Mosuo, the last (almost) matriarchal tribe

Mosuo TribeShot by the photographer Luca Locatelli. Visit the whole gallery at lucalocatelli.com.

I heard about the Mosuo bits and pieces at a time talking to anthropologists and backpackers. They are a Chinese ethnic minority living around Lugu Lake, on the border between Yunnan and Sichuan province. I had the idea that they were a matriarchal tribe and I believed men among them were reduced to sex objects. Mosuo men didn’t even have to work!

“Maybe I could move there,” I admit I thought sometimes…

After a short trip to the homeland of Mosuo, the colors, the music, the flavors of Lugu lake and the story of the playboy Zhaxi made me even more curious to know more about this world.

So I did some research on the Internet that I would like to share with you.

A matriarchal tribe?

Even if women make strategic decisions, inherit the family’s goods and handle business, the men still hold the political power. Hence we cannot talk about matriarchy.

Sometimes Mosuo are described as a matrilineal tribe, but also this definition is too narrow as adoption is quite common within the tribe and adopted daughters may become matriarchs themselves, interrupting the matrilineal line.

Trailer of “Kingdom of women,” a documentary about Mosuo people.

Promiscuity?

The legend of Mosuo’s promiscuity originates from the practice of Axia, local word translated in Chinese as “walking marriage” (走婚, zouhun). However the translation is inaccurate: Axia is a much more deep concept and summarizes the terms of Mosuo sexual relationships.

They usually live in extended families (grandfathers, great grandfathers, parents, sons, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, cats and so on). The house is made up of common rooms and only the post-pubescent girls who have participated in the coming of age ceremony (during which the girls “become” women and are allowed to wear a skirt) have the right to a private room where they can host one or more lovers.

A man can visit his lover only at night. He must enter from the window and leave the house, always through the window, before the sunrise.

To interrupt a relationship, a girl only needs to close the window. The guy will understand.

In the Mosuo culture marriage doesn’t exist, couples are not tied by any kind of economic relationship, the children are raised by the family of the mother and inherit her family name. Also, the father has no right to be introduced to his son before the ceremony during which the child “becomes” a man.

Having several lovers and children from different men is acceptable in Mosuo society. However most of girls choose to undertake monogamous relationships.

Thus the legend that paints Mosuo women as nymphomaniacs, often fueled by tour operators that want to promote the sexual tourism along the Lugu Lake coasts, is far from the reality. Conversely, it seems that the prostitutes you can find here are often girls from South East Asia dressed with traditional Mosuo clothes.

mosuo yunnanMosuo children at school (Photo credits: Ma Yu Mlx).

Men don’t need to work…

The last urban legend tells that Mosuo men don’t need to work, they rest all day and keep their energy for the night visits to their lovers. The reality is that men deal with do the fishing, farming, slaughter and preservation of the meat for the winter.

Also, even if the children live with their mother, men are not free from responsibility. They live with their own sisters and nephews and have to take care of them.

This family structure is much more robust than the one we are used to. Divorces do not exist, the custody of children is never a problem (they always belong to the family of the mother), and there are no controversies for the inheritance as goods are not shared during relationships.

External influences

Mosuo are often associated with Lugu Lake, a natural lake at the border between Yunnan and Sichuan province. However the biggest town close to the lake, Luoshui, has been transformed by tourism. If you want to know the authentic Mosuo culture today you need to reach the mountains of Yongning, where there is the biggest Mosuo Tibetan monastery.

mosuo projectA Mosuo smile (Photo Credits: www.mosuoproject.com.)

If you want to know more

Books

Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World by Christine Mathieu and Yang Erche Namu, is the biography of Yang Erche Namu, a Mosuo girl that, at end of the sixties, leaves the countryside for the big town.

Photo gallery

Leaving the mother Lake by Luca Locatelli.

Documentary

Kingdom of women by Silk Rain Media.

Websites

www.mosuoproject.org

www.chinaculture.org

www.wikipedia.org

Comments

    • says

      Hey Niel,

      I started to learn about Chinese minority ethnic groups in Beijing, as the best restaurants in my neighborhood were all from Yunnan, Gansu and Xinjiang… I love Xinjiang food hehe

      Now I would like to visit to Xishuanbanna (South of Yunnan)

  1. says

    Great article Furio, I’d always wondered about this tribe and their actual traditions.

    They seem to have an almost perfect set up. The woman chooses men based on attraction and not material benefits as her brother within the family will ensure the children have food and clothing as you pointed out.

    The only potential flaw I can see is if the woman has no brothers. Now that could be a problem. Any idea what happens if the family has no son yet many daughters? How are the children provided for then?

    As to the climbing in and out of windows in the dead of night to see the woman, I remember doing the same thing when I was 17 years old, only I had to leave before dawn not because of tradition, but because her father would have killed me.

    • says

      Hey Sam, thank you!

      About your question, this is actually an interesting point I forgot to insert in the article (gonna do it ASAP).

      Adoptions are so common among Mosuo families because they use them as a way to balance the number of males and females in each family. Thus if in your family there are too many female you would adopt a male and vice versa.

      So, while in most of Chinese countryside – not only in China of course – people prefer to have a son (and as a result of the one child policy people used to kill their daughters and today we have that 55% of Chinese population is composed by male), between Mosuo infanticide is not an issue as sons and daughters have the same “importance” (I should also add that minority people are allowed to have more than a child anyway).

      • Sam Reeves says

        Ya, they can have as many children as they like. Interesting. Is there no dating at all?

        It’s all jumping in and out of windows? Wow… it seems perfect. I’m guessing everyone knows what’s going to happen when the windows open. I guess high rise apartments are out for them….

        …or ladders would become the number one possession of every man.

    • furio says

      Hey Christine,

      I only spent three nights there. And yeah you can visit Lugu Lake! Actually I feel the problem is the opposite.

      They are pushing hard on attract tourism and they are building an airport. Right now you need seven hours by car from Lijiang in order to reach the Lake. And the street is a nightmare (see the previous post for the story).

      However with an airport I can already see thousands and thousands of tourists arriving from Beijing and Shanghai…

      I hope I can go back to the lake before this happens hehe

  2. andre says

    Great blog Furio. It was very interesting know the Mosuo’s legends. Now I’m wondering what kind of flight I’d choice for go in China. Can you suggest me an economic line?

    • Furio says

      Yes I can.

      However it depends on several factors:

      1) Are you going for holiday and want a return ticket or are you moving to China and want a one way ticket?

      2) When you want to leave?

      3) Where are you and where you want to land (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong…)

      4) Are you willing to do 2-3 stops or you want a direct flight?

      Depending on these factors you may get better price with different companies ; )

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *