Are you a man and your ambition is to marry a beautify girl from China’s Mosuo ethnic community and walk away with her? Or would you wish to sire a child with her and not only own but be responsible to bring it up? Just forget it.
The tiny community of around 53,700 people has since time immemorial refused to be “polluted” by so-called civilisation and modernity, where the head of the family is mainly the man.
Unlike the rest of China and many parts of the world where the man is the head of the family (the patriarchal system), and is expected to be the breadwinner, with the Mosuo community, the woman is the head of the family and her daughter second in command. It does not matter if her father is around. And children are named only after the mother’s family.
The man’s major role seems only to sire the woman’s child. After that, the woman owns and brings up the baby, and will never leave her mother’s home. Instead, it is her man who should be visiting her. And they must strictly be night visits.
In fact, with the Mosuo community, it is the women who call the shots, including dating and dictating relationship terms. The girl would make it clear right out to her suitor that she wants a come-we-stay relationship, and if they get a child, she will own it and take sole responsibility of raising it.
And if the woman finds that the relationship is not going anywhere, she would ask the boyfriend to leave so she could move on and fetch another “promising” man. However, the boyfriend, too, has the right to end the relationship and move on to a new partner, who, too, would read him the same relationship act.
In fact, girls look forward to growing out of puberty so they could enjoy the fruits of adulthood and start to bring men home just as their mothers do. It is not uncommon to hear a Mosuo girl saying proudly: ‘My mother has now allowed me to have a man and start spending nights with him at my home.’
Occupying an area of nearly 60 sq km in Lugu Lake area in an out-of-the-way mountainous area of Southwest China, the Mosuo, known as the ‘Kingdom of Women’, is the only tribe in China that remains a matriarchal society (where the woman is the head of the family).
Unlike the other ethnic groups which follow a strong patrilineal tradition, (where the ancestral roots are traced through the paternal family lineage), the Mosuo people have preserved their ancient matriarchal system (where the ancestral roots are traced through the matriarchal lineage).
Mosuo still practise the time-honoured tradition of “walking marriage”, meaning walking back and forth. The community allows a girl, who is beyond puberty, to host and spend nights with a man at her mother’s house, though in a separate room or the “flower house.’’ In deed, it is like letting the man do the “walking.” She can “own” and cohabit with many men as possible though separately.
In this live-apart “marriage” arrangement, wives and husbands live separately. The “husband” can only visit his “wife” at night and must leave at dawn. If during such “walking marriages” the girl conceives, the mother’s family raises the child. The man’s key role seems to have ended with the birth of the child. However, he has right to access the child, he cannot claim fatherhood and take it away.
The Mosuo tribe has a unique culture whose language has no words for “marriage” or “husband.” Their culture revolves around women: the women make all the important decisions, control the family’s resources, and pass their surnames onto their offsprings.
Rather than marry, a Mosuo woman takes many lovers during her lifetime, and the resulting children will always live with her. While the Mosuo language has a word for “mother”, there is no word for “father” and Mosuo children refer to all older men, including their biological fathers, as “uncles”.
Although “walking marriage” remains strong in the Mosuo community, the custom is fading slowly, since China started, more than 30 years ago, pursuing an economic reform for the community and opened the area to the outside world.
The community is gradually becoming a major destination for local and international tourists, who are not only lured by its unique lifestyle but the area’s scenic beauty. Statistics that are still being gathered indicate that the Mosuo tribe attracts hundreds and thousands of tourists annually.
However, the tourist influx has given the Mosuo people — who have historically existed on fishing, farming and animal breeding — the chance to see what’s what in the outside world. The move has since created a new and welcome source of income, inspiring young Mosuo people to migrate to urban areas in search of new opportunities.
For better or worse, the unique world of the Mosuo people is changing. However, older Mosuo women prefer the olden days before the outsiders came with what the locals refer to as “strange clothing and strange ideas.”
Many young women say change is inevitable. In fact, most speak openly about getting married — a concept their grandmothers still do not understand, let alone entertain it.
In Luoshui Village of the Ninglang Yi Autonomous County of Lijiang, Yunnan Province, only 60 percent of the people now participate in walking marriages, compared with 70 percent in the late 20th century. Of the remaining 40 per cent, half cohabit and half marry formally.
“Poverty is the main driving force. As young people migrated to cities for jobs, cohabitation and marriage cut their living costs. It’s strange but true that in villages where people are richer, the tradition is often relatively better preserved,” says Weng Jici Erqing from Ninglang Yi Autonomous County of Yunnan.
Erqing and his friend Ruheng Ciren Duoji opened in 2001 a Mosuo museum at Luoshui village by Lugu Lake, which is the only museum showing matriarchal society.
Erqing says much of the customs are being assimilated. For instance, monogamy has been brought into their marriage style and most Mosuo people — who go to school or work in cities — chose monogamy rather than the “walking marriage.”
“As people here get rich, tradition begins to clash with modern civilization. Lifestyles change. ‘Walking marriage’ still dominates, but other traditions are ignored,” says Erqing.
“When we were kids, young people, riding horses, had to dismount and stand aside to let senior citizens walk by first. Now young people whiz past on bikes or in cars, they don’t bother to stop,” he says.
Like anything in the world, Mosuo culture evolves slowly but constantly. As tourists swarm in Mosuo’s habitat to see their exotic lifestyle, the Mosuo people could only wonder how long their matrilineal culture will survive in a fast changing China and the world.