Women In Charge: The Curious World of China’s Mosuo Society

You have stumbled upon a culture where women are the leaders and there is no marriage. Here, uncles, rather than biological fathers, take the role of “father.” This is a place where women finally hold all the cards.

Mosuo12
It might sound like something out of a poorly written fantasy novel. Yet, not only does this culture exist, I actually had the opportunity to live there for three weeks in 2004. It was a tiny mountainside village, high in the Himalayas.

Back in 2001, I happened to hear about a particularly fascinating Chinese ethnic minority group. The Mosuo are a matriarchal culture where women are the head of the family, making decisions about property, etc. I was really curious to go and learn about them, but wanted to do more than just a two or three day trip.

Then, in June of 2004, I had a big client suddenly cancel at the last minute, leaving me with almost a month of entirely unscheduled time.

An impromptu holiday.

Within eight hours of getting the news, I was on a train to Lijiang, in Yunnan province. Goal: Lugu Lake, the main tourist center for the Mosuo. I had no idea where I was going to stay or what I was going to do. I just went.

On the train to Lijiang, I struck up conversations, telling of my plans and asking for advice. When I arrived in Lijiang, some of the people from the train helped me book a bus ticket to Lugu Lake.

Some of the people on the bus were Mosuo, and one of them came from a small village up in the mountains, quite separate from the tourist area. He now lived at Lugu Lake, but offered to take me to his village and introduce me to his family. By that evening, I was settling into his family’s home in a village called Walabi.

With no women around, I asked them how they felt about women being in charge. One of the men laughed and explained what seemed obvious to him: “Women have the brains, so a woman’s work uses brains. Men have muscles, so a man’s work uses muscles.”

Picture this: nestled in a small valley surrounded by Himalayan peaks on all sides is a village, with a single dirt road that’s home to a total of maybe 30 families. Electricity came only a few years ago, and they still use it sparingly. Nighttime is pitch black, but gives an incredible view of the stars. They still don’t have any kind of plumbing or running water, so bathing is done in a nearby natural hot spring (which has options for men and women to bathe separately, or together).

Their distinctive homes are four sided, with a central, open courtyard. One side generally has stables to keep the animals during the night. Another is the main social area, where everyone cooks, eats and socializes. The remaining areas are for storage and sleeping. Only the women get private rooms. The men sleep together in communal sleeping areas (as a guest, I got my own room). 1

1 The Mosuo practice a system they call ‘walking marriage’, which is essentially a form of serial monogamy. While in a relationship, they are generally expected to be monogamous, but with no expectation of a lifelong commitment. So long as they are happy together, they will remain a couple. If one or both is no longer happy in the relationship, they will break up, and find new partners.

And women are the ones who hold the power in these relationships. Since only women have private rooms to invite the men back to, the men really are dependent on finding a woman who agrees to be their girlfriend, and invite them to spend the night in her room.

The first several days were simply focused on getting acquainted and starting to learn the rules of the society. For example, women were supposed to sit on one side of the room, and men on another. There was some laughter when I sat on the wrong side of the room.

The people, themselves, are generally quite tall and strong, and love to dress in bright colors.

Mosuo8

The Mosuo diet relies heavily on fatty meats, potatoes and very little rice. One of the foods I found particularly impressive was their “seven-year pork.” This was an entire pig’s carcass prepared and preserved so that it could be kept without spoiling, while remaining in unrefrigerated, open air for seven years. Every day, they’d cut off a hunk of meat to boil or fry. They told me that the pork we were eating was about two years old.

There were also some foods that I couldn’t enjoy. Despite multiple sincere efforts to develop a taste for it, every time I drank yak butter tea, I felt nauseous. This elicited both laughter and debate within the household. Several children protested that they also didn’t like the beverage and felt it was unfair that they were forced to drink it, but I was not. 

2 In Mosuo culture, children are considered to not have souls; they don’t get a soul until they reach puberty and go through a coming of age ritual. Because of this, children are barred from involvement in any kind of religious activity, which curiously includes cooking. Cooking is always done over an open fire that is below an altar, and a small portion of everything cooked is always thrown into the fire as an offering. This makes it a religious activity, and thus children are barred from taking part.

As the days progressed, I made more friends and they started including me in more of their activities. In the morning, I would help them to get all the livestock out of the house and escort them to wherever they were supposed to go. Dutifully, a line of horses, cows, ducks, chickens and others would all follow each other in an orderly path out of the house in the morning and do the same thing again at night. It was quite impressive.

Before I went to visit the Mosuo, I had this rather naive idea that men in a matriarchal culture would be somewhat emasculated or effeminate, but in fact, Mosuo men are the “cowboys of the Himalayas.” I was curious on how to resolve this apparent dichotomy, and their answer was quite revealing.

Mosuo10

One day, I was with a group of men who were building a house. With no women around, I asked them how they felt about women being in charge. One of the men laughed and explained what seemed obvious to him: “Women have the brains, so a woman’s work uses brains. Men have muscles, so a man’s work uses muscles.”

