The Mosuo Tribe; Progressive or Oppressive?

Mosuo Tribe

A common trend dominating pop culture of the West is the emergence of exclusively women-only groups, who refer to themselves as tribes, dress as gypsies from the 60s, worship Egyptian symbolism, bathe in crystals under the moonlight and worship the winter and summer solstice. These are modern working women with powerful and high paying jobs, so what is this all about?

A resurgence of the women’s liberation movement? Or as they put it, a celebration of the feminine and the welcoming of the feminine side to the masculine. What exactly is it that these 30-something women of the West so desire? What is it about paganism of the past that they seek to rekindle? Perhaps they need not look further than southern China, to learn a thing or two about ancient feminine wisdom.

Picture a world where men are viewed as equal to women, a world where men are expected to satisfy a woman’s sexual needs and be gone by dawn.

Can you imagine a world where the women command who, what, where, when and how many men she wishes, and is not stigmatised by it. Where women make the decisions, call the shots, control the assets and live separately from men?

At the foot of the Himalayas, situated in the dense, green lands of bordering Sichuan and Yunnan, lives the ancient Mosuo (摩梭) tribe, who refer to themselves as Na. The Mosuo have become one of China’s most famous ethnic groups, due to their very way of being.

Made up of approximately 40,000 people, they mainly live in the Yongning region, which is situated around Lugu Lake, on the Northwest Yunnan Plateau. Since the 1980s, their way of living shot to fame, which has unfortunately opened them up to outsider criticism, speculation, influence and vulnerability.

Considered one of the world’s last matriarchal societies, that which has been criticised and sensationalised the most is the Mosuo practice of a “walking marriage”, which has been interpreted by many visiting Chinese as, “free love”, “primitive” and “promiscuous”.

A walking marriage affords the Mosuo woman responsiblity for household and financial decisions. She manages the money and jobs of each family member, and chooses which man shall share her bed and for how long. If a man impregnates her, after the child is born, her brothers will step forward to help raise the child, and the biological father relinquishes all responsibility and returns home to look after his sister’s children, while the parents are left to maintain a sexual relationship based on mutual attraction, if they so desire.

The grandmother is the head of the house and shall make the final decision on most things. When daughters come of age they are given a private room and after she finishes puberty, she may begin seeing men. None of this is frowned upon or considered promiscuous by anyone in the community; it is just the way it is.

As idealistic as this sounds, scholars have countered all sides of the argument. Author of “Quest for Harmony”, Chuan-Kang Shih, says that this system was put in place to ensure marriage came secondary, as the priority was placed on family, sex and reproduction. Cai Hua, in his book, “A Society without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China”, points out an important historical fact that their social organisation has traditionally been feudal, with a small nobility controlling a larger peasant population.

“The Mosuo nobility practiced a ‘parallel line of descent’ that encouraged cohabitation, usually within the nobility, in which the father passed his social status to his sons, while the women passed their status to their daughters. Thus, if a Mosuo commoner female married a male serf, her daughter would be another commoner, while her son would have serf status”. Cai theroises that the matriarchal system of the Mosuo lower classes was enforced by the nobility to minimise threats to their power.

The more the world learns of the Mosuo, the more it imposes its own ideals onto the tribe. It is also true that its traditions may not sustain the happiness and satisfaction of the people for much longer, as China progresses into a more modernised social standard.

The Mosuo report that they are so misunderstood that tourists come expecting the women to be promiscuous and try to take liberties with them, which is not surprisingly frowned upon by both the Mosuo men and women.

While walking marriage is tradition, it is not uncommon for couples to chose regular marriages and live under one roof. Indeed the more tourism that comes to the Mosuo, the more sophisticated job opportunities there are to lure them away from their nuclear families.

As young Mosuo woman are educated in schools, they are amongst a new generation that seek higher-paying, professional positions elsewhere, which in turn breaks the cycle of matriarchy.

From a rather misunderstood point of view, the women of the Mosuo are somewhat oppressed; the men are encouraged to do very little, and that in reality, patriarchy prevails.

A young Mosuo woman, filmed speaking with reporters from Journeyman Productions said, “[the tradition] keeps women tied to the home. There’s no such thing as equality here. Women work harder at everything, in every way. The money is looked after by men…everything is controlled by men. Even the important matters at home are controlled by men. How can you say women’s position is higher, when there’s not even a female leader in the village, it’s all done by men”.

Traditionally, the political leaders were often women, however, it remains true that most Mosuo officials are now men, but it has been reported that this is because the Mosuo feel men are a better choice for this, as the outside world is made up of male-dominated politics, so males are equal as representatives.

Whatever the outsider assumptions or personal beliefs about the Mosuo, that which remains authentic is that these people appear without the trappings of possessiveness, loneliness, financial and physical struggle, war, crime or orphaned children, and they do not even have a word for “jealousy” in their language.

Yet, alike ancient tribes across the human race the more families choose smaller homes and higher incomes, adapt modern ways and greater social standards, the less humanity will have left to learn from the people of these tribes. What the Mosuo teaches us is a very ancient alternative to a malfunctioning modern system, and that if observed organically, hopefully their lessons shall not go unlearned and the Mosuo become merely another page in the history books.