Among Yunnan's many physical attractions, the most beautiful body of water, is butterfly-shaped Lugu Lake, in northern Ninglang County. The lake is situated at 2700 meters altitude and covers 90 square kilometers. The face of Lion Mountain towers another 1000 meters above the northern shore. Speckling the surface of the lake are five small islands. At even higher altitudes, snow-capped mountains can be seen rising in the distance. Good weather permitting, the scenery is so breath-taking it is not hard to see why Lugu Lake is drawing so many tourists.
The Mosuo: a matrilineal society
But, the scenery is not the only draw. Lugu Lake is home to the Mosuo (摩梭族) people, a branch of the Naxi (纳西族) nationality, but differing in one important aspect — the Mosuo, and their Pumi (普米族) neighbors, are mainly a matrilineal society. This is a rarity, even in a land of great cultural diversity. Only the smallest of the five Mosuo clans, the A clan, is patrilineal. This is a result of them being the descendants of Mongol officers who stayed behind when Kubilai Khan conquered the area in the 13th century, married local women and became the ruling class.
Matriarchy in practice
The essence of matrilineal societies is that property is inherited by women. It is the women who own the house, the fields and other immovable property. Lineage is traced through the mother, with the youngest daughter usually being the heiress. Should a Mosuo woman not have a daughter, she adopts one of her sister's daughters. All children belong to the mother, and they contribute their labour and loyalty to their mother's household. Elder daughters set up their own households, but sons do not. The male children remain attached to their mother's household, even after they have established conjugal relationships with women.
Women furthermore control the finances and generally direct the activities of the family. Every household has a dahbeu, a Mosuo word that rougly translates to manager. The owner may be the dahbeu, but often the owner is an older woman, who has passed on the responsibility to a grown daughter. The oldest woman in the household is the one who receives the greatest respect, but the financial decisions and organization of the day's work are up to the dahbeu. She is also the one who will be the first one served at the New Year feast. Men are responsible for religious affairs and district politics, though generally they stay in the background.
Since it will be a daughter who will inherit the property, Mosuo mothers hope that at least their first-born child will be a girl. While much fuss is made over the birth of daughters, sons are also welcome, for every family traditionally has its own monk, responsible for morning services. Male and female children are raised in the same way. They are taught to venerate their mother, but their father is never acknowledged. The Mosuo consider it impolite to inquire about any child's paternity — even if the children generally do know who their father is.
At around age thirteen both sexes go through a puberty rite on New Year's Day when they don the costume of an adult for the first time. 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 pipa, a gutted, boneless pig, a symbol of prosperity. In his left hand he grasps a dagger, representing his bravery, and in his right a silver coin. He is dressed by a senior uncle, who gives him trousers, a jacket, a waistband, and a hat.
For the daughters' Rite of Putting on a Skirt, the dahbeu dresses the girl, who stands on a pipa beside the "female pillar" to the right and in front of the hearth. In her left hand she holds cloth and yarn, symbolizing her economic contribution to the household. In her right hand she holds ornaments which are the emblems of her femininity. She is given a long white skirt, a long-sleeved blouse, a silk jacket, and a wide woollen waistband. Finally, the braided and bejewelled headdress of an adult woman is placed on her head by the dahbeu.
The girl is now officially 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 rites, the girls can traditionally claim her own room. And what happens there at night is entirely her own business.
Unlike in all of the neighboring minorities, for whom entering into 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 ceremonial celebration, but keep relations rather secret. The boy goes to the girl's house at night and in the morning he returns to his own. Any children born from the affair belong to the girl and will be raised in her house. She can end the relationship at any time without the boy having a claim on her. This works both ways, as in the case of a break-up she has no claim on him either, 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 has no 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 (走婚)— Chinese for "walking marriage". As a descriptive term it compares well with the one used by the matrilineal Khasi and Jaintia minorities of Northeast India to describe their own similar conjugal arrangements, which they call "visit marriage".
The system may seem inherently unstable, but not from a Mosuo point of view. In neighboring societies the woman generally goes to live at her husband's house and her children belong to him. As her son will inherit the property it is important to the man that he is identified as the father. However, Mosuo women own their houses and have sole custody of their children. This means it doesn't matter who the father is, for daughters are the heiresses and both sons and daughters always owe economic support to their mothers. The stability is in the property arrangements and the solidarity of the family's females, which as a result carry more weight than the relationships between azhu and axia.
