When we think of same-sex marriage and gay rights, we tend to think of this as a modern issue. But the truth is, for centuries in China, there was a whole society of women who lived together in romantic partnerships with one another. Rainbow Rumpus is an online magazine for children with LGBT parents and they have a great article about the Golden Orchid Society. I spoke with Rene Ohana, the author of the article and Laura Matanah of Rainbow Rumpus about the Golden Orchid tradition in China and about the cool LGBT magazine Rainbow Rumpus.
Lesbian Life: This is the first time I’ve heard of the The Golden Orchid Society, can you tell me more about it?Rene Ohana: The Golden Orchid Societies, or Mutual Admiration Societies, as they were also known originated in the Guangdong Provence of China and existed from approximately 1644 until 1911. During this time most of China was strictly patriarchal. Women were treated as little better than servants. Marriages were arranged by parents and often a young woman did not see her prospective husband until the wedding. Further, women could not inherit or hold any assets in their own names.
However, with the growth of the silk industry in the Guangdong Provence, the women of that area were able to find employment in sericulture. By the 1800s, the silk factories, which produced silk for foreign markets, had grown extensively and often exclusively employed women, allowing the women to not only earn incomes of their own, but also form close personal relationships with each other. According to anthropologists, during this period, resistance to the traditional practices of marriage grew and Golden Orchid Societies thrived.
The women who took the Golden Orchid Oath in order to join Golden Orchid Societies had similar courtship and marriage traditions as heterosexual couples, such as the wearing of red for the wedding. The primary difference was that their unions were with another woman, rather than a man. Many of the relationships formed in Golden Orchid Societies were close sisterly relationships, while others were sexual relationships. Regardless of whether or not the relationship was sexual, the women were committed to sharing the challenges and rewards of a life partnership.
Unlike other female only groups, often referred to as spinster societies, Golden Orchid families were permitted to adopt orphaned and abandoned girls, who in turn could inherit from their mothers, thus creating financial independence for yet another generation of women. The Golden Orchid Society largely fell apart with the end of the Qing Dynasty, when they were associated with the attempt to overthrow the Manchu Emperor. With the triumph of the Red Army in 1949, they were banned outright. Many of the remaining women fled the Guangdong region and dispersed to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia.
In contemporary China, the term Golden Orchid Friends now refers to friends who are like sisters and for whom one would give one’s life, but the term is no longer associated with homosexuality.
Golden Orchid Societies offer an important historical president not only for the institution of same-sex marriage, but also for same-sex parenthood. For additional information, read the appendix to Bret Hinsch’s Passions of the Cut Sleeve. While the book is primarily about the male homosexual tradition in China, the appendix does an excellent job of explaining Golden Orchid Societies.
For a shorter article, that is appropriate for younger readers, read the article, The Golden Orchid Society, which can be found at Rainbow Rumpus.
Was there any negative stigma about women marrying women at this time in China?Rene Ohana: Joining a Golden Orchid Society was an act of rebellion. It was a way for women to assert their autonomy in an otherwise patriarchal society. Certainly, not all parents were pleased to discover that their daughters did not want to marry the men they had chosen for them.
Some women who were betrothed to men against their will refused intercourse on the wedding night, thereby violating their part of the marriage agreement. If they were returned home as rejected wives, they were no longer considered marriageable. In this situation, the parents, while perhaps not pleased with the rebellion, would be more open to accepting a Golden Orchid relationship for their daughter, as it freed them from financial responsibility for her. Similarly, some women who were already married left their husband’s homes for various reasons, and found refuge in Golden Orchid Societies.
Lastly, it is clear by the well documented use of traditional courtship methods among Golden Orchid Societies that some women married other women with the approval of their natal families, whose acceptance of the courtship offerings, such as nuts and fruits, indicated that they accepted the marriage proposal.
Even if the natal family did not initially support their daughter’s choice, ultimately they had little choice. Once a woman had taken the Golden Orchid Oath, promising to never marry a man and to remain faithful to her chosen partner, she risked public humiliation and beatings if she were to “turn away” from her wife. The natal family, not wanting to risk the humiliation, would presumably have little choice then but to accept their daughter’s marriage.
Did the women of The Golden Orchid Society live together in community?Rene Ohana: They lived in cooperative households where the women financially supported each other in times of sickness and in health. Unfortunately, I don’t know much more than that.
How does the religion of Buddhism play in?Rene Ohana: One of the many beliefs of Buddhism is that of reincarnation. While Buddhism like all religions is as varied as those who practice it, many Buddhists at this time believed it was possible that a man and woman who were married in one life might be reincarnated as members of the same sex in another life, where they would again be drawn together by love. In this way, homosexual love, while not necessarily valued, would have been understood and tolerated by some Buddhists.
Further, most Chinese women of this time period, and particularly those who took the Golden Orchid Oath, worshiped Guan Yin, the goddess of women. According to the legend of Miao Shan, Guan Yin, a Buddhist deity, is said to have rejected traditional heterosexual marriage in order to devote herself to her work as the goddess of women and mercy. Thus she served as an example to the Golden Orchid women who fought against their social oppression in order to establish meaningful relationships on their own terms.
These women often adopted and raised children together. So much for the argument that family has always been one-man, one-woman…Laura Matanah: The information in this article shows that argument isn’t true! I think it’s vital information for people to have in terms of building understanding that our families are valid. I also think its vital information for kids and teens from LGBT-headed homes to have, as their families are either ignored or put-down in broader society.
More about The Golden Orchid Society