The Golden Orchid

“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter which group is most oppressed or whether they are identically oppressed, what matters is that no group be oppressed.”
– Keith Boykin

After a long stretch of Grace stepping up and saving the day by writing the articles, Laura is back and excited to talk about Golden Orchid Society. The Golden Orchid Society was a collection of organizations in South China that began during the Qing dynasty and existed from approximately 1644 to 1949 when they were banned because they were associated with an attempt to overthrow the Manchu Emperor. Over the course of 300 years, however, they created an order of women who stood in solidarity with other women against heterosexual marriages that were oppressive at best and far too often abusive. While some of the women may have been heterosexual and avoiding marriage for reasons unrelated to their sexuality, it was common for members of the association to be lesbians or bisexual. They found the safety and family in the Golden Orchid Society that their biological relatives had never provided them.

The culture of marriage in China before the existence of the Golden Orchid Society was not wildly different than many other cultures views on marriage. If a family had a cisgender daughter, their best option was to find a man to marry in the hope they could raise their station and profit from the marriage. A cisgender woman’s accomplishments were not considered important unless they were attracting a potential husband or helping the family. Once this woman was married, she was to do as her husband said and hopefully produce a son for him. For women who were attracted exclusively to other women, this was obviously not a tempting option. Many women, heterosexual or otherwise, were not pleased with the idea of marrying men they weren’t attracted to. This is not a radically different situation than the one most women faced in other cultures, so we do not mean to say that China was in any way behind anyone else, or more sexist. Women were treated terribly in the majority of the world at the time.

The Golden Orchid Society provided something, however, that many other cultures lacked: a solution to women’s marriage problem. The first option was to get married to another woman – shocking, we know. While these marriages were not always romantic or sexual, it was common for the women to be romantically and/or sexually attracted to each other, and this was not looked down upon. They had a similar courtship ritual as many heterosexual couples in China did at that time:

[Within the sisterhood], if two women have intentions towards each other, one of them would prepare peanut candy, dates and other goods as a gift to show her intent. If the other woman accepts the gift, she is now bound by honor to her suitor. If she refuses the gift, it is a rejection of the proposal. A contract-signing ceremony follows the acceptance. Those with the financial resources would invite their friends who come in droves to congratulate the couple and celebrate by drinking through the night. -Hu Pu'an "A Record of China's Customs: Guangdong."

That is not to say, though, that the practice was completely supported by society. It was still expected for women to marry men, and when they instead formed a union with another woman, it was seen as an act of rebellion. Often, despite a family’s disapproval of these same sex marriages, they were forced into accepting their daughter’s decision due to a practice in Golden Orchid Society where, when a woman was betrothed to a man without her consent, she was to reject any and all of his advances on the wedding night. 

If the men tried to force themselves on the women, the women often defended themselves physically, thus breaching the terms of the marriage contract. Brides who did this were generally sent home as rejected wives, which made them virtually unweddable – to men, that is. So when a woman proposed to the rejected wife, the families were often more open to the concept, as it would save them from the societal shame of having an unmarried daughter who had been rejected by her husband, and freed them from financial responsibility for her. The reason that these marriages could happen in the first place was because of the silk industry growing and giving women jobs. Two women could be financially independent, so many families found no reason to object, and accepted their new daughter-in-law happily.

While it was rebellious to choose to marry another woman, that didn’t mean society didn’t accept it or disallowed them to be families. In fact, it was completely acceptable for same sex couples to adopt and raise a daughter. Their children were allowed to inherit property, unlike who were the product of relationships outside of the Golden Orchid Society.

That is not to say, of course,  that the Golden Orchid associations were perfect. If a women broke the oath of marriage by engaging in a heterosexual relationship, she would be publicly shamed and often beaten. At the time in China, though it was accepted for transgender women to present as they wished, it was seen as a practice and not an identity. They were not considered women and were not included as members of the Golden Orchid Society. They did make another step towards progress, however, particularly progress that many queer communities struggle with today: progress towards the inclusion of aromantic and asexual individuals in the queer community.  

When women in China were married, they would have their hair combed differently to signal to society, and any men interested in courting them, that they were not available. While the terms we use now for asexual or aromantic did not exist yet, the Golden Orchid Society had a system set up for women who wanted to avoid both marriage options, and any romantic or sexual partnership, by introducing “self-combing women.” These women would comb their hair into a married woman’s style, and often had a ceremony to celebrate such a decision, similar to a marriage ceremony. For asexual women who were romantically attracted to other women, the marriages were often non-sexual – a decision that was supported by most of the Golden Orchid Society. Again, these associations were not perfect; if a woman, after making this oath, were to engage in a sexual or romantic partnership, she would face the same consequence that women married to other women would have if they had a relationship with a man.

Despite its flaws, the societal existence of the Golden Orchid Society was incredibly progressive for its time, not to mention for ours.

The queer community, as it stands, still has a lot of growing to do. Cisgender, white, gay men are regularly seen as the face of our movement.  Women who are romantically or sexually attracted to women have often pushed aside, as is much of the trans community, but it is these communities, too, we find parts that respond aggressively to the even less well-known communities of aromantics and asexuals. 

There is a history of these two marginalized groups accepting each other, yet modernity sees them being driven apart by internalized biases. It seems that we have to look at the past to see what we need to be doing in our future. A society that grew into the purpose of protecting women learned that it must protect more than one group of women. Today, as we see feminism ignore the struggles of queer women, and the queer community ignore the struggles of the asexual and aromantic community, there is much we can learn from the Golden Orchid Society’s growth. There is much we can learn from history. Usually, when we say that, we mean we can learn from the mistakes of our past. In this case, however, we must learn from its successes.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

Cultural China. The Tradition of Female-Female Unions. Retrieved September 23 2016 from
http://traditions.cultural-china.com/en/214T11933T14609.html

Women’s History. (2016, October 1.) The Pro-Woman Line. Retrieved September 23 2016 from
http://lesbianlife.about.com/od/herstory/a/Golden-Orchid-Society.htm

Thorp, B and Bullock, P. (2012, February 5.) Lesbian Mothers of The Golden Orchid Society.

Retrieved September 23 2016 from http://www.towleroad.com/2012/02/lesbian-mothers-of-the-golden-orchid-society/

Wikipedia. Transgender in China. Retrieved September 23 2016 from
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender_in_China