Because a Mosuo woman is free to end a relationship with an azhu at any time, by simply no longer allowing the azhu entry to her room at night, the system has been categorized as promoting promiscuity by cynical observers. Even if family monks are permitted such relationships, that is really no more astonishing than the fact that Christian Protestant ministers are allowed to marry. The main charge levelled at the Mosuo system is the "easy divorce". Most commonly by critics schooled in the patrilineal tradition, where easy divorce would lead to problems in the division of property and custody of children. But the Mosuo don't have these problems.
Choosing azhu and axia
This freedom to terminate relationships at no social cost does not make the Mosuo promiscuous by nature and tradition. The girl chooses her azhu with care. He has to court her and demonstrate his worthiness. As the relationship will eventually become open, she wants a boy her sisters can respect. And so character — "good heart", as the Mosuo put it — tops the requirements for an azhu, more than wealth, social standing or appearance. Second most important nowadays is educational level and third is the "ability to make money", meaning diligence.
The boy seeking an axia also looks to character first and foremost. Diligence and domestic skills come next and today educational level beats appearance for the third most important quality. When a boy decides upon a girl the traditional first gift is a long woollen waistband. When visiting her for the first time at home, in the daytime, he should bring tea, tobacco and liquor for the elders of her household. 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. Early in the morning he leaves, supposedly before anyone else is awake, and returns to his own house. He will take his meals there, and the work he does 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 arrange with his axia to economically assist her when she has a child with him. However, this would be an informal arrangement, and it wouldn't continue were the relationship to fall apart.
The rules of engagement
There are not many rules in such relationships. The two can not be of the same maternal clan and they can not maintain more than one relationship at a time. Fidelity doesn't have to be for life, but it must be maintained for as long as the relationship lasts. While women may break off a relationship at any time, they don't use this option very often, except when the union doesn't produce a daughter.
The Mosuo system lacks the kind of emotional problems that are typical for conjugal relationships in modern patrilineal societies. The women are spared the disturbance of moving from a familiar environment to a strange one. The men won't have to endure the change from mere membership of a natal household to becoming the head of one. In the monogamous nuclear family of modern times, each partner is emotionally bound to the other and to any offspring. In Mosuo society the azhu is ultimately connected to his natal family and the axia to hers. As a result the emotional dependence on each other is much less.
Occasional variants exist. An azhu might reside permanently in his axia's house. This could happen for instance if the couple had only one female child and the axia's sisters lived elsewhere. Her brothers, of course, would still live with their mother. In such a case the azhu can decide that material support must come from him. Such men are generally strong personalities, with other brothers at home anyway. They tend to be domestic decision-makers. They may even draft one of their younger brothers into the household, or invite one of the axia's nephews to live permanently or intermittently at the house. Such Mosuo "patriarchs" will assume the responsibility of the dahbeu and manage the family finances. Still, all the wealth they control or accumulate will eventually belong to the daughter.
Modernizing the Mosuo
For years Communist cadres tried to persuade the Mosuo to abandon their "primitive" system and adopt the "modern" way of marriage. However, comparatively few did so, for the cadres didn't reckon with the great emotional support the Mosuo derive from azhu relationships. Even the majority of those who succumbed to the "modern" style of husband and wife living together in their own house and raising their own children in it, they retained the matrilineal inheritance customs.
Women hold up half of the sky
Labor in Mosuo society is divided by sex, as it is among all the peoples of the area. Men do the heaviest 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 still busy with chores when 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.
Yet, Mosuo women never complain about the day's tasks, nor chide the men for not taking on a greater share of the chores. No matter how physically gruelling the work might be, the Mosuo women customarily keep their humor. They laugh and joke often, and frequently burst into song. Physically demanding tasks like rowing boats and hauling timber during construction season do not daunt them. They just eat more food and work until nightfall. Diligence is in their blood.
What sets the work of the Mosuo women and that of the women of neighboring nationalities apart, is that the Mosuo woman owns the result of her labor. Her efforts are for her own cause, and not for a husband, a brother-in-law or a father. Yunnan's mountain societies generally hold their women in high esteem, but none of them award the women with the fruits of their work in the way the Mosuo do. This may explain why the Mosuo women are the most cheerful, gregarious, confident, level-headed and good-humored of all the women in the northwest of Yunnan. 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.
Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights. There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam and western Yunnan.
All uncredited images: Jim Goodman