Part 3: Three-step guide to falling in love

How does love work in a matriarchal society? We find out how to court a Mosuo woman and when couples are considered officially married

This is the third 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 the last section, I discussed how the foundation of the Mosuo family unit depends on an individual’s relationship to their mother(s). Concepts of parenthood, inheritance, and household work differ significantly from what we in mainstream societies accept to be the norm.

Because an individual in the Mosuo community spends a lifetime living with their maternal family, this inevitably changes how they conduct romantic relationships. In this section we dive into what love and marriage look like in the matriarchal society.

Monogamy within the Mosuo

There was a common misconception among Chinese tourists that the Mosuo people are polygamous. This was one of the first parts of Mosuo culture that our tour guide, Baima, felt compelled to address as we traveled to Lugu Lake. He emphasized that marriages and relationships are always monogamous. Baima would often play pranks and mislead visitors by telling them: “There are seven women in my life.” Only after a meaningful pause would he finish, “… my mom, my aunts, and my sisters.”

There are seven women in my life... my mom, my aunts, and my sisters.

Monogamy within the community is largely enforced through social judgement and self-policing. When a woman comes of age, she is allowed to move out of the shared room where young children sleep into her own private room in the family compound. Men continue to sleep in shared quarters even after they reach adulthood. When a man and woman become romantically involved, they can only enjoy (relative) privacy by going to the woman’s room. The rest of the family is aware of this new relationship. Any affairs would be quickly found out from the interconnected community and public shame brought down on the cheating party.

Three-step guide to love

So how do young women and men start relationships? The Mosuo elder walked us through common courtship rituals used to romance a new partner. I was not able to verify whether young people these days still closely follow these practices. I suspect many of these traditions are becoming outdated, especially since the invention of texting and the Internet makes covert communication a lot simpler.

mosuo-dance Mosuo line dance with men and women dressed in traditional clothing.

Just like in our societies, men typically initiate and demonstrate their interest first. Instead of directly approaching the woman, which can be extremely nerve-wracking, there are more subtle methods to gauge her interest. In our culture, men may recruit friends to ask the woman indirectly and test the waters. Mosuo men, on the other hand, use traditional large group dances as a cover to suss out hidden feelings. During the event, young men and women will clasp hands to perform in an intricate line dance. While a man is holding his beloved’s hand, he can stroke her palm three times to indicate his interest. If she responds in kind, the woman is signaling that she is open to furthering the relationship.

Now that the young man has her initial positive response, there are three critical steps to winning a Mosuo woman’s heart:

  1. Climbing the wall
  2. Running from the dogs
  3. Serenading/reciting poetry
mosuo-wall The 15-foot wall that a young man might have to climb to woo his beloved.

The family compounds are enclosed with high wooden walls. The first step to demonstrating relationship material is a test of physical strength. The man must first scale the walls and gain access into the woman’s residence like a real-life Romeo.

Once inside, the man now must dodge the family’s dogs. Mosuo families typically have one or more dogs to help guard their property. Dexterity and intelligence will ensure the man doesn’t fail at this step. If the woman’s family didn’t already realize there was a courtship going on, they certainly will know one is underway when the dogs start howling. Not that family will do anything about it; Mosuo courtship is an acceptable form of breaking and entering.

After climbing and then avoiding the dogs, the last step happens in front of the woman’s room. The man must serenade the woman with music or recite elegant poetry to her closed door. Oftentimes it will require more than one evening of repeating these three steps to convince her of his affections. If the woman is ready to start a relationship, she will open the door to her room and permit him to enter. At that point, the couple is effectively “Facebook official.”

The courtship rituals gave me an indication of what is attractive in Mosuo men: physical strength, dexterity, and a certain degree of sensitive romanticism. What about the women? It goes without saying that physical appearance is still important. But apparently the strong leadership qualities that make women contenders for the next head of household are also attractive to the young men. The Mosuo elder declared that qualities of assertiveness, decisiveness, and an entrepreneurial spirit were all valued traits in female partners.

