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The Mosuo

A matrilocal and matrilineal people in China

Mosuo women don’t marry

They live independently of the men in their family clan. At the age of about thirteen they are declared a woman at a big celebration of initiation and are given their own room in their grandmother’s house: the so-called flower room. There they first meet up with their girlfriends, and when the time is ripe, also their lovers. The Mosou men only visit the women at night and return to their own mother clans in the morning.

“In our culture, the grandmother is in charge. She is the head of the family.”

The air is brisk up here at 2,700 meters above sea level. Our breath also falters at the beauty of Lugu Lake spreading out before us, huge and peaceful between the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in southwestern China. An eight-hour drive over uneven dirt roads riddled with large potholes lies behind us since starting off from Lijiang Provincial Airport. Around Lugu Lake and in the mountains behind it, in the foothills of the Himalayas, live the Mosuo, a Tibetan-Burmese ethnic group consisting of about 40,000 people.

It is women who have the say among the Mosuo. They live in a matriarchal social structure. This is determined by the principles of matrilinearity, matrilocality, a distribution economy, consensus orientation and the privileged status of women. The Mosuo have their own language and religion, Dabaism, which they practice alongside Buddhism.

Welcome to the land of women

We are invited by several families to their clan dwellings, imposing square farmsteads that make up small villages around the lake. In the large courtyards, they work, play and gather the harvest, each following an invisible order that seems uninterrupted by our presence. The head of the clan is the grandmother—called Ah mi—around whom all the children and grandchildren cluster, including their brothers. The Ah mi collects and administers all of the clan’s income and owns the entire estate and land that she runs, a possession that she passes on to her daughters when the time comes.

Unequal division of labor

The sons are left empty-handed, a fact they don’t object to, given that they are provided for throughout their entire lives at their mother’s house. Mosuo men lead a less responsibility-oriented life than the hard-working women, leaving ample time for playing cards and chatting. However, the men do help the women of the mother clan out. The Mosuo are self-sufficient, living as farmers in a cycle with nature. They live off the exchange and sale of their harvest and colorful woven goods. They grow maize, rice, potatoes and vegetables, work that is mainly the responsibility of the women. By contrast, working with machinery, fishing and slaughtering the chickens and pigs is men‘s work. Pigs and their fat are an ever present element of the home and the farm: an important ingredient for food and the welcome drink that is served to us wherever we go, as well as for the rituals performed in honor of their ancestors and the gods.

We are led into the grandmother’s remarkably large room, the most important room of the house, where cooking is done over an open fire. All of the members of the family gather here for every meal. The Mosuo family is a very special construct: men and women alike stay in the house of their own clan for the rest of their lives. The typical relationship as a couple that we’re familiar with is not practiced, as the Mosuo conduct what is known as “visiting marriages”, in which the men only come to visit after dark and return to their own clan before sunrise. No obligations arise from these connections, not even towards the children who are collectively cared for in the mother clan. The role of the father is traditionally taken on by the uncle, who is the second strongest voice of the clan after Ah mi.

Inspired by ancestors and the simple life

In the dark, smoky room I am offered the place of honor to the left of the fire. The Ah mi sits to the right of it. A ritual welcome drink (a tea made of herbs and pork fat that takes us some getting used to) is served, both to those present and to the deceased, who are always present for the Mosuo. The women talk quite openly about the advantages of their way of life: how they solve problems by consensus and how they are there for each other as a collective. There are limits to their openness, however. When it gets too private, they tend to keep a low profile.

When darkness falls, everyone retreats into their rooms. Via a narrow, steep wooden staircase we reach the small flower room that is designated for us. At the first light of dawn I venture out into the village with my camera. A rooster crows, and everything is bathed in mystical light as here and there men step out of their lover’s houses to return to their everyday lives with their mother clan.

The matriarchal Mosuo way of life is a true rarity and unique in today’s world. How much longer this cultural form will last, however, is uncertain. Influenced by modern communications media, more and more young people are drawn to cities and to a modern lifestyle. Some Ah mi told us with sad certainty that they would be one of the last “strong grandmothers” and that the culture of the Mosuo would disappear with the Ah mi.

Behind the scenes

maria haas - projects - The Mosuo