Cultural Heritage in the 21st Century: Who are the Mosuo?

Nestled in the mountains around Lake Lugu, between the border of China’s Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces, lives an ethnic minority called the Mosuo (摩梭, mósuō). Though the Chinese government considers them part of a larger group, the Naxi, the Mosuo are distinct in their culture, traditions, and religion, which is a mix of Tibetan Buddhism and their own faith, Daba. Like Mandarin Chinese, the Mosuo language, itself a dialect of the Naxi language, belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family. An estimated 40,000 people live in Mosuo villages today.

So why have the Mosuo caught the attention of Chinese tourists and foreigners alike?

The answer is the Mosuo’s (mostly) matriarchal society, distinguished by the practice of “walking marriage,” or 走婚 (zǒuhūn). The Mosuo do not marry. Instead, if interested in a man, a woman will leave her door open at night for him to come in. The two will spend the night together, and the man will leave the next morning. A Mosuo woman is free to have as many partners as she wishes, though most Mosuo women find a long term companion for some extended amount of time. However, this does not mean they are bound to the men. Women are free to change partners as they wish.

“Walking marriages” are based on free love, that a woman has the right to choose her sexual partners for herself as she wishes.

Raising Children

When a child is born to a Mosuo mother, he or she belongs to the mother’s family. There is no role of a father as in traditional Han Chinese society. Instead, the brothers and sisters of the mother raise the children. Mosuo children grow up with many uncles to play with. However, the women’s being in-charge is by no means a free pass to the Mosuo men. While most children know their own biological father, he is expected to raise the children of his own sister. Multiple generations live under one roof in what is called “the grand household.” Some anthropologists believe that the mere fact that a child never needed to leave his or her home after growing up allowed the status of men and women to be more equal, as women were never seen as the objects of men to be “acquired.” In addition, Mosuo women are the primary holders of property, and female deities are seen as more holy than their male counterparts in the Mosuo religion.

Differing from the “Norm”

Though human rights campaigns and the feminist movement have made huge strides in the last two centuries, the majority of history has seen women subordinated, in nearly every sense, to men. Traditional cultures have largely been patriarchal in structure, which is why the Mosuo, whose exact origins are unknown, fascinate the world. While Han women were bargained away for money and wealth in arranged marriages for centuries in ancient China, Mosuo women had control of their own fates. Their thoughts on love were respected for hundreds of years as the Mosuo, except when trading, rarely left their communities. Some anthropologists hypothesize that the origin of “walking marriage” and women’s high status in Mosuo society actually lies in the fact that Mosuo men were traders and often left the villages for extended amounts of time. Out of necessity, women needed to be strong to work the fields and run the household for themselves.

Abuse of Culture

The Mosuo way of life, like those of all the world’s indigenous peoples, is in danger. The Mosuo understood this with the victory of China’s Communist Party in 1949. In 1956, the Mosuo’s “chieftain” system of government was abolished when the government demanded that sexual partners must marry and live under one roof. The communists — who believed men and women to be equals — threatened the Mosuo way of life, but the efforts to change the minority’s practices ceased in 1976 with Mao’s passing and the end of the Cultural Revolution.

However, the Mosuo culture still faces threats. Every year, hundred of tourists, usually Han Chinese, come to visit the Mosuo villages. Some come out of curiosity, while others, men and women alike, come searching for both the love and lust that elude them in China’s eastern cities. In a PBS Frontline documentary titled The Women’s Kingdom, Zhang Fang, a Han Chinese tourist, explains why she came to see the Mosuo people. She says, “we Han people have trouble expressing our love, but Mosuo people are really open and direct. If they like you, they’ll drink with you, dance with you, and tell you they want to try walking marriage with you. I like that, so direct!”

At the same time, many tourists take advantage of the Mosuo’s customs. Outsiders may even treat the Mosuo women as prostitutes, or open brothels near Mosuo communities to misuse the concept of walking marriage for profit.

Cha Cuo, a young, free spirited Mosuo woman, tells the story of her encounter with a tourist when he asked to sleep with her: “I said walking marriage is based on love, but he said it’s not a problem because he could pay. He asked me how much I’d charge. I got so angry I slapped him in the face.”

Cha Cuo’s experience highlights the difficulties of balancing old ways of life with the interaction across peoples and cultures that has come with the modern world. She explains, “tourism improves our living standard, but I still don’t like it very much. I want to be what I used to be. I feel like I’ve changed. I dream too much of having back the life I had before. So somehow I feel life is hard to live now. I’d rather hide myself on a mountain, eating a potato or herding cows, than entertain the tourists.”

The Big Picture

Indigenous cultures often face marginalization when meeting industrialized societies. Cross-cultural dialogue and education are paramount if concerned members of both communities wish to find the best outcome for the future — one that will expand minority communities’ opportunities for success, while at the same time preserving the best of their unique heritage. Of course all peoples and societies have positives and negatives. The Mosuo are not to be put on a pedestal, but rather to be seen as — to paraphrase Raphael Lemkin, the inventor of the word genocide — people of value both to themselves and to humanity.

One misconception about the Mosuo women is that they are promiscuous, that because of “walking marriage” they will sleep with anyone. This is false. As mentioned before, this tradition of the Mosuo is based on genuine, free love.

China is a beautifully diverse country enriched by over 56 official ethnic groups. There are so many stories to be told in these communities, so many faces to meet.

Heritage & Language

One of the best ways to preserve heritage is through language. Though the Mosuo culture is entirely oral, there is now a movement to invent a writing system for the minority group. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “‘appropriate language education’ is fundamental to enable learners to benefit from quality education, learn throughout life, and have access to information. This is possible if there is an approach to language education that promotes the use of at least three languages: one of which should be a mother tongue or first language.”*

For the Mosuo, time will only tell how they will maintain their identity as one of the world’s few matriarchal societies. Hopefully, conscientious global citizens inside and outside of China––but most importantly within the Mosuo community––may play a role in the Mosuo’s preservation of culture and development. For more information about the Mosuo people, culture, and heritage projects, please visit the Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association’s website.

*For readers interested in learning more about how language and heritage interact, there is a wonderful book by Nicholas Evans called Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us that gives a well written overview not only of the astounding linguistic diversity of the world’s languages, but also of why it should be of importance to us.