Matriarchal Marriage Patterns of the Mosuo People of China
History – a largely isolated but harmonious community
1. Historical and geographical information
The Mosuo live at the shores of lake Lugu, situated on the South-West
of China, it has common borders with the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan.
The population of the ethnic group of the Mosuo is 30.000. They have their
own distinct language, but no script. They have their own native Daba religion
and some are adherence to Tibetan Lamaism. The highest elevation of the
area they inhabit is 3.200 meters and the lowest 800 meters. They have
inhabited this area more than 1600 years according to the documents of
the Han Dynasty.
Due to the very mountainous terrain they inhabit the Mosuo have not had
much contact with the "outside world" except through and ancient "Tea-Horse-Road".
Many of their daily needs are met through trading with a caravan. This
ancient route heads to the North and meets the following places: Yongning-Lijiang-Zhongdian-Deqin-Mangkang-Zuogong-Leiwuqi-Naqu-Lhasa.
There is also a Southern route which is further and it takes the caravan
one whole year to make the journey to Tibet and back. The Mosuo community
has been isolated for a very long time and has lived a self reliant and
self-managed lifestyle. This provides very clear evidence of the validity
of its culture and traditions.
Could it be said, that this culture has maintained itself through its
own strengths and abilities? The answer is negative. When the army of the
Yuan Dynasty advanced from three different routes from the North to the
South to fight the Dali regime, one of Kublai Khan's routes reached
the Mosuo area. The perception of the Mosuo among the leaders of the army
was that of a peaceful community, because of their policy of non-resistance.
( In fact the Mosuo had no ability to resist.) The area where the Mosuo
lived was named "Yongning", i.e. "a place of eternal
peace and stability". The army of the Yuan Dynasty took camp for
a time at the valley in Yongning, which is called "Riyuehe",
which means "the place where sun and moon are in harmony." Here
the army was able to recover and the Mosuo were not bothered.
Lamaism gained influence at the end of the Yuan Dynasty. This also had
an influence on the cultural development of the Mosuo. They accepted into
their culture what brought improvements to their lives. For example, the
religious leadership of Lamaism was kept separate from the political leadership
of the local area. Lamaism was purely seen as a religion which gained strength
through families which took on board its values. Each family set up a special
room for the recitation of the Lama scriptures. Family members would only
visit the temples on festival days. In this way the influence of Lamaism
and the Tibetan culture on matrilineal Mosuo culture was limited. In this
way they conserved their own culture. In this context the word "isolated" has
its own relative meaning. Based on their own ways of conserving their culture,
nowadays 60% of the Mosuo are still living in matriarchal families.
2. Matriarchal family patterns
In view of the local historical and social circumstances the Mosuo have
still preserved a very harmonious family structure. The matriarchal family
is composed exclusively of matrilineal members, including grandmother,
mother, maternal aunts, and uncles (mother's brothers), sisters and
brothers, and the children of oneself and of the sisters. No members of
the parental side are part of it. The members of a matrilineal family belong
to a mother or her sister's children. Children remain in the maternal
home throughout their lifetime and work there together with their brothers
and sisters who belong to the household. The mother is in charge of the
economics of the family and its just distribution. If there are several
sisters in a family, one of them will be elected as the "Dabu",
the matriarch, the woman who is the smartest, most capable and impartial
of them all. The brothers of the mother are responsible for the religious
activities and rites around the year.
There is a clear division of labour between men and women. Woman are responsible
for household duties and men for heavy labour. Any income gained by work
such as building work or business will be handed to the clan-mother, the
Dabu, who will used it to meet any need of the family for clothes, food,
housing and services which they can not provide for themselves. Divorces,
quarrels and strife are not known in Mosuo communities. The benefits of
this kind of family culture are listed below:
- There is great support among all members of the family. Each member
is a descendent of the mother. The relationship of the family member
with each other is free and easy. They get on well with each other without
strife among brothers, wives, uncles or nephews.
