No In-Laws, and a Place to Hang Your Hat…

posted by Other Lisa, cross-posted at the paper tiger

Fascinating article at BBC News about a traditional culture in China that is anything but “traditional” in terms of its social structure:

Tourists come to Lugu Lake for the beauty and tranquillity. The still azure waters are surrounded by densely forested mountains, and the homes are made of natural timber with colourful Tibetan-style window shutters and balconies.

But that is not the only reason the tourists come. Visitors also beat a path to the region because of their fascination with the unique social structure of the Mosuo people, which is very different from that of China’s other 54 ethnic groups.

“Mosuo women have the responsibility for all family affairs,” explained 42-year-old Ruhen Zashi Chili, in the lakeside hamlet of Lou Shui.

“And most importantly, women determine the family line and only women have the right to inherit.”

Traditionally, sons live with their mothers, while their fathers have little to do with the child’s welfare.

In fact, in the Mosuo language, the word “father” does not even exist, and neither does the concept of in-laws.

It’s unclear what factors are responsible for the Mosuo’s unusual social arrangements – the article mentions the lure of the Silk Road, which led many Mosuo men far away from home. But what developed among the Mosuo is so different from traditional Han society that I’m reminded how so much of what we sometimes take for granted as being “traditional” or “natural” forms of social structures are just some of the variations that human beings have devised to live with each other.

For instance, according to this article, marriages in their more traditional forms did not exist among the Mosuo:

Love affairs were encouraged – but only “walking marriages” took place, in which men could visit at night so long as they returned to their mother’s home before breakfast.

In a “walking marriage,” the man enters the woman’s home by the back door of the house, or if necessary, climbs in through the window. The man then hangs his hat outside the window to inform others that he’s inside.

Mosuo relationships are uncomplicated. There are no formalities binding a couple together. If complacency sets in, they just stop seeing each other.

In a ‘walking marriage’, you have to enter the girl’s home by the back door or climb up through the window… We then hang our hat outside the window to tell others that there’s a man inside.

“The advantage of our walking marriage is that we don’t have the in-law problem to deal with. But the Han Chinese have this problem,” said 17-year-old Bima Qizou, who described Mosuo relationships as “pure love”.

“Our love is direct! If we love each other, we tell each other directly. We don’t consider family background, social position and economic standing.”

With the influx of tourists, Han Chinese and the inevitable intrusion of the 21st century, it’s uncertain how much, if any, of the Mosuo’s traditions will survive. For the immediate future, their economic security may depend on their draw as a tourist destination – selling handicrafts and souvenirs and performing traditional songs, ballads once sung by the women to attract a lover. Now, as the article puts it, the future for the Mosuo of Lugu Lake may be “as performers…in a reality show about their lost culture.”

The Discussion: 11 Comments

A huge fuss is made of the supposedly “matriarchal” Mosuo who live around Lugu Lake. The Mosuo were just one of a whole patchwork of local ethnic groups who had adapted in different ways to their environment. They mingled with Tibetans who practised polyandry [several brothers, one wife] and Han Chinese who still practise polygamy with their Da Laopo and Xiao Laopo. The Mosuo were a lot more than just a matriarchal society: to label them as some unique sexual social group is to misrepresent them as freaks. Unfortunately, they have attracted the attention of prurient tour group visitors who come thinking that they will be able to partake of casual sex in the name of a “walking marriage”.
If you want to read more about the traditional mix of Mongols, Mosuo, Pumi, Naxi and Tibetans in this area, try:
In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock

September 19, 2005 @ 9:44 pm | Comment

Zhuan, thanks very much. I put in the disclaimer “according to this article” quite a bit because I didn’t know anything much about these people other than what was reported in the article I’m looking forward to educating myself further on the subject.

September 19, 2005 @ 10:28 pm | Comment

The link to the Paper Tiger ( is broken.

September 19, 2005 @ 11:32 pm | Comment

Link is fixed. Very interesting post, as is the comment from Zhuan Jia.

September 20, 2005 @ 12:39 am | Comment

thanks Richard!

I’m sure that Zhuan Jia is right that the supposed matriarchy of the Mosuo is overstated. But I’m still intrigued.

September 20, 2005 @ 12:47 am | Comment

Thanks Zhuan Jia for the link. The site is very interesting. It is easy for outsiders to overlook the influences of intercultural communications on ethnic minorities in remote areas in China. The commercialisation of certain aspects of the Mosuo culture has no doubt played its part in further distorting the picture.

However, I’m not 100% convinced that the Mosuo people adopt their marriage practices from other minority groups. If I remember correctly, archaeological findings from various sites in Sichuan and at the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, including those the burial pits excavated at Sanxingdui in mid 1980s (?), seems to suggest that a sophisticated matriarchal society existed in those areas way back at the beginning of the Bronze Age. Would it be equally possible that those marriage practices of the Mosuo people are the legacy of a very old and traditional culture in that region?

September 20, 2005 @ 2:08 am | Comment

Wasn’t there at one point in human development when most societies were matriarchal? Anyone with an anthropology background that knows for certain?

September 20, 2005 @ 2:47 am | Comment

I didn’t mean to say that the Mosuo weren’t really matriarchal or adopted the practices from nearby communities. All I wanted to say was that their system of cohabitaiton probably wasn’t that remarkable when you consider they were just an isolated handful of people who lived in log cabins and scraped a hard living from the soil. There were other equally odd practices going on in Yunnan: the Yi people used to kidnap their neighbours and keep them as slaves. The Pumi were like the Tibetans in sharing their wives among brothers. Now, in the interests of tourism, the matriarchal aspects of the Mosuo are being puished to the fore, and they are being portrayed as this almost utopian community of free love. I don’t blame them for wanting to make a decent living off tourism, but you have to take it all with a pinch of salt.

September 20, 2005 @ 3:01 am | Comment

I found a couple interesting articles about the Mosuo last night – was going to link to them but we had a power outage that was just corrected midday today. I’ll see if I can post the addendum this evening…

September 20, 2005 @ 4:30 pm | Comment

Hui Mao, there is a lot of argument about the degree of matriarchy in ancient societies. Academics like Rian Eisler (sp? – she wrote THE CHALICE AND THE BLADE) argue that matriarchy was much stronger in pre-agricultural societies. Many disagree with this view and say that it is pushing a political (i.e., feminist) agenda.

I have an anthropologist buddy I will query about this to get her take.

It makes a sort of intuitive sense to me that male/female power was better balanced in some distant, prehistorical past, and there’s certainly evidence for goddess worship (“the Great Mother”) that preceeded the patriarchical religions we know today.

September 20, 2005 @ 4:36 pm | Comment

“It’s unclear what factors are responsible for the Mosuo’s unusual social arrangements ”

as pointed out above, human being were matriarch in the hunter/gatherer stage, it was agriculture that required more physical work which led to the patriarch society.

the question should be “what was the reason that Mosuo did NOT tranistion form matriarch into patriarch society”. perhaps isolation, and perhaps the social production still favors female power?

September 21, 2005 @ 11:57 am | Comment

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