Cai Li's Culture Column

Imagine a world where women rule! In this article, Cai Li takes you on quick tour of just such a place in southwestern China. After reading the article, choose a link below to read another -- or to visit another section of the Classroom Package. (Note to teachers: This article contains content that is most suited to high school grades with students capable of mature discussion.)

A Matriarchal World

In the 1930's, Dr. Joseph Rock, an Austo-American self-styled botanist and anthropologist, climbed over a range of Himalayan peaks in an isolated patch of northern Yunnan Province and introduced the world to the Mosuo people. This was a time of many anthropological 'discoveries' around the world; but what made this one singularly outstanding was the fundamental nature of the Mosuo's way of life, quietly practiced since ancient times: they were matriarchal.

Clearly, their geographic isolation allowed the yak-herding Mosuo (mosuo means 'people who ranch yaks' in the Mosuo language) to preserve their matriarchal culture. 15,000 strong and growing, they live in wooden houses in a series of small villages that circle Lugu Lake in Naxi Autonomous County along the Yunnan-Sechuan provincial border. They call their lake Mother Lake; and they call the mountain that rises from plateau on which their lake placidly rests Goddess Mountain, since its namesake, Gemu, is their Goddess of Love, Grain and Prosperity.

It's no coincidence that they worship a goddess and are nurtured by a mother lake -- for mothers are the most important and most respected people in their society. They farm the land, they feed the pigs, they cook the meals, they take care of the old and the young, and, of course, they bear the children. And all of the children they bear become members of their families (not members of the fathers' families) and are named accordingly. Likewise, the children live with their mothers for the rest of their lives. That is, they never marry and leave to live with their spouses, because the Mosuo never marry.

Instead, the Mosuo, for the past 1,600 years, have been practicing a tradition known as the 'walking marriage' (zou hun) -- a custom said to have been initiated by none other than Gemu herself. In a Mosuo myth, Gemu, who was exceptionally beautiful, attracted the amorous attention of many male gods. One god, in particular, could only see her one night a year and had to go back to the sky before the sun came up. After he left, Gemu cried profusely, her tears filling a footprint left by her lover-god's horse and forming Lugu Lake.

In the actual ceremony, still performed today, young people sing and dance hand in hand around a bonfire, looking for their perfect love. When they find him or her, they make a wordless agreement using finger signals during the dance. The man goes to the woman's house at sunset, knowing that the door will be open for him, and leaves the next morning before the sun rises. In the old days, the man would run or ride a horse to his lover's house, but nowadays bikes and even motorcycles replace the older means of transportation. In reference to the lovers, the man is called a xia and the woman a du - the Mosuo terms for 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend.' When a woman is pregnant, her xia's family gives gifts but her own family takes care of the child. A man's main responsibility is his sisters' children.

Since there is no bond of wedlock, lovers can break off the arrangement any time with no hard feelings on either side. This is in stark contrast to the norm in historical China, where women were forced to bind their feet and conform to their fathers, husbands and sons wishes, and in contemporary China, where marriage directly impacts wealth and social status. The Mosuo have freedom of choice throughout their lives. Likewise, Mosuo women are not suppressed. After all, their goddess of the mountain would never stand for it!

So, when night falls, Mosuo men start their journey of love -- and the modern world, with all its complexities and complications, buzzes around them. It makes you wonder how much 'economic development' has taken away from the world's cultural diversity. After his journey to this land of pristine and mysterious beauty, Dr. Rock called Lugu Lake, 'the last piece of land created by God.' Who knows, maybe matriarchy was part of the original plan.

Country of Courtesy
I Mean What You Know! -- Tricky Chinese Expressions
Mystery Languages

A Matriarchal World
Jin Yong, the Kung Fu Master
A Brief Look at Banned Books

Cai Li's Culture Column

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