Lake in the clouds
On the banks of Lugu Lake, bordering the Chinese Provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan, lies the villages of the Mosuo people, an ancient ethnic group said to be the last matrilineal society in China. Some 40,000 Mosuo inhabit the region today, living in remote picturesque villages, 8860 feet above sea level. The nearest city is a six hour drive away and until just recently their customs and cultural practices remained unchanged for centuries.
In Mosuo culture, women are the dabu, or head of the household and family names are passed down through the mother’s line, rather than the fathers. The Mosuo are famous for the cultural practice of zouhun, or “walking marriage.” Traditionally, once women come of age, they are free to choose their own partners, having as many or few as they wish. Male lovers, known as axia, visit their partners home on invitation, and a hat is placed on her door to indicate to other men not to enter. Many of these “marriages” result in typical long-lasting relationships, with the difference being that the couple never live together — men and women live with their mothers and siblings rather than romantic partners. Any children resulting in the relationship are raised by the mother. Men contribute to the care and financial responsibility of their sisters’ children (nieces and nephews) rather than their own.
Matrons and Maidens
Buddhism and dog years; unlike a lot of neighboring cultures, the Mosuo believe in the idea of a “Mother Goddess” rather than a male warrior god. Their traditional Daba faith is also influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. Dogs are venerated in the community. A popular myth is that dogs once had a long lifespan, while humans lived only for 13 years. The dogs agreed to trade with the humans as long as humans promised to respect the dogs in return. I like this myth, even though not all humans have treated them well. People have been emptying the shelters and taking in displaced pets during crisis’ over the last few years. And China has declared dogs as pets, not food. It seems this is a big leap in being human.
Men still have power in Mosuo society, both politically and financially, but it is the woman who is head of the house and make decisions about family resources. Property and wealth are passed down through the mother upon death. This female autonomy made a lot of sense in the past, when men were frequently absent in “divorce” and traveling long distances in trade caravans to sell products. And as women are not dependent on their partner for income or social status, when the relationship has run its course, there is no shame in “divorce” and no arguments over money or property. However, with more outside influence, the younger Mosuo are becoming increasingly integrated with the Han Chinese (China’s largest ethnic group), with many choosing to forgo the “walking marriage” lifestyle in favor of a cohabitating marriage more common elsewhere.
Wow! I think they have figured out a way to harmonious livelihoods, where otherwise the male energy would tear it apart or jealousies among men and women. Of course, men are not “caravanning” anymore, but I am sure they have found fulfilling new careers as they are a thriving community. But I do believe, leaving the “money matters” within women’s control, will keep the harmony intact. I pray these young women come to realize how uniquely lucky they are; empowering women is what we are fighting for.
This insightful video by former Hong Kong University Professor Dr Chow Wah Shan offers an intriguing investigation into the matrilineal society of the Mosuo tribe, a remote people who live in a basin surrounded by high mountains in Southwestern China. It examines the way in which the tribe views sex, marriage and gender relations. The majority of Mosuo adults practice a sui generis visiting system called tisese (literally ‘walking back and forth’) which differs from marriage in that it is noncontractual, nonobligatory and nonexclusive. This unique institution fulfils people’s needs for both procreation and sexual gratification.