Nestled in the underbelly of the Himalayan mountains is a small Chinese province, Yunnan. Close to the borders of Tibet, it is where the Mosuo people live. It is not too dissimilar to other agrarian communities – the villagers tend to their livestock and grow their own food. The days are long and filled with hard work, and the evenings pass effortlessly with loved ones. Their economy used to exist purely on barter-based trade, but recent tourism to their sleepy communities means that money has slowly been introduced.
Yet, there is one marked difference with the Masuo. They are said to be one of the few matriarchal societies and they follow a matrilineal system. In other words, women rule most aspects of day-to-day life, and men do as they are told.
The ah mi or matriarch – usually the grandmother – runs the household of extended family members. She delegates the finances and jobs of everyone. The house belongs to her, and when she dies, the property and position will be passed on to the next female successor.
Dubbed the “Kingdom of Women”, what makes this far-flung community particularly unique is that men are frequently little more than sperm donors, and rarely have anything to with their children’s upbringing. Tellingly, in their Na language, there is no word for marriage, husband, father – or jealousy. For females, axias (male companions) are regarded as an enjoyable pleasure – which may or may not end in pregnancy.
The Masuo practice zuo hun or “walking marriage”; a female chooses as many or as few male lovers as she wants. These men or axias will visit the women for secret nocturnal trysts. Customarily, the man’s hat will be placed on the woman’s door handle to symbolise that no one should enter. These encounters could range from one-night-stands to something more long-term that could even last for a lifetime. The axias, however, never live with their female companions but continue to reside in the house of their own extended family governed by their own ah mi.
The woman’s family will raise any children born out of these unions. Any male influences in the lives of the children will come from other adult men in the woman’s family, known as “uncles”.
Choo Waihong, the only non-Masuo to have spent time living with them explained in an interview: “In our society, it is important that children have an identity with their father. In the Mosuo world, all that matters is that you are born to this matrilineal [line], and if your mother has four sisters, you actually have five mothers who will look after you.
“It’s one large family with no distinction of birth mother. They are very secure in their structure. [The patriarchal role for the man] doesn’t matter because they are fully functioning.”
Unlike conventional relationships where couples may stay together for children or financial reasons, this does not exist in these remote parts. Essentially, all Mosuo women are single. And even though some may decide to pair with a man in an arrangement that might span a lifetime, the dynamics are very different from those in Western societies.
Since the epicentre of life surrounds women, motherhood is held in high regard and of the utmost importance. If a female finds that she is unable to conceive, she will adopt a child from a maternal relative or from another Mosuo family.
Men do, however, have their own roles serving in the community and are treated as equals. They often always do the slaughtering of animals, and they assist with some manual labour or tasks that require more strength.
Yet changing times brought flocks of tourists in the 1990s which threatened the balance of tradition – one that some say has existed for around 2,000 years. Younger generations have started to become more exposed to Western ideologies and lifestyles. This new influx of tourists introduced new careers that had not previously existed; a few of the Mosuo people have married “foreigners” and moved away, and commercial farming has been introduced as opposed to the usual subsistence farming.
As the younger Mosuo embrace more contemporary principles and modernity, the time-honoured values, which was the basis of the Mosuo culture may slowly be fading. If this continues, some say that in a few decades, the customs of this ancient people may soon be gone, and its women-centric ideals gone with it.