- Marriage is free and based on love. It is not affected by political,
economic or religious factors. Elders never interfere with the choices
of the young. The only exception is the case of being too closely related,
members of the same clan. There will be an intervention in such a case
by the mother's brother. This intervention is accepted and as a
result struggles over issues as such never occur.
- Mosuo families care for their own. The young and the old are looked
after very well and disabled people have a special place in the community
as they are seen as messengers sent by God.
- The population increase is steady but slow. Men and woman are equal.
Boys are not regarded as more important than girls, girls actually are
more preferred. The fertility rate is not very high. The children are
common to the sisters who live together. In this way the gender balance
is kept perfectly.
- The birth process is easy and they take good care of the children.
Many of the young Mosuo live the custom of "visiting marriage",
and bear their children when they are in the best physical condition.
As soon as young woman is pregnant she shares her mothers bedroom in
order to avoid being "visited" again, this is to protect
- The property of the family always stays intact. Matriarchal families
gather great financial strength in spite of the size and many needs of
its members. The setting up of separate families would incur great expenses
and divide the acquired wealth.
- A clear division of labour encourages all the members who are engaged
in different jobs according to their own special abilities. Some members
set up businesses, but all work is completed with ease and attention.
- There is a reasonable arrangement between work and the rest of life.
Mosuo people are simple, honest and unspoiled. People often sleep without
shutting their doors and no one pockets anything found on the road. Mosuo
greatly enjoy the plentiful provision of nature and a happy peaceful
As a result of this some scholars hold that Mosuo communities are free
of six problems which face of current modern society:
- first, the problematic social status
of the two genders and the missing space for feelings;
the situation of old people, often left alone or ill-treated;
- thirdly, family conflicts and domestic violence;
- fourthly, crime such as sexual harassment, theft, murder and arson;
- fifthly, estrangement of family members and humans in general
from each other and the threat of war;
- sixthly, environmental problems.
There are however even in Mosuo communities shortcomings and contradictions
which I will discuss below.
3. Matriarchal Marriage Patterns
Mosuo people's "visiting marriage" can be defined in
a simple way: Either woman or man will marry the other freely. The lovers
meet at night at the woman's house and at dawn the man goes home
to his own maternal family. The couple will not set up a new family and
do not share property. Any children resulting from the union of the couple
are the woman's children and the man helps to raise the children
of his sisters. On the basis of not having any economic ties, or political
or family pressures influencing their decision the erotic love and affection
are the only basis of their relationship. As a result, any development
of in the relationship which results in them separating is not going to
influence the children at all.
There are possessive phenomena in patriarchal monogamy and polygamy – as
far as I know – such as to possess emotions, children, rights and
goods. Mosuo separate the issues of emotions and the material world with
its economic requests, so the only factor which influences the choice for
a partner is love and affection. The material status of the mother is not
shared with the partner so love is really shared in equality. So a very
wealthy man can not gain a woman's attention with his wealth, because
it belongs to the man's family.
But what about the question of jealously? What if a man tries to win the
love of a woman who already loves another man? Will there be violence,
or dissention be sown? Will revenge be taken or will the offended suitors
try to buy popular support? In fact, nothing will happen. This has to do
with the whole philosophy of Mosuo life which is expressed in the following
sentences from the Daba scriptures:
is without fault,
is nectar in the blossom, salt in the soup
brings joy to the world."
People should comply with the laws of nature: water can not be held back
from flowing, a tree can not be rescued, if it will die. People should
enjoy life, which has been given to them. The woman has the right of choice
among the Mosuo. If a woman is loved by two men at the same time, the one
who is not chosen should not hold ill feelings, because he loves her sincerely
and holds no grudges as he makes no demands with his love. He may still
get a chance later on if he is patient enough. He gains something just
by loving, even if his desire is not fulfilled. The heart can only be conquered
by another heart, everything else will hurt the heart. Mosuo people understand
that love is a fragile feeling. Friendship can only last through tenderness
and affection. People who experience jealousy might make fun of the opponent,
but without hostility.