And what happens when there are multiple men competing for one woman’s attention? The response was that there is very little jealousy between amorous men. It is ultimately the woman’s decision which man she picks. In fact, the elder told us, Mosuo men will often help each other climb the walls or figure out which day they each should go visit the woman to avoid overlapping. And once a partner is chosen from among the competitors, supposedly there are no hard feelings from the rejected men.

In our society, men are viewed as the agents of romance and women the passive recipients. A man “wins” his partner’s love and affection. And if he does not ultimately end up with the woman, we view it societally as the man not being good enough. For the Mosuo, the idea of agency is flipped on its head. Woman have the agency and they choose to initiate the relationship. A rejected man suffers no blow to his confidence if he is not selected.

There will always be people no one is attracted to or men that aren’t physically able enough to scale walls and outrun dogs. But our cultural teachers emphasized that a marriage-less existence was okay. As we learned in the last section, Mosuo society has no expectations for a specific person to get married and have kids. The burden of child-bearing is spread out amongst the female siblings in each generation. Thus those who are unable to or uninterested in finding romantic partners can look for other ways to have rewarding, fulfilling lives.

For the happy men who have been accepted by their beloved into a relationship, he no longer needs to perform the three steps of the courtship. The man can simply walk through the front door, give the dog a piece of tasty meat and a pat on the head, and walk up the stairs to his lover’s room.

Lifestyle vs. soul marriages

Now that the lucky couple has passed all the courtship hurdles, they must adhere to a set of rules for appropriate conduct in a relationship. The nature of these interactions may seem very odd to us.

mosuo-hand-holding Hand-holding is not allowed during the daytime. (Unsplash)

It is regarded very poor taste to display overt affection during the daytime. In Mosuo culture, the day is for work and family. Nighttime is when couples are allowed to indulge themselves and engage in romantic activities. You shouldn’t even hold hands during daylight hours. The community regards such behavior as immature and no better than an animal, judging the person as unable to control their urges until the approved times.

A Mosuo couple is considered married when they produce their first child, whereupon a small ceremony celebrating the marriage takes place. And even though the couple is now married, they are still expected to keep their expressions of love confined to the evening. Thus evolved the concept of the “walking marriage” (走婚). When the sun sets, a man will walk to his wife’s family compound and spend the evening there. They are required to return to their own household before daybreak. Some exceptions can be made if the couple lives very far from each other — the man might instead make the conjugal trip once a month and spend a few days living with his wife’s family. However this is atypical; spending time with your spouse’s family is considered highly abnormal. Eating meals with them is especially taboo since meals are meant to be shared with your own maternal family.

Before a couple is married, a man and woman may separate whenever they wish. The man can simply stop visiting the woman or the woman can keep her door shut at night. But even after the official marriage, divorce is easy compared to mainstream standards. Since all wealth and inheritance is passed down from mother to the child, the father has no stake in the material aspect of a mainstream marriage. The couple can mutually agree to stop seeing each other and the marriage is dissolved without fuss.

As I wrapped my head around this new understanding of marriage, the Mosuo elder unveiled the biggest distinction between our way of thinking and theirs: lifestyle vs. soul marriages. In mainstream society, there are many reasons why men and women enter into marriage. Love and affection are a major factor, of course. But people also can get married for money and status; in other words, because they want a certain lifestyle that the other partner can provide.

The lifestyle factors affect the ending of relationships too. Unmarried couples can split because they disagree on having children in the future. And for couples with children, oftentimes parents don’t leave an unhappy union because of fear of the impact to the children, or because a single-parent household is too financially burdensome. Sometimes people may be unwilling or unable to leave even in abusive or dangerous situations.

