by Jim Goodman
Among Yunnan’s many physical attractions, the most beautiful body of water, butterfly-shaped, at 2700 meters altitude, covering 90 sq km, is Lugu Lake, in northern Ninglang County. The face of Lion Mountain towers another 1000 meters above the northern shore and five small islands speckle the lake’s surface. Even higher, snow-capped mountains tower in the distance. In good weather the scenery is so breath-taking it is easy to see why Lugu Lake is drawing so many tourists. But the scenery is not the only attraction. The district is home to the Mosuo people, a branch of the Naxi nationality, but differing in one important aspect—the Mosuo are mainly a matrilineal society, as are their Pumi neighbors, a rarity even in a land of great cultural diversity. Only the A clan, the smallest of the five Mosuo clans, is patrilineal. And that’s because they are descendants of the Mongol officers who stayed behind when Kubilai Khan conquered the area in the 13th century, married local women and became the ruling class.
Women also control the purse strings and direct the activity of the family. Every household has a dahbeu, a Mosuo word for its manager, so to speak. She may also be the owner, but often the owner is an older woman, who has passed on the responsibility to a grown daughter. The greatest respect is still shown to the oldest woman in the house, but the financial decisions and organization of the day’s work are up to the dahbeu. Men are responsible for religion and district politics, but in general they stay pretty much in the background.
|The dahbeu is the first one served at the New Year feast.
At around age thirteen both sexes go through a puberty rite on New Year's Day when they don for the first time the costume of an adult. In the Rite of Putting on Trousers the boy stands beside the "male pillar" to the left and in front of the hearth, on top of the dried carcass of a gutted, boneless pig (called pipa) a symbol of prosperity. In his left hand he grasps a dagger, representing his bravery, and in his right a silver coin. A senior uncle dresses him, giving him trousers, jacket, waistband and hat.
|the Rite of Putting on a Skirt
Theoretically, the girl is now free to engage in relations with the opposite sex, though this is not likely to happen for a few more years yet. But unlike the boys, after the puberty rite the girl traditionally can claim her own room. And what she does there at night is entirely her own business.
Unlike any of their neighbors, for whom marriage is an important rite of passage and a wedding is a public ceremony, the Mosuo do not formalize their conjugal relationships. They have no ceremony to mark the event. Indeed, they keep it rather a secret. The boy goes to the girl's house at night and returns to his own in the morning. Any children from the affair belong to the girl and will be raised in her house. She can break off the relationship at any time and the boy has no claim on her. She has none on him, either, in the case of a break-up, in terms of child support.
Such arrangements are known as azhu relationships, after a Pumi word meaning "friend", which is how the girl refers to the boy. He refers to her as his axia. The Mosuo language does not have direct equivalents for the words "husband", "wife", "illegitimate child" or "marriage". When speaking in their own language about a non-Mosuo's spouse they will use the Chinese words. The Han have given them the term zouhun—Chinese for "walking marriage". As a descriptive term it compares favorably with that used by the matrilineal Khasi and Jaintia of Northeast India to describe their own, identical conjugal arrangement—"visit marriage".
|Sisters form close bonds in Mosuo society.
Because a Mosuo woman is free to terminate her azhu relationships at any time, simply by not allowing the azhu entry to her room at night, the system has been categorized by jaundiced observers as promoting promiscuity. Even the family monks are permitted such relationships. But that is really no more astonishing than the fact that Christian Protestant ministers are allowed to marry. Easy "divorce" is the main charge leveled against the Mosuo system—most commonly by would-be critics schooled in the patrilineal tradition, in which easy divorce would lead to problems in division of property and custody of children. But the Mosuo never have such problems.
|young Mosuo woman, Lugu Lake
The boy seeking a proper axia also looks to character first and foremost. Diligence and domestic skill come next and, nowadays, educational level beats appearance for third most important quality. When a boy decides upon a girl the traditional first gift is a long woolen waistband. When calling upon her for the first time at home, in the daytime, he should bring tea, tobacco and liquor for the elders of her house. After that it's up to love to determine the future.
When the girl is satisfied with the boy she may then arrange to initiate the azhu relationship by inviting him to her room at night. He leaves early in the morning, supposedly before anyone else is awake, and returns to his own house. His meals he will take there and the work he performs during the day will be for the benefit of his mother's household. He is free to earn money of his own, too, and may make some arrangement with his axia to assist her economically when she has a child. But this would be strictly informal and certainly doesn't continue if the relationship falls apart.
There are few rules in such relationships. The two may not be of the same maternal clan and they may not indulge in more than one relationship at a time. Fidelity doesn't have to be for life, but it must be maintained for the duration of the relationship. While women may break off a relationship at any time, they don't exercise this option very often, except when the union fails to produce a daughter.
|A Mosuo woman is the "owner" of her labor.
Occasional variants exist in this pattern. An azhu might reside permanently in his axia's house. This could happen if the couple had only one child—a daughter—and the axia's sisters lived elsewhere. Her brothers, of course, would still live with their mother. In such a case the azhu decides material support must come from him. Such men are generally strong personalities, with other brothers at home anyway, and tend to be the domestic decision-makers. They may even draft one of their younger brothers, or invite one of the axia's nephews, to live permanently or intermittently at the house as well. Such Mosuo "patriarchs" will assume the responsibility of the dahbeu and manage family finances. But all the wealth they control or accumulate will eventually belong to the daughter.
For years Communist cadres tried to persuade the Mosuo to abandon their "primitive" system and adopt the "modern" way of marriage. Comparatively few did so, for the cadres reckoned without the great emotional support the Mosuo derive from azhu relationships. Even most of those who succumbed to the "modern" style of husband and wife living together in their own house, raising their own children in it, still retained the matrilineal inheritance custom.
Labor in Mosuo society is divided by sex, as it is among all the peoples of the area. Men do the heavy labor, but their overall workload is much lighter than that of the women. Like their Han, Yi, Tibetan and other neighbors, Mosuo women work hard and are busy with chores at those times the men feel free to relax and do nothing for a while. The women are definitely the ones who hew the wood and draw the water.
|hewers of wood
|drawers of water
The difference between the work of the Mosuo women and that of the women of neighboring nationalities is that the Mosuo woman owns the result of her labor. Her efforts are for her own cause, not that of a husband, brother-in-law or father. Yunnan's mountain societies in general accord their women high respect and esteem, but in none of them do the women own the fruits of their work, as Mosuo women do. This may explain why, of all the women in the northwest, the Mosuo are the most cheerful, gregarious, self-confident, level-headed and good-humored. The cadres realized long ago such personalities could never be convinced they'd be any happier, or in any way better off, with any other system.
|Mosuo women, Lige village
for more information on Mosuo life and culture, see my e-book Living in Shangrila