Love Bound­aries

{ } With­out Tra­di­tional Mo­suo Re­la­tion­ships

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sound like cus­toms that be­long to a for­got­ten cul­ture of an an­cient com­mu­nity. The peo­ple do not tra­di­tion­ally marry, but en­gage un­in­hib­it­edly in con­sen­sual re­la­tion­ships with dif­fer­ent and of­ten mul­ti­ple part­ners, as de­sired by each party, from the age of 13. The con­cept of love fidelity, in the sense that we might be ac­cus­tomed to in mod­ern-day so­ci­ety, does not ex­ist. Lit­tle value is at­tached to the no­tion of pos­ses­sion or ex­clu­siv­ity, and even less to the idea of shared fi­nances, prop­erty and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, as each part­ner nor­mally re­mains so­cially and eco­nom­i­cally a part of his or her own ma­ter­nal fam­ily. In ad­di­tion, the con­cepts of ‘ hus­band’ and ‘fa­ther’ are tra­di­tion­ally not a part of the Mo­suo so­cial struc­ture. As such, chil­dren who are born of th­ese re­la­tion­ships are fully ac­cepted as mem­bers of their ma­ter­nal fam­ily and brought up col­lec­tively by its mem­bers.

But th­ese are tra­di­tions that still ex­ist, al­beit some­what pre­car­i­ously and in­con­gru­ously, in a rare polyan­drous ma­tri­lin­eal Ti­beto-bur­man com­mu­nity, called the Mo­suo. Hav­ing a pop­u­la­tion of about 40,000, the group lives mainly in the re­mote high-al­ti­tude wet­land basin area in the south­west­ern Yongn­ing re­gion, and in the sur­round­ing moun­tain­ous ar­eas.

One of the most stud­ied eth­nic­i­ties in China, the Mo­suo (pro­nounced ‘mwo swo’), also known by other names, in­clud­ing [Yongn­ing] Na and Moso), of­fi­cially be­longs to the Naxi eth­nic group. Be­lieved to have orig­i­nated in the Yuan Dy­nasty (1271–1368), the tra­di­tions of large ma­tri­lin­eal house­holds and vis­it­ing sex­ual unions – pop­u­larly re­ferred to as the ‘walk­ing’ or ‘vis­it­ing’ mar­riage – are based both on the view that women, by virtue of their re­pro­duc­tive role, pro­vide the core and con­tin­u­a­tion of the Mo­suo house­hold, and on a strong sense of sex­ual in­di­vid­u­al­ity. Sex­u­al­ity is not con­sid­ered ne­go­tiable or ex­change­able in Mo­suo so­ci­ety, but re­mains a purely sen­ti­men­tal or amorous mat­ter, im­ply­ing no mu­tual con­straints. So­ci­etal norms see the man vis­it­ing his part­ner in her bed­room when the other mem­bers of her house­hold have retired for the day, of­ten spend­ing the night with her, but leav­ing to re­turn to his ma­ter­nal home early the next morn­ing.

MO­SUO RE­LA­TION­SHIPS

Sese – Mo­suo love re­la­tion­ships – ex­ist in two main forms: short and clan­des­tine, as well as open and more es­tab­lished. The clan­des­tine re­la­tion­ship is the more com­mon of the two, and usu­ally be­gins with the man tak­ing the ini­tia­tive to court his part­ner, of­ten by sug­gest­ing that he vis­its her bed­room that night. Even with­out a pre-ar­ranged date, a man might creep into the bed­room of his in­tended part­ner at night to re­quest a union. What­ever the method used to se­cure com­pan­ion­ship, the suc­cess of ev­ery re­la­tion­ship – long or short, a one-evening af­fair or a longer re­la­tion­ship – de­pends on the de­sire of the woman: noth­ing is forced.

Be­ing in­volved in a clan­des­tine re­la­tion­ship does not im­plic­itly ex­clude re­la­tion­ships with other part­ners. “Your xia (part­ner) is my xia; my xia is also your xia” is a com­mon Na say­ing that re­flects the fact that re­la­tion­ships are not meant to be ex­clu­sive to two per­sons at any one time, nei­ther is con­ti­nu­ity or com­mit­ment over any length of time taken for granted. Hence, it is quite ac­cept­able for a clan­des­tine re­la­tion­ship to take place for only one night, or over a longer pe­riod of time. By con­trast, it is con­ven­tion­ally less com­mon for two lovers to re­main de­voted to each other in­def­i­nitely.

