Over in the Far East there was a similar practice of recognising same-sex unions. The one I’ll write about today was exclusively for women.
Golden Orchid societies or associations, called “chin-lan hui” in Chinese, were groups of women who included couples who had gone through a union ceremony. They were centred round the Guangdong province of southern China. The exact origin of the name has not been determined, though Professor James Liu (d.1986) of Stamford University in America, suggested that it may derive from a passage in the “I-Ching”, a 3,000 year-old Chinese text. The passage reads, “When two persons have the same heart its sharpness can cut gold; words from the same heart have a fragrance like the orchid”.
In a Golden Orchid relationship two women go through a kind of courtship. One woman would prepare a gift of peanut sweets and honey dates for her intended “bride”. If the gifts were accepted so too was the proposal and the women would go through a ceremony where contracts were signed. They took oaths before the shrines of the goddess Guan-yin saying that they would never marry a man. This deity has some transgender qualities, about which I’ll write later in the year.
No-one is sure where or when the Golden Orchid societies were first formed. Their existence is implied as being traditional in a book called “A Record of the Customs of China” by Hu Pu’an published in 1774.
In Chinese society during most of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) women had little power or influence in a heterosexual marriage. As in European marriages wives were the property of their husband and bound by duty to obey them. The existence of the Golden Orchid societies indicates a move towards female independence. There could be several reasons for this, but the one most frequently given is the change in the social status of women in the silk industry.
The majority of silk workers in China were women and as the industry expanded more women were employed. This gave more women an income that was not dependent on having a husband. Other developments within the Chinese economy also gave women more independence. The two-fold result was that women didn’t have to accept arranged marriages in order to acquire financial stability, and that some women, and lesbians (as we might recognise them in the West), were more likely to refuse to marry altogether.
When some women were compelled by their families to marry against their wishes they would refuse to have any sexual contact with the husband. Husbands would often be physically abusive to their defiant wives, and wives who defended themselves were deemed to be unmarriageable. Rather than return to their parents home these wives would live in groups. In this manner they became known as “self-combing women” or “comb sisters”, called “zishunu” in Chinese.
Young unmarried women in Chinese culture wore their hair in long plaits or braids. Upon marriage they would tied their hair in buns behind their head. It was a way in which possible male suitors could tell which women were “available” for marriage. The zishunu were women of marriageable age who defied the traditions of their culture by never tying their hair up. Those who chose to have a same-sex union with another zishunu were members of the Golden Orchid societies.
There were still some zishunu and Golden Orchid societies at the start of the 20th century. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 affected trade with the Far East, and the silk industry was one of the hardest hit. Many Golden Orchid members and zishunu moved to other eastern nations, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, to work as servants or nannies.
The old feudal system of China began to disintegrate in the 1930s and more women were able to become financially independent. They were no longer seen as rebels against society if they refused to marry. Gradually the Golden Orchid societies diminished. Eventually the Communist regime banned both practices.
There may still be some of the zishunu and Golden Orchid wives still alive today, there certainly was in 2014 when The Guardian newspaper interviewed a couple who were aged 85 and 90. It mentioned there were 8 others. All of them had lived in a building with the romantic name of the Hall of Ice and Jade in Jun’an, a town in Guangdong province. It’s last inhabitants moved out to live with nephews, nieces, or adopted daughters many years ago, but the walls of the Hall still display memorial plaques to past residents, because they were not allowed to be remembered on their family memorials.
Courtyard of the Hall of Ice and Jade, the museum of the “self-combing women” in Jun’an.
Here is a link to an article on the website of the British Journal of Photography about a photographer who produced an exhibition in 2019 of images about himself and his zishunu nanny. The exhibition and accompanying book were called “Combing For Ice and Jade”.