In my subsequent interactions with the Mosuo over the years, I’ve come to recognize how this perception shapes their culture, particularly in regard to education. In most cultures, things like mathematics and physics have traditionally been the domain of men. In Mosuo culture, it is the opposite. Those things require brains, which means it is women’s work.

I was lucky enough to be there during a major religious festival when several nearby villages all gathered together in a central valley for a day of drinking, feasting and games. First, there was the long trek over a mountain to get there, while being forced to drink the local wine at every stop. Let me assure you, being drunk and climbing over 3,500 meters’ elevation is not a recommended activity, particularly for those not already acclimated to the altitude. Still, it was worth it.

I participated in a wide variety of their games: a kind of bowling where they would place six sticks upright in the ground and try to knock them over with stones; another game where one person stands guard over eight stones, while others try to grab them away without being touched; a very confusing game, similar to Duck, Duck, Goose, but with far more complex rules.

It was all going great and then, inadvertently, I ruined the entire day. I knew I would be traveling in the mountains with no access to banks, so I had taken a fairly sizable chunk of cash with me. I had kept it securely in a money belt, but during the games, I took it off and left it on the ground, assuming it was safe. 3 

3 Theft is a major taboo in the Mosuo culture. It is considered a point of honor that no doors have locks, money is kept in an unlocked communal box, etc. Even minor theft is treated very seriously, and theft from a guest is too terrible for them to even consider.

When I got back, I discovered that the money was gone. Now, for me, the money wasn’t so important, but it left me almost cashless and more than a day away from the nearest bank. Reluctantly, I talked with one of the men in the family hosting me.

The man I told grabbed a pair of meat cleavers and started brandishing them about wildly, saying he was going to kill whoever had dared to steal from a guest in his house. A posse of about 20 men was quickly drawn together to search every single person and house.

Two hours later, they found it. It had been stolen by an elderly man who was pretty much an outcast, rejected by the rest of his family for some sort of offense in the past. He was kicked, beaten, dragged through the village, and finally, thrown to the ground in front of me.

The matriarchs of each of the families then surrounded him and commenced cursing and spitting on him. He was then made to kowtow and apologize. Meanwhile, several men stood before me in tears, begging forgiveness for the terrible thing that had happened to their guest.

I felt terrible. Though the old man had stolen from me, I didn’t feel he deserved the humiliation and punishment that was being heaped on him. It was my own carelessness and stupidity that had caused this situation. I feared that this event would irrevocably tarnish my relationship with my hosts, and the Mosuo in general.

I begged them to stop beating the man. I emphasized to them that this was my fault and that this had not given me a bad impression of them, but rather impressed me with the sincerity of their desire to care for their guests.

That night, we all got drunk and both Mosuo men and women expressed over and over that we’d been through a terrible event together, but they’d had the opportunity to show the depth of their hospitality and sincerity. Having gone through this, I was now a “real” member of their family.

And there was a noticeable shift in their attitudes toward me. I was no longer treated so much like an outsider. In fact, my host family “adopted” me and I went through a religious ceremony to earn a proper Mosuo name, “Dashi Nombu.

4 Mosuo families are very large, extended families, with three to five generations all living together in the same house. Since couples never marry, both men and women will stay with their own family for their entire lives. All responsibilities are shared by the entire household, including parenting, so children are actually raised by many “parents” together.

Because of this system, the biological father of a child will have little or no responsibility for that child; but if a female relative in his own house has children, he will share in the responsibility of caring for them. Despite sounding rather strange to most people, this system has one very distinctive advantage—if the biological father and mother of a child later break up, there is zero trauma for the child, there is no fighting over custody, etc. It really provides a great deal more stability for the children.

The Mosuo people fascinatingly combine two entirely different religions: Daba (an animistic faith that believes there are spirits in everything) and Tibetan Buddhism. It’s not just that these two religions exist side-by-side, but are entirely complementary. All major religious events feature both a Daba priest and Tibetan Buddhist monks.

When it was time for me to leave, I didn’t want to go. I had spent three weeks living in a Mosuo home, eating their food and sleeping in their bed. Yet, when I tried to offer payment, they absolutely refused, insisting that family never pays. The whole village came out to see me off and sang me a farewell song. Some of them were openly crying and begged me to not forget them.

Mosuo1

I didn’t. Those three weeks left an indelible mark on me. Not only the friendships I had gained, but also the many problems they face. The average annual income for the Mosuo at that time was around 1,000 to 1,500 RMB, which isn’t enough for education or healthcare.

Many young Mosuo girls were being lured off into prostitution because they saw no other way of making money. While tourism was increasing, potentially helping to build their economy, it was almost entirely controlled by Han Chinese, who not only kept most of the money, but who also extremely inaccurately depicted the Mosuo culture.

In 2005, I returned. This time, I gathered together a group of local Mosuo leaders and proposed that we start a non-profit organization to help them deal with some of the most critical issues. I would provide the money to get them started and help them to communicate their needs to the outside world, but they themselves would be 100% in charge of the organization. They would determine the priorities, what was needed to accomplish their goals and would oversee all projects. The result was the Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association (mosuoproject.org or mosuo.org.cn) It’s still successfully running today.

 

Category Cover Stories