They be­low The con­cept of love fidelity, in the sense that we might be ac­cus­tomed to in mod­ern-day so­ci­ety, does not ex­ist. Lit­tle value is at­tached to the no­tion of pos­ses­sion or ex­clu­siv­ity, and even less to the idea of shared fi­nances, prop­erty and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties

The open re­la­tion­ship is rel­a­tively less com­mon or de­sired. Part­ners whose mu­tual feel­ings have deep­ened may wish to for­malise their re­la­tion­ship by way of the man be­ing in­tro­duced to his part­ner’s mother, or by an ex­change of gifts be­tween the two part­ners. Hav­ing the sta­tus of an open part­ner al­lows the man to ar­rive a lit­tle ear­lier and a lit­tle less se­cretly than pre­vi­ously for his night­time vis­its. In the morn­ing, he still re­turns to his own home, though he now may do so a lit­tle later, and he may some­times be in­vited to have a meal in the morn­ing in the main room. Also, he no longer needs to avoid meet­ing the house­hold mem­bers.

While there is a tacit agree­ment be­tween the two open part­ners to re­serve sex­ual priv­i­lege for each other, there is no pub­lic cen­sure against hav­ing clan­des­tine part­ners at the same time. Be­ing in an open re­la­tion­ship does not nec­es­sar­ily mean a long-term part­ner­ship any more than a clan­des­tine re­la­tion­ship does, how­ever. In­di­vid­ual de­sire re­mains the fun­da­men­tal, de­ci­sive and im­per­a­tive fac­tor, and the re­la­tion­ship may end at any time.

What­ever form the re­la­tion­ship takes, lovers in­vari­ably re­main so­cially and eco­nom­i­cally a part of their re­spec­tive ma­ter­nal house­holds. There are no economic en­ti­tle­ments or obli­ga­tions that bind them. The man has nei­ther the obli­ga­tion to pro­vide for the chil­dren that may re­sult from the li­aisons, nor a say in mat­ters con­cern­ing them. The chil­dren, in turn, are not re­spon­si­ble for tak­ing care of their bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther.

Con­tem­po­rary In­flu­ences

Be­tween the late 1950s and the early 1980s, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment used per­sua­sion, co­er­cion and, later, ed­u­ca­tion to try to end sese re­la­tion­ships and to al­ter tra­di­tional fam­ily struc­tures, by pres­suris­ing the Mo­suo peo­ple to marry and to be­gin nu­clear fam­i­lies, with men as the head of the house­hold. Gov­ern­ment pro­pa­ganda told the Mo­suo that their house­hold struc­tures were back­ward and im­moral, and that sex­ual free­dom must be ended to en­able civil­i­sa­tion to take place. The mat­ri­mo­nial re­form caused deep dis­rup­tion in the Mo­suo so­cial fab­ric, caus­ing ma­tri­lin­eal fam­i­lies to break up and young cou­ples to be alien­ated from their tra­di­tional sup­port sys­tems.

In the post-cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion years, while sese re­la­tions have con­tin­ued to ex­ist along­side le­gal mar­riages, mod­ern in­flu­ences such as tourism, the me­dia and mi­gra­tion have brought about sig­nif­i­cant changes within the com­mu­nity.

In some Mo­suo vil­lages, such as the Lugu Lake Pro­vin­cial Tourism Area in Luo Shui County, the econ­omy is heav­ily de­pen­dent on tourism, some­times in­clud­ing in­comes from pros­ti­tu­tion. Ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als in gov­ern­ment schools re­flect the life­style and ex­pec­ta­tions of the larger Chi­nese so­ci­ety; the tele­vi­sion and other me­dia ex­pose the Mo­suo mem­bers to the dif­fer­ent life­styles of com­mu­ni­ties in the rest of the world. Economic re­forms and greater mo­bil­ity through­out China mean that grow­ing num­bers of young peo­ple are leav­ing their home­town for bet­ter ed­u­ca­tional and economic op­por­tu­ni­ties. The ques­tion of whether an age-old cus­tom will even­tu­ally be eroded by ex­ter­nal pres­sures and changes, or achieve a del­i­cate bal­ance – as if in an open re­la­tion­ship with the world – be­tween the old and the new, re­mains to be seen. ag

is an in­de­pen­dent ed­i­tor and writer based in Sin­ga­pore. She is cur­rently work­ing on 50 Me­tres (2nd Ed), a project about Sin­ga­pore’s swim­ming pools. “Love with­out Bound­aries” was first pub­lished in Asian Ge­o­graphic 6/2008.

“Your xia (part­ner) is my xia; my xia is also your xia” is a com­mon Na say­ing that re­flects the fact that re­la­tion­ships are not meant to be ex­clu­sive to two per­sons at any one time JO­CE­LYN LAU

Mo­suo men call their part­ners ‘ axia’ (in­ti­mate com­pan­ion), and women call their lovers ‘ azhu’

Lac­ito.vjf.cnrs.fr/pan­gloss/lan­guages/na_en.php/lan­guages/na_en.php

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