As a result of such attitudes and ideas love and marriage are truly free
for Mosuo-women, and they are regarded as a happy people who know how to
love. In fact, Mosuo women are gentle, kind, uncomplicated, capable and
hardworking, but they are not without politeness. A Mosuo woman obtains
status and authority through her diligence and intelligence instead of
having it bestowed on her by others. It is said in a poetic way that her
deepest emotion is
good tea made with fresh water
slowly sends forth a delicate fragrance,
a spring which brings forth streams of water,
the taste of the most mysterious fruit of all,
a flying bird in the field,
a peacock in a cage."
concepts in tradition – a society supported by matriarchal thought
What is held true in patriarchal and matriarchal societies is very different.
For example, in patriarchy man is fundamental, woman nonessential; man
is the seed and woman is the carrier; man is the superior sky and woman
is the inferior earth; man is the shining sun and woman is the pale moon.
The focus is on the man, the woman is only an appendage. The worst expression
of this attitude is man is holy and woman is unclean and able to defile
the holiness of man. Women are insulted and abused by many vicious labels
patriarchal society puts on them.
I want to provide a few insights into matriarchal attitudes and thoughts.
On the first page of ancient Mosuo scriptures of Daba-religion are the
is the source and trees have the roots.
can't be separated from the mother.
won't hurt if flesh clashes with flesh,
it will hurt if flesh knocks against bone."
The words illustrate the differences between matriarchal family and patriarchal
one. In matriarchal families difficulties among the members can be easily
negotiated, because they all come form the same mother and are more considerate
of each other. It is different in patriarchal families, here persons may
be often hostile to each other such as the wife and her husband's
mother or the different wives of brothers. The different family composition
is the simple explanation for that.
I tend to listen to what the people say. Here is another example: An old
Mosuo woman once said: "The woman is source and man is course; female
is bone and male is blood. Why? Because new life emerges from the woman!
A person's shape is completed inside the woman's body. People
will grow up after birth but the structure of the body, the arms, feet,
nose, ears, mouth and all the other organs are completed before birth.
The whole course of the creation process is completed within the mother.
The father provides a little seminal fluid which can be compared to blood,
sweat and water and will disappear quickly. New life from the mother is
From the ancient Mosuo thought we know that the most important three rites
of passage: birth, adult initiation and death, are penetrated by this kind
of thought. In the Mosuo clan-house, there is a special room for deliveries,
which is also used for the death of the mother. The whole family is very
happy about the new birth, especially the mother and her sisters. Male
family members are not allowed to participate in the birth process, they
are not even allowed to enter this birthplace, the origin of this new life.
All the female relatives from nearby villages will visit the mother and
baby in the first month bringing chicken, eggs, brown sugar and butter.
After the baby has completed its first month of life, a very important
rite of passage will be held and women play a leading role in this. Male
members keep silent and are not taking part in the performance of this
rite. Otherwise they will be laughed at. The thought of "female being
source and male being course" is advocated from the beginning to
the end of the birth rite, as if the arrival a new life has nothing to
do with men.
Another great festival for the Mosuo is the adult initiation rite, which
is held when the children are thirteen years old. This process is enabling
the young persons to become proper family members, and now they can express
their opinions and are not given special care anymore. At this special
celebration, the mother's brothers invites Lama and Daba to bless
the children with a ritual. However the mother dresses the daughter with
special festive clothes of a young woman and gives her a special treasure
to hold in her hand. It is easy to see that the mother's brothers
show their responsibility through a formal ritual only, while the mother
is the real life guarantee. After the rite the mother will take the children
to the relatives and receive many gifts. Male members will never have this
kind of honour given to them.
The situation is different at funerals; men arrange the whole funeral
procession no matter who the deceased is. Women avoid taking part in the
funeral. Here, strong matriarchal thought is revealed. The place for new
life is sacred, men can not take part in it. And woman won't witness
scenes from the end of life or of disease and decay to death. Only the
men can confront all of these.
We can see all of Mosuo life from the beginning to the end is penetrated
by matriarchal thought. I could give countless additional examples from
myths, folklore and folksongs of the Mosuo.
