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Part 1: What I learned from “Women’s World”

Notes from my journey to visit the Mosuo, China’s last matriarchal minority

This is the first post in a four-part series on Mosuo matriarchal culture.

  1. Introduction to the Mosuo
  2. Family organization
  3. Love & marriage
  4. Clash with modern lifestyles and values

In late April 2017, I traveled to Yunnan province in China with my family. I expected it to be a standard family trip where we saw some beautiful scenery and ate delicious regional Chinese cuisine. I was completely surprised when we ended up in a remote region in order to learn about a radically different way of life.

This series is a summary of my experiences and also a reflection on family and love in modern society.

A lake in the mountains

Lugu Lake (泸沽湖) is a freshwater alpine lake that sits at 2,000 feet above sea level. The water is clear to a depth of 10 meters and can be drunk straight from the source. Mountains surround the lake on all sides. Legend goes that a woman fell in love with a man who abandoned her, riding away on a horse. It was the horse’s hoof that stamped the horseshoe-shaped basin of the lake. The woman found the hoof print and knew she had been abandoned. Grief-stricken, she collapsed to the ground, her tears filling the basin and creating the lake. Her prone figure is visible in the ridges of one of these mountain ranges.

lugu-lake

This area is the home to the Mosuo people, the last matriarchal and matrilineal ethnic minority in China. They are the reason Lugu Lake has it’s other name: “Women’s World” (女人国).

mosuo-boat A woman rows the tour boat along with her brother.

As we traveled by car from the nearest major city, the road winds through steep tree-covered mountains. Where there aren’t trees there is red earth.

The first thing I learned about the region is how hard life is here. The high elevation and dry red soil makes farming difficult. Crops grown here consist of mostly root vegetables like potatoes or a kind of red rice. The largest livestock being farmed are pigs. Residents not engaged in subsistence farming run businesses built on tourism. The customers are people like us, who come from all over China and halfway across the world to learn about their matriarchal culture.

mosuo-mountain A small village off the highway growing crops on the terraced hillside.

There are a handful of towns along the lakefront — a “town” being a couple dozen buildings made up of restaurants, inns, and a few gift shops. Some locals row boats for tourists to bring them to a Buddhist temple built on an island at the center of the lake. Others act as tour guides or teach traditional ethnic dances.

Since the Mosuo are a largely an agrarian society, there wasn’t a lot of the matriarchal culture that we were able to experience directly, other than eating the food and watching a traditional evening dance performance. Most of our education came from directly speaking with locals and asking questions about day-to-day life in the community. Two people in particular shared the most context with us.

The young entrepreneur and the wise old man

mosuo-guides Baima (left) next to the Mosuo elder (right) greeting us with tea.

The first was our local guide, a young Mosuo man named Baima (白马, literally “white horse”). Most residents only speak the regional language of Lugu Lake, but Baima could also speak Mandarin very well. He claims to have learned how to speak Mandarin by calling toll-free service lines and talking to the customer support representatives. Free conversational lessons — this guy was scrappy, to say the least.

By the end of our four-day trip, I had a good sense of Baima’s personality. He was a charming jokester. He showered the older ladies in our group with attention and was a big hit. (In his words, he gave them their due “as a young Mosuo man should do with older women, who have all the social power.” They ate that up.) He was also a savvy businessman, even bringing us to have lunch at his family home so the trip felt special.

At the same time, we discovered that he was a responsible and dutiful son. His mother told him to become a tour guide and bring in more money to the family. He also wanted to get married — and his mother kept urging him to — but just hadn’t found the right woman. It was hard to find time to meet other young people while being a tour guide.

When we reached Lugu Lake, Baima introduced us to the second person who helped educate us about matriarchy society. This man’s primary job was teaching foreigners about the Mosuo culture. He was in his early fifties and had been nationally recognized as a cultural ambassador for the Mosuo people, traveling to dozens of universities around China to give lectures. Sadly, I forgot to write down his name — I’ll just refer to him as “the Mosuo elder.”

We only spent a few hours with the Mosuo elder so I didn’t find out much about him personally. Our educational experience was certainly a polished performance — he greeted us in traditional clothes led us through an ornate, immaculate Mosuo-style home. It was a far cry from sitting in a local bar and chatting up a local there. We drank tea and had snacks while he formally told us about the most compelling parts of his culture. I got the feeling that he often dealt with a skeptical or condescending audience. He continually emphasized how much better the Mosuo culture was than mainstream society, explaining every custom in the most optimistic light. The last thing he said to the women before we left was,

Enjoy it while it lasts, ladies. Here you’re number one. Out there, you’re most certainly not.

We asked many probing questions to the elder and, later, to Baima as we continued on our trip around Lugu Lake. But there are still a lot of nuances we couldn’t clarify in the short time. Only later did it occur to me to wonder why the two main sources of our cultural education were both men. As we will learn in the next parts of the series, if this place was truly a matriarchal society where women held dominant social and political power, shouldn’t it be women who were the face of the culture for foreigners? Maybe this was a concession for the cultural ambassadors to be men, to satisfy mainstream assumptions. But maybe there are other dynamics going on that we didn’t fully understand.

Regardless, we were able to learn about a rich tapestry of social traditions that differ greatly from our own. In the rest of this series, I will share specific aspects of Mosuo practices and cultures, as well as the implications for how we live in our own Westernized societies.


In part 2, we discuss how the Mosuo definition of family is the foundation behind their social customs, and how this definition may seem very strange by mainstream standards.


(This article was originally published on Medium, click here to read it there.)

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