Among world’s last matrilineal societies
The Mosuo people, who live near Lugu Lake in Southwest China’s Yunnan province, are among the last matrilineal societies on Earth. Women are in charge of everything from housework and looking after the livestock to making economic decisions and choosing lovers.
Newborns inherit the names of their mothers, not their fathers. Births of baby girls are celebrated more than baby boys.
“It so intrigued me that I stayed,” Choo Waihong told an audience in Beijing last Thursday. “I lived among them and I made friends.”
Choo’s experience of living with members of the Mosuo people for six years is recorded in her book, The Kingdom of Women.
Hsiao-Hung Pai, a Britainbased journalist calls the book “a refreshing and authentic portrait of a hidden society in patriarchal China”.
“At its heart, this is the story of what that experience did to Choo’s attitude to her own culture as she explored the customs, habits and beliefs of her new friends,” an earlier Guardian book review said.
The Mosuo people have 40,000 members and they can trace their ancestry in the area to as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).
“When you meet with Mosuo women, you will find that they are very self-confident,” Choo says. “They walk, they sit, they speak proudly and very self-assuredly.”
Choo is a Singaporean of Chinese descent. She was a corporate lawyer in Singapore and California before retiring early in 2006 to travel around China.
Choo first learned about the Mosuo people when reading an article in a magazine about their festival in honor of the mountain goddess.
She stayed among the Mosuo people, spending six months every year with them for six years.
Choo sees the Mosuo’s women-centric life as a privilege.
In a Mosuo family, the grandmother is the head of the household. All others living in the family belong to her matrilineal bloodline.
Mosuo women do not live with their husbands. Traditionally, the Mosuo people do not even have the concept of husband or wife. They practice “walking marriages”, also called “visiting marriages”.
Choo describes a marriage in her book, in which a man living with his extended family visits a woman in the evening, and they spend the night together in the woman’s “flower chamber,” which is a room every adult daughter in a family has.
Before sunrise, the man needs to return to his own home.
When Choo reflects on Mosuo culture, she constantly compares it with her own culture.
She thinks the “walking marriage” of the Mosuo people is revolutionary in contrast with the traditional Han values of her family, and her patriarchal father.
“He really believed he was the lord of our home,” Choo says of her father. “He felt he had the right to have second wives all over the place.”
Her mother, on the other hand, was allowed no right to have other lovers, and was expected to be the forgiving wife.
“The way of Mosuo society is there is no rule you must stay
When you meet with Mosuo women, you will find that they are very self-confident.” Choo Waihong, author of The KingdomofWomen
with only one lover,” Choo says. “Nobody approves or disapproves of any choices you make.”
It is the same for both men and women.
“Sex is not just a proprietary thing. Just because you and I have sex doesn’t mean I belong to you exclusively, and you don’t belong to me exclusively,” Choo says. “I don’t belong to you as property. No woman is the property of a man in Mosuo society.”
Since the past 15 years, the unique traditions of the Mosuo people have been advertised to attract tourists to that area in Yunan, and Choo has noticed the influence of tourism on Mosuo culture.
“It is very true that tourism has invaded Lugu Lake and the Mosuo tribe,” she says. “For the Mosuo, if you are included in the tourism economy, you make money.”
More and more Mosuo people are becoming waiters, waitresses, chefs or drivers to serve tourists.
Education and entertainment also play a role on changing young Mosuo people.
“Now every home has a TV, so they are exposed to the outside world,” Choo says.
The exposure was shown in one of the photographs by Choo during her talk in Beijing, which shows a Mosuo man holding a bright yellow smartphone.
Young Mosuo people are beginning to think that they do not want to practice the Mosuo way of love.
“My young friends in their 20s are getting married,” Choo says.
Choo considers the gradual loss of Mosuo traditions as unfortunate, because they represent alternative possibilities.
“What we can learn from them is that it’s possible to have a women-centric society and the world doesn’t come to an end,” Choo says.
Zhou Yifan contributed to this story.
Choo Waihong’s experience of living with the Mosuo people for six years is recorded in her book, TheKingdomofWomen.