Survival – flexibility in different approaches
The matriarchal family and marriage patters of the Mosuo people are not
immutable. They are not a living museum, and life is full of changes, a
philosopher once said: "The only permanency in life is change." The
Mosuo are a small ethnic group of 30.000 people and surrounded by
much larger groups. In the past they faced the onslaught of the Han culture,
Tibetan culture, Yi culture, and it is a problem for the Mosuo to conserve
their own culture and find an adjustment between survival and development.
If a family has only male descendants and all of them practice "visiting
marriage", the family will not have any children. Mosuo people adopt
appropriate measures to deal with this situation. One of the brothers' lovers
may be selected as "Dabu" one who is virtuous, fair and capable.
After a trial period, all family members will accept her and the life of
the family can be continued. If family members aren't satisfied with
this approach, they will train a female successor coming from a maternal
relative's family to enable the family to have descendants. This
family will be changed into a coexistent family with a matrilineal part
and a patrilineal part (patrilineal part refers to the couples marriage
pattern), if a male family member marries a woman from a different clan.
However, the family will go back to the matrilineal pattern, if there are
several female members born into the next generation. A matrilineal family
with only one son who marries a woman definitely will change into a patrilineal
one and may go back again when the third generation occurs with enough
girls. A family with only daughters will let one of them marry a man definitely
who lives in her clan-house, and the others practice "visiting marriage" as
usual. According to the needs of the families flexibility is the order
of the day. These flexibilities serve to maintaining matriarchal culture
and are the expression of the wisdom of this small ethnic group.
It is sometimes more difficult for the Mosuo people to keep out foreign
cultures, as it is to preserve their own. During the period of the "Great
Culture Revolution" in communist China (1966-1976), the central government
carried out what was called the "Marriage Movement" according
to which the patrilineal marriage of one man and one woman was only permitted
(the patriarchal couples marriage pattern). The government dispatched working
teams to publicize policies and supervise the execution of the same in
Mosuo villages. Mosuo matriarchal families with their particular marriage
patterns were regarded as a primitive and backward tradition. Those who
didn't follow the new instructions wouldn't be provided with
their daily needs, such as tea, salt, sugar, cloth and so on. It was a
curious occurrence that sometimes three generations in one family went
to draw their marriage certificate at the same time. Many Mosuo people
went back to their own homes and didn't pay any attention to the
certificates any more after the working teams left, because the traditional
convictions and culture couldn't be eliminated in such a short time.
However, due to certain pressures which were applied, some people did observe
the new regulations and suffered a lot of emotional stresses as a consequence.
The government changed policies and allowed the local traditions to be
practiced again after the "Great Culture Revolution" ended.
The Mosuo recovered from this upheaval and went back to the tradition of "visiting
marriage", and many of the Mosuo people had been reluctant anyway
to get married in the first place.
Any culture will continue to exist as long as it has vitality. A culture
develops through mutual exchange with its social environment. But it will
not lose itself, if cultural exchange is based on equality for both sides
without the attitude to wipe out the opposite side. The Mosuo culture is
now confronted with a new onslaught and new challenges and has to
find a new road into the future.
The current situation – to follow the traditions and still face
the challenges of the future
To explain this I want to give the example of Luo Shui village:
Mosuo people are still following the matriarchal patterns and the concept
of "visiting marriage" in their lives nowadays. Tradition is
followed as usual. But tourism has brought the latest onslaught to Mosuo
culture. People from many different cultures are now visiting the Mosuo,
but especially the influence of television, newspapers, phone and the internet
are taking their toll. Their influence is changing Mosuo values and concepts.
This is happening on a daily basis and we will be able to observe it and
learn a lot from it. It is a great fortune that only one village is really
badly affected by the changes, the fishing village Luo Shui. Most other
Mosuo villages are outside of the main tourist areas. This is the reason
why research into the changes, which have taken place in this village,
is so vital for the understanding of the change process.
In 1983 the Chinese Government set up the Lugu Lake Provincial Tourism
Area, in Luo Shui County in order to affect the low income of this region.
