China: Mosuo Women

High in the mountains of China, just near the Tibetan border, lies a lake known as the “mother sea”... in a land they call the Kingdom of Daughters

This is the country of the people of the Mosuo.. a tribe that maintains a proud separation from the ethnic Chinese.. and a way of life that’s unique - probably in the world

In the Mosuo family, women rule.Zhematze is the matriarch of a family of seven.In her language there’s not even a word for father.

She inherited the family home from her mother, because here property is handed down to women..All children stay in the maternal home, even after they’re married with children of their own.

Granny: “At least five or six generations of our family have lived here.”

Daughter: “My mother is the boss of the family. She looks after everything in the house.”

“Before me it was my mother, and before that her mother.”
And after Zhematze, her daughters will carry on the tradition.

Daughter:“All the work here is done by women. We don’t let men do it. If we’re too busy then they come and help. That’s our way.”

The Mosuo have no formal marriage. Zhematze’s eldest daughter Suo Lam has two children, with a man she’s called her “friend” for the past fifteen years.The children stay with her family, while their father , in the Mosuo tradition stays with his own mother.

Each night he leaves his maternal home and walks up to the village to spend the evening with her. They call it walking marriage.

This is the Mosuo idea of wedded bliss. There’s no shared property, no common finances, and no such thing as child custody.. And so they say, there are no disputes.

Husband: “There are no arguments between us. When there are things to be done I help her and she helps me.”

Woman: “There’s no such thing as a dispute, no quarreling.”

Husband: “Because we don’t see each other in the daytime, we’re particularly happy when we meet up at night.”

Younger sister Achima has yet to find a man. Like all Mosuo girls, from an early age of thirteen she’s worn the traditional skirt that means she’s come of age. She now has a room of her own, so she can receive men when she pleases..
In some parts of China, girls are killed at birth. Here the birth of a girl and her transition to womanhood are a cause for celebration.

Achima: “Without a man around, women are free. We have the freedom to do whatever we like. When you’re with a man you have to tell him whatever you do. But in our walking marriage system we don’t have to. If I want to go out I only have to tell my family. I don’t have to ask that man.”

The survival of the Mosuo way of life wasn’t always assured. There was a time when China’s government was bent on wiping out the Mosuo ways.

Village leader: “In 1973 and ‘74, our practice of walking marriage was banned by the government, and couples were forced to get married.”

“Wearing our costume was forbidden. If you wore traditional clothes you’d be accused of feudalism and superstition.” “Our mothers, old women who had long hair were forced to cut their hair and wear a Chinese hat and clothes. They cried because this wasn’t their way. But that was the policy.”

When the decade of persecution ended, the people went straight back to their old ways. (pause)

These days on the face of it, the culture is thriving.. living proof - if you can believe the government - of China’s tolerance of its ethnic minorities. There’s good reason for this benevolence too.. In a word, tourism.

Lugu Lake as the Chinese know it is being remade, into a major tourist destination. As much of China still is, it was closed to foreigners until two or three years ago.. Western tourists are just beginning to trickle in. But Chinese tourists are coming droves.. 27-thousand have visited this village of 800 people just this year.

To the Chinese, the Mosuo are a cultural curiosity.. or as the government’s tourist propaganda puts it, “living fossils” on display.

(Q: What had you heard about his place before you came here?)

A: Chinese tourists: “There were a lot of rumors. One story goes that if you see a broom in front of a house, that means that the woman of the family already has a man. But if there’s no broom you can just go in - any man who wants can go in and sleep with her.”“I thought it was sensational, but strange.”“I thought it couldn’t be true, but I had to believe it because the people said so. That’s why we came here.”

Tourism is steadily transforming the people’s lives.. Before this was one of the poorest parts of China. Now Zhematze’s grandson can earn as much in a day taking tourists for rides on the family horse, as his mother earns in a week.

Nowadays Achima’s traditional costume is mainly bought out for the tourists too.. She supplements the family income by taking visitors on the lake.

In true Mosuo fashion, the effort and the proceeds from the tourist trade are shared among the people of the village..

While some may fear for the impact on their culture.. for many here, the future can’t come soon enough.

Azhi runs the village store and billiard room from her family home, charging ten cents a game. It’s only men who play. The women have too much work to do.

Azhi says people earn ten times more now than they used to before outsiders started coming in.

Azhi: “The tourists come here, they have a boat ride, and that generates business. It’s good.”“Since this place opened up, our living standards have improved. We eat better food and wear better clothes.”

Inevitably, the arrival of the outside world is eroding the Mosuo ways.Some here say it’s about time..

Azhi’s daughter for one has rejected the custom of walking marriage.. and the social system that she says keeps women tied to the home.

(Q: Do you think men/women are equal here?)

Azhi’s daughter: “There’s no such thing as equality here. Women work harder at everything, in every way.”“The men all go to school. When they leave they can’t find jobs, so they just play around all day.”

Girls are usually kept a home to help the other women, while boys - without the work to do - are more likely to be sent to school.Real power she says is in the hands of the men.
Azhi’s daughter: “The money is looked after by men...Everything is controlled by men. Even the important matters at home are controlled by men. Men are in charge. (laughs).”“The village leaders, the village chief and even the head of the women’s organization are men. How can you say women’s position is higher when there’s not even a female leader in the village (laughs). It’s all done by men.”

Just as outsiders are being drawn into this idyllic backwater, so the Mosuo are learning the lure of the outside world. Young people are starting to leave the village.. girls to avoid a life of manual labour... boys seek their fortunes further afield.

The authorities, who once tried to stamp out this culture, are now trying desperately to preserve it. The Mosuo costume has been made compulsory for those working in the tourist trade. If they don’t wear it they’re fined.

A big new development zone is being built across the lake, so the Mosuo village can be preserved as a showpiece for tourists.. and backdrop for the nightly performance of Mosuo music and Chinese propaganda songs.

(Q: How important do you think it is to preserve the culture?)

Mayor: “It’s essential to preserve the culture because without our tradition and customs, the tourists wouldn’t come.”

It was isolation and poverty that preserved the Mosuo people’s way of life.

But they’re no longer desperately poor, and the world has broken into their cocoon. Electricity has recently come to the village.. There may even be running water soon.

The Mosuo are no longer a people suspended in time.. The 20th century and the rest of the world have finally caught up.This time, perhaps more than ever before they’ll need all their resilience to survive.

Achima: “No matter how open this place becomes, our ways will stay the same. It won’t work if our customs change. The old people wouldn’t like it and neither would we. Our customs will be passed down forever and will never change.”
© 2013 Journeyman Pictures
Journeyman Pictures Ltd. 4-6 High Street, Thames Ditton, Surrey, KT7 0RY, United Kingdom

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