There are none of these outside pressures to maintain a relationship among the Mosuo. Because money, property and status are relegated to your maternal family, there are no financial ties that force a man and woman to stay together. Children are born into their mother’s family and raised completely separately from their biological fathers, so a divorce has no implications for the child’s upbringing. There is no motivation for the man to pressure the women to have a child. Thus, Mosuo couples are said to be in “soul marriages” where the only reason to be together is because of love and affection. In addition, the Mosuo are said to be highly intolerant of domestic abuse. “We just get rid of the awful guy and find someone who really loves you and treats you well,” Baima told us.

The problem with us modern people, they summarized, is that we love “too closely.” When we form romantic attachments, we expect that our partner will be integrated into every part of our lives — we build a home together, we raise children together, we construct the core of our social ties that is the nuclear family. We want to know everything about the other person, which can mean seeing all their negative qualities as well.

The problem with modern people is that you love too closely.

Mosuo couples love at a distance. A woman may never see the laziness of her husband as he slacks off in his household duties during the day. A man may never see the meanness of his wife as she betrays her business partner. To the Mosuo, only knowing a limited part of the other person is something that is celebrated. Distance creates mystery, and mystery fuels the feelings of romance so that passion can burn brightly for a long time.

The Mosuo way of conducting relationships is also supposedly superior to mainstream relationships in terms of romantic conflict. For starters, child-raising is none of the man’s business, removing a major source of potential conflict in the marriage. Then suppose a Mosuo couple somehow gets into a huge argument. Daytime forces the lovers to be apart, and I agree that it seems difficult to continue to be as angry for 12+ hours. Perhaps because of this more distant type of love, people can compartmentalize and shake off their frustrations without needing to resolve the root issues.

Some things do stay constant — a Mosuo woman still appreciates when her lover brings her gifts and presents. It is even more meaningful, we were told, precisely because it is not expected. There are no traditions around gift-giving in their culture and so it becomes a purer, unmotivated form of affection.

The Mosuo elder ended our lesson on love and marriage with one last revelation: because of their devout Buddhism, Mosuo marriages are voluntarily dissolved when one member reaches the age of sixty. The locals believe that life before age sixty is for the current life: to fall in love, to make money, to connect with family. After sixty is for cultivating the next life and investing in your spiritual future.

The Mosuo courtship rituals were definitely interesting to learn about, but the part that grabbed my attention was the idea of necessary distance in love. I believe that there is some merit to remaining independent and mysterious to the other person. Whole books have been written about in this vein. It made me question again whether our dream of soulmates — that perfect someone out there who fits in every way — sets many couples up for failure.

Not everyone believes in a soulmate. Yet, what we do believe in is assessing partners on qualities beyond simply the emotional and physical connection. I’ve heard friends insist that they must live with their partners before getting married, to determine if their domestic habits would be tolerable enough to spend a lifetime together with. And what about other questions we ask about our future spouses: are they compatible with us money-wise? Do they have the same religion? The same views on how to raise children? The same political views? Sometimes it seems like there is an endless laundry list of requirements that we need to check off before we commit to each other.

Matching with someone sounds undeniably easier in the Mosuo world. Certain aspects of their personality will forever remain out of view, which means much less time spent worrying and vetting those parts of the person. Who cares if they’re a slacker as long as they love you faithfully and passionately? A Mosuo woman certainly doesn’t mind. For a mainstream woman, that slacking quality in her husband will have profoundly weightier implications: for their quality of life, for the example he will set for their children, even for the social acceptance that she will have among her friends.

Yet I can’t help the feeling that, although this distant-type of love might be more practical, it’s not the ideal type of relationship that I want to have. Only dealing with certain parts of another person seems a bit like settling. I want to believe that people can find partners they deeply connect to in many areas of life, even if it might be dramatically harder to find them.

Maybe that’s just mainstream upbringing talking. I am too conditioned to a certain perspective to properly evaluate this new definition of love. If we could objectively compare them, it may be that a shallower but more passionate relationship is preferable to a deeper but more muted connection.

For the final part in the series, we consider the modern forces that are changing the Mosuo culture and whether or not the matriarchal culture can be sustained in the future.

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