As far as Americans are concerned, the Mosuo can represent an intoxicating fantasy.
Spread across less than a hundred villages along the mountainous China-Tibet border in Yunnan province, the Mosuo are widely painted as a culture in which women rule and free love is the norm: girl power mixed with the dreaminess of an alternate universe. In the popular imagination, Mosuo men are kept around only to contribute sperm; women are free to take as many lovers as they like, and children rarely know their fathers.
According to the many young Mosuo women and men we met in Yunnan province, this narrative is full of inaccuracies — and yet it has captured the public imagination both inside and outside China, fueling a tourism boom that has lifted the Mosuo out of rural poverty along with a lot of mixed feelings.
Economic development has brought indoor plumbing, more sturdy homes, pocket money for small luxuries and more. But the onslaught of attention and money from the outside world may also be contributing to the end of their most famous (and misunderstood) traditions: a matrilineal family structure that privileges the female bloodline; and informal “walking marriages” in which romantic partners live apart.
“Some of our traditions are changing,” said one Mosuo woman, Si Ge Ma, 32, who is married in the Western sense of the word. “Our elders are always telling us that it’s urgent for us to preserve our culture, to teach these practices to our children.”
To the outside world, these traditions have often been judged the most precious of the Mosuo’s cultural practices. Mosuo songs, dances and costumes have been packaged for consumption like so many minority cultures in rural areas. But on the winding drive to Lugu Lake, a rural area about 130 miles north of Lijiang where many of the traditional villages are located, through dusty mountains draped in nets to prevent landslides, our guide played a steady stream of modern Mosuo pop songs. An evolving Mosuo culture exists alongside the traditional Mosuo culture performed for tourists.
According to official history, the Mosuo have practiced their way of life for 2,000 years; anthropologists say a few hundred is more likely. At an estimated population of 40,000, the community is so small that it isn’t even eligible for official “minority” status.
The Mosuo’s way of life is certainly different from the family structures we’re used to. Like most of the cultures that appear on Internet lists of existing or past matriarchies, the Mosuo are actually “matrilineal” in structure. Matrilineal societies structure the home around female family members: property and the family name are passed from mother to daughter; male romantic partners remain part of their own families, under their mother’s name. While this structure is undeniably more beneficial for women than the patriarchal family structure, it’s also not the matriarchal utopia envisioned by the outside world.
“A matriarchal society would be one in which women are in power over men, and where everything is the converse of a patriarchal society,” said Furman University anthropologist Tami Blumenfield, who specializes in Chinese minority cultures. “We simply don’t see that anywhere. The closest we get are societies where men and women’s relative status and roles are more respected.”
The Mosuo family structure depends on the tradition of “walking marriage”: When a couple has children, the father continues to live with his own mother and siblings, “walking” back and forth between his partner and children’s home; and his own. This romantic partnership has not traditionally been bound by law.
“In the walking marriage, you don’t tangle daily life and responsibilities with the person you love,” said Ze Ma Zhuo Ma, 32, a Mosuo shopkeeper. “Instead, you just meet at night and enjoy spending quality time together, either the two of you or with your children.”
In the household where a man’s children and partner reside, he has little power. It’s not his home, after all. But in his own household, where his mother and sisters live, adult male and female siblings share equal status; Mosuo men often serve as father figures to their nieces and nephews. The grandmother is the official head of the family in name, but does not necessarily have the last word in family disputes.
Mosuo men are responsible for contributing to the finances of their mother’s household, but less so in their partner’s home. Contrary to popular stereotypes in China that depict Mosuo men as lazy and underemployed, they work in farming, construction, or increasingly tourism-related industries.
Although there are individuals that do practice the polyamorous fantasy envisioned by outsiders, the reality is that most walking marriages are monogamous and aim for longevity. The revolutionary difference is that the Mosuo family structure does not depend on the stability of marital bonds — like it would, say, in an American household. If a couple breaks up, the man simply doesn’t visit his partner’s home anymore. Whether he sustains a relationship with his children is specific to the individual context. In any case, the original family structure remains intact.
This has contributed to a widespread misconception that Mosuo women and men are free to sleep with as many people as they like; that Mosuo children are essentially fatherless. As the Mosuo homelands have become a tourist destination, non-Mosuo tour guides and the Mosuo themselves have occasionally exploited these misunderstandings in favor of a great story.
“Mosuo people have the choice to fight a constant and losing battle against the media portrayals and misinformation, or give in and simply let people hear what they want,” explained Blumenfield. “Everyone makes different decisions, often depending on the situation.”
The women we met at Lugu Lake were usually seeking walking marriage. But in the city of Lijiang, where hundreds of young Mosuo work to send income home to large families, many young Mosuo women we spoke with were married or hoping to someday marry in the Western sense of the word. In some cases, this choice had been made in defiance of their more traditional elders, who view marriage as forfeiting their daughters to another family. For these women, an official marriage in which they live with their partner promises more quality time and emotional intimacy; and a closer bond between children and their fathers.
“In [Western or Han Chinese-style] marriage, a father and his children are closer,” said Du Zhi Zhuo Ma, another married Mosuo woman who lives with her partner and family in Lijiang. “I have two daughters, and their relationship with their father makes me feel safe.”
More practically, marriage papers also smooth bureaucratic headaches, as the government increasingly requires registration in order for children to receive the “hukou” papers necessary to attend school, open bank accounts and more. For these reasons, registration is now common among walking marriages as well.
Still, many young Mosuo still opt for the traditional ways citing a lack of security in the family structure practiced by the outside world; others mention fewer arguments in the Mosuo family structure, and the benefits of separating romance from daily drudgery. Many described happy childhoods in Mosuo homes as reason enough to preserve the walking marriage.
Americans have always found a way to project their dreams onto other cultures; the reality of Mosuo culture is a lot less exotic than we imagine. Though their family structures are different, their romantic relationships are similar to our own, and both women and men make decisions in the home. But at a time when Western women are marching for their rights; when media coverage has shed long-overdue light on the various horrors women face in the workplace, from sexual harassment to the pay gap; and egalitarian marriages can still somehow feel out of reach — isn’t it natural that we might be drawn to the escapist fantasy of a matriarchal society?
The Mosuo are decidedly more female-centric than the 92% ethnic majority Han Chinese living around them, or in Euro-American societies, professor Blumenfield said. But ultimately it’s only the extreme gender imbalances of other cultures that make the equal standing of Mosuo women appear so unique, she said.
Mosuo women share a strong sense of identity, shaped no doubt in large part by a community that treats them as equals. The women are fiercely protective of their heritage, and quick to brag about their “strong” and “capable” female family members and friends.
“Mosuo women don’t require help and they don’t take it,” Si Ge Ma told us, a sentiment we heard repeated across multiple interviews. “If a Han woman needs something, it’s often expected that she’ll depend on a man for help. If a Mosuo woman needs something done, she’ll get it done so fast the men around her will feel like they never even had a chance to help.”
For modern Mosuo women and men, their more famous traditions feel far less vital than the essential hardiness and kindness that tightly bonds their community, the respect for elders and the unwritten language they share.
At Lugu Lake and in Lijiang, we encountered Mosuo women who had never gone to school; others had graduated from college, and now worked in pharmacies, supported tourism, or owned their own shops.
They revered the women who had raised them in big, loving, chaotic homes, even as they planned futures of a wholly different shape. Some were stylish. All were deeply modern.