The Visit

Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carriage
Dad was told by mother
You can’t have one without the other,

—“Love and Marriage,”Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen

Not everywhere.

Among the Na, a tribal people hidden away in the Yongning hills of Yunnan province in southern China and the subject of the French-trained Chinese anthropologist Cai Hua’s provocative new monograph, 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. The man “visits,” usually furtively, the woman at her home in the middle of the night as impulse and opportunity appear, which they do with great regularity. Almost everyone of either sex has multiple partners, serially or simultaneously; simultaneously usually two or three, serially as many as a hundred or two. 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.

The incest taboo is of such intensity that not only may one not sleep with opposite sex members of one’s own household, one cannot even allude to sexual matters in their presence. One may not curse where they can hear, or sit with them in the same row at the movies, lest an emotional scene appear on the screen. As paternity is socially unrecognized, and for the most part uncertain, fathers may happen, now and again, to sleep with daughters. A man is free to sleep with his mother’s brother’s daughter, who is not considered any kind of relative, not even a “cousin.” There is no word for bastard, none for promiscuity, none for infidelity; none, for that matter, for incest, so unthinkable is it. Jealousy is infra dig:

You know, Luzo [who is nineteen] has not had a lot of [lovers], but he has made many visits [his friend said]. This is because he only goes to the homes of beauties. In particular, he goes to visit Seno, a pretty girl in our village. Do you want to go [visit her] at her house?” he asked me.
“No! If I go there, Luzo will be jealous,” I answered.
“How could I be jealous!” [Luzo] responded. “You can ask whomever you want. You will see that…we don’t know how to be jealous.”
“He’s right!” his friend interjected. And to explain himself he added: “Girls [are available] to everyone. Whoever wants to can visit them. There is nothing to be jealous about.”

Obviously, this is an interesting place for an anthropologist—especially for an anthropologist brought up on that King Charles’s head of his profession, “kinship theory.”

There are two major variants of such theory, “descent theory” and “alliance theory,” and the …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.