Modern China

9 September 2016

O’Dwyer Imagine if your brother raised your children and your husband visited a few times a week. This is the ancient cultural practice of the Mosuo people – one of the last surviving matriarchal societies in the world. Image: Musuo woman Du Zhi Ma, 68, poses in front colorful Musuo textiles at her home in Luoshui Village on the edge of Lugu Lake. (Dave Tacon) In a remote corner of Southwest China in the Yunnan province, the Mosuo people live as one of the world’s last matriarchal societies.

Erin O’Dwyer visited a Mosuo village to produce a documentary for 360documentaries. In the village women are the head of the household, children are raised in the mother’s home and uncles play father to their sister’s children. In villages that sprawl around pristine Lake Lugu—high on the Tibetan plateau in Yunnan province, about a day’s journey from the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city Lijiang—women are head of the household.

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They control the wealth, inherit the property and do most of the manual and household labour.

Children are raised in the mother’s household and uncles play father to their sister’s children. ‘People say the Mosuo are a matriarchal society but actually it’s a matrilineal society,’ says French anthropologist Pascale-Marie Milan, who is living with the Mosuo as part of her PhD research. ‘There are matrilineal societies in India and Africa but those societies have marriage. In the Mosuo society there is no marriage. In their custom, the man visits the woman in the night. It’s the only society that does that now. In the Mosuo’s dialect there is no word for husband or father. In a ‘walking marriage’, a woman can take as many lovers as she pleases. A man comes to a woman’s house at night, arriving under cover of darkness and leaving again before dawn. The relationship is only made public once children come along. Even then, lovers live separately and can end their relationship easily. Adult males stay living in their mother’s homes, and the children and property always belong to the mother. Image: The Mosuo girls dress in elaborate costumes for the fire dance.

If a boy is interested in a girl he taps her on the hand during the dance. (Dave Tacon) Image: Mosuo villagers perform a fire dance for tourists. (Dave Tacon) Anthropologists believe walking marriages could have begun as early as the 8th century. It was a way of protecting family wealth and keeping the family clan together. And despite a push towards traditional marriage from the Chinese Government for the past half-century, walking marriage is still the norm among the Mosuo. It’s practised as widely by young people in their twenties as it is among their grandparents. Because we do walking marriage, we have no idea what it’s like to live with your wife in a conventional marriage,’ says a 23-year-old Mosuo man, who lives with his mother, grandmother, two older sisters and two of his eldest sister’s children. ‘Walking marriage was part of our culture from ancient times so I as a Mosuo boy should follow the tradition. ‘ In the Mosuo’s dialect there is no word for husband or father. In a ‘walking marriage’, a woman can take as many lovers as she pleases. A man comes to a woman’s house at night, arriving under cover of darkness and leaving again before dawn.

Now, though, the Mosuo’s ancient ways are at the mercy of modern China. Domestic tourism is exploding across the country and tourists are coming to Lake Lugu in rapidly rising numbers. The same new roads that bring the tourists to see the Mosuo’s rare culture and stunning mountain-and-lake home are also taking young people away from the villages for the first time. Teahouse owner Xiao Ming, 25, spent five years working in factories in Guan Dong province before returning to Lake Lugu two years ago. He came home wanting to find a girl and settle down. In the city I realised that our way of seeing relationships is totally different,’ says Xiao Ming. ‘People I met didn’t know about our walking marriage. I was dating a girl and I told her about our traditions and she said she wouldn’t be my girlfriend anymore. ‘ He continues, ‘What I discovered in the city is that one woman is meant to be with one man. In the city I saw older people holding hands and walking in the park together. I feel like relationships should be stable and you should stay together for better or for worse. You Zhen Zhuo Ma, a medical student in her mid-twenties studying in neighbouring Sichuan province, is more circumspect. She says she will continue walking marriage ‘if the right guy comes along. ‘ But already she is one of the best educated people in her village. In the end her decision to honour Mosuo traditions will depend on whether she returns to Lake Lugu to live and work. Image: Aya Si Geng Ma, 69, the head of a Mosuo household of eleven in Luoshui Village on the edge of Lugu Lake, carries food scraps to be fed to pigs in the courtyard of her familes home.