However, the Mosuo people did not understand how tourism functioned and
how to generate finances from it in spite of government programs to educate
them. They regarded the tourists as friends and entertained them and were
ashamed to receive money for this. One village elder once told me: " The
government encourages us to develop tourism, but we do not know how to
do it." During this time one woman, Ceng Lacuo, had her own ideas
how to go about it. She started a small hotel in her house with twenty
beds and began to receive tourists who usually are male. This caused quite
some upheaval in the village. Although it is very natural for the Mosuo-women
to receive men in their houses, the Mosuo did not want Ceng Lacuo to charge
for this as they felt it would give them a bad reputation. Furthermore,
the elders of the villages saw clearly that older people and children would
suffer the most under this new economic situation. Now in case it came
to difficulties between the visitors and the Mosuo. Finally, Ceng Lacuo
agreed to take responsibility for any problems, and the village committee
agreed to let her go ahead with her plans. She earned 30.000 Yuan without
any of the anticipated problems materializing. This was a huge sum of money
for the Mosuo.
As a consequence many villages imitated her scheme and set up private
hotels. This however caused problems because now there were all these villages
competing for the customers, and former harmonious communities changed
into commercial communities. To face this problem the women who owned hotels
and the elders got together to find a solution. They came up with the idea
that the owners of hotels distributed their boats and horses to the families,
who did not have hotels, to enable them to earn some money from the tourists
by offering boating-trips and horse-riding. This helped them to be on good
terms again with each other. So tourism really began to take off in Luo
Shui County for two years.
One of the results is that many non-local people married Mosuo women now
because of the considerable wealth which is generated by tourism. Family
quarrels and even separations became more common, and the Mosuo have to
face more difficult challenges. Some companies set up in the area and began
to employ Mosuo people during the tourist season. The clan-mothers saw
this as an opportunity for their children to gain knowledge and encouraged
their children to pick up jobs with these companies. Many Mosuo girls went
back to their homeland after working in Kunming, Shengzhen, Shanghai, Beijing
for years. They clearly saw the difference in how they were treated at
home and how unhappy they felt when they were away from home. This experience
of discovering that the sparkling modern world does not keep its promises
turned them advocators and supporters of their own culture.
Preservation of ones culture and seeking development are the two sides
of one coin. Preservation without development leads to powerlessness. On
the other hand, loss outweighs gain if development is carried out without
preservation. How can we find a balance between development and preserving
our culture, this is problem worth pondering for Mosuo people. To reject
education is anti-intellectual. Tourism alone can not be the only answer
to the need for development and to gain access to mainstream society. It
is possible that in a few decades the real Mosuo culture will have disappeared.
There are some shortcomings in the Mosuo culture which threaten their
survival: First, the life of the family is in the centre of attention to
the detriment of the larger community. For example, the Luo Shui County
has no cultural facilities, even though there are enough finances available.
Secondly, their main focus is on traditional family education and school
education is rejected which would give them access to science and technology.
As a result this ethnic group will die out, if the current trend continues.
Thirdly, because of the strong position of the mother in Mosuo families
the children do not develop a strong sense of independence and have little
pioneering spirit. They will find their development potential is
not very great, especially after leaving their community. Fourthly, population
increases slowly, it actually is on the decrease. If there are one
or two children in a family already, the women will stop to have any more
children. Mosuo people who intermarry with people from other ethnic groups
will lose their children to these other groups because of two reasons:
Mosuo-men leave the children to the mothers as usual. But Mosuo-women have
to leave their children to their partner's families, too, because
these families are patrilineal.
As I have stated above I do not believe that we can avoid the interface
with the strong modern civilisation, and I suggest we adjust and reconstruct
our culture. We should learn to choose and develop in a sustainable way
and find a path between tradition and modernization. It is of paramount
importance that the situation at Lugu Lake is being studied and researched
as increasingly the impact of outsiders is changing the face of the culture
of the Mosuo. Mosuo people are aware that they should hold the paddles
of their own boats.
(translation by Wang Yun and Jutta Ried)