice, offers a way to envision subversion of patriarchy from the core. Conspicuously missing in Polo’s descriptions of polyandry is the subjective condition of women. Polo never imagines that young Tibetan ladies’ roving eye judges, picks, and denies men. Similarly, in Polo’s description of Caindu, the women there quietly place themselves at the disposal of all male visitors as the heads of their patriarchal households wish. It never occurs to Polo that polyandrous women may deny men access to their bedroom.
From modern ethnography, we know that women’s will and voice play an important role in polyandry as a social institution. Evenpatriarchal polyandry radically undermines the most inviolate principle of polygynous or monogamous patriarchy. Adulterous behavior is tolerated and even acceptable for both husband and wife, since one more sexual partner for a woman is not shocking and a man should seek pleasure elsewhere if his wife is with another partner (Levine,
Among certain Tibetans, unmarried women living in their parents’ homes sleep with guests and visitors and are encouraged to produce offspring of their own from such brief encounters. When young women of the A‐mdo tribe in Tibet come of age and do not have husbands, their parents arrange a ceremony for them in which they become “married to heaven.” After such a ceremony, they enjoy sexual choice and freedom as single people living with their parents. Their offspring, considered “children given by heaven,” are welcome as legitimate children of the family (Hermanns 73‐74).
I do not mean to argue that everyone should practice polyandry to subvert conventional patriarchy, but that polyandry, where plurality and difference inform domestic authority, affords us a conceptual tool for understanding and effecting social change. Where Marco Polo cannot escape the patriarchal order, polyandry as an ethnographic discourse brings us to a meditation on the vital political significance of the household. As a reviewer comments in response to Hua Cai’s