The region around Lugu Lake is home to the matriarchial Musuo ethnic minority who practice Tibetan Buddhism. Mosuo women are responsible for much of their household’s manual labor. (Dave Tacon) Image: Young Mosuo men enjoy beer and a card called called ‘Fighting the Landlord’ at a village near Lugu Lake. (Dave Tacon) ‘But I don’t think our culture will necessarily change because of better education,’ she says. ‘With more education, people are able go out and learn more about the world. They learn alternative ways of thinking and can voice their opinions and consider any problems in more dynamic ways. ‘

Image: La Chuo Zhu Ma, 27, in traditional dress before a fire dance in Xiaoluoshui, a village on the edge of Lugu Lake. Each night, around 400 tourists are charged 30 CNY (around 50 cents) to attend these spectacles. Profits are evenly distributed throughout the surrounding villages. (Dave Tacon) Hear more about the Mosuo and their way of life at 360documentaries. From http://www. abc. net. au/radionational/programs/360/kingdom-of-women/4649198 accessed Monday, 6 May 2013 Read page 1 & 2 then listen to the documentary ( at https://soundcloud. com/abc_rn/kingdom-of-women ) or use the file on moodle. What is a matriarchal society? (what characteristics define it in this document and audio presentation) . . . Women are the head of the household; children are raised in the mother’s home and uncles play father to their sister’s children. 2 Why do people want to visit the Mosuo? Because of their culture. 3 What are the features of new society mentioned at 8-9 minutes? Washing machine, high speed internet, satellite TV, ipads, clothes 4 Pork house? How long do pigs stay in the pork house? 10 years 5 When are the pigs/pork used? Festivities 6 They talk to the son at 13 minutes. What is his job?

Build houses, do the heavy labour work, go down to the field, tourist, help his sister. 7 What do the women do? Take care of the children and animals, housework, the cooking. 8 At what age do they become adults? 13 9 But when do they start walking marriage? 18 10 What happens if they declare their walking marriage? (at about 15 minutes) They have children and they stay together until the death of their partner. 11 What is the dance that it mentioned in the audio (17:45). Fire dance, dressing up 12 What do they do during the dance to let the other person know if they are interested in them? 1/22 mins Dance around the fire, holding hands together. When boys are interested in someone, they will touch that person three times, and if the girls are interested too, she will response and do the same thing to the boy too. 13 What is the name of the goddess (23mins) Gemu 14 What is important about the lake? lake keep them alive and feed their family 15 Who/what is the Dahba (24mins) Local shaman 16 What does the Dahba do? (25mins) Protect Mosuo and locals. 17 What is the “Life and Death Gate”? Small cupboard 18 What has tourism brought to the village? More changes 9 How is tourism a blessing and a curse? It brings prosperity to the village, makes the village more unsafe 20 What are the moral restrictions on Walking Marriage? (32. 30min) Stay together if the relationship is public and the whole village will know. If one of them doesn’t like the other they will criticize them and the whole village will know. 21 What does a Mosou family leader do? Start the fire, burn incense, re-new the fruit offerings to the gods, make breakfast, feed pigs, and organize chores for the day, take everything in the household. 22 Who is responsible for the children?

Everybody 23 What type of tea is shared? (37 mins) Thick Yak butter tea 24 How did the rich family punish her? (38mins) and what work did she do for them? She takes care the animals. Tie her hands and spray her with cold water. 25 What happened when the Red Army arrived? The rich landlords fled and officials made her head of the household. 26 What was the result of the Cultural Revolution? Stop practicing their tradition 27 What is the Mosou boat called? Pig’s trough boat 28 Cha Ming left Lake Lugu as a 17yo. Now he has returned, why? Tired of that kind of working life. 9 How has his view of marriage changed? Because of a girl he learnt that normally woman is supposed to be with one man. It made him wanted to settle down with one girl and marry her and stay with her 30 Modernisation is changing things; travel into the valley is now reduced to 6 hours. More tourists come. There are not many jobs so this encourages people to move away. A new airport will bring more high end tourists. What are the anticipated problems? (45-47 mins) Bring more high end cooperatives, they get less shared of the wealth, the culture maybe deistroy.

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