Part 4: Matriarchy meets the modern world

How can a centuries-old culture deal with Communism and increasing exposure to the modern world?

This is the final 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 part three, we talked about the unique attitude that Mosuo people have towards love and marriage. Now we shift our focus to how outside influences have endeavored to transform these traditional practices, and how future changes may lead to rapid deterioration of the Mosuo matriarchal culture.

“One husband, one wife”

hometown The Mosuo town higher up in the mountains where our tour guide lived.

The last day of our trip, our tour guide invited us to visit his family home. We drove fifteen minutes away from Lugu Lake to another Mosuo town further up in the mountains. Here there were no giftshops or loud signs advertising tourist attractions. Everything seemed less artificial and a little more run-down.

mosuo-family-courtyard The entrance and central courtyard to Baima’s family home.

Baima’s home was built in the traditional family compound layout. I noticed that there were significantly less ornate decorations here compared to the one shown to us during our official cultural lecture. Next to the entrance was a stable that housed a dozen fat pigs. Large swarms of flies hovered around the livestock. There was dust everywhere, and the stink of unwashed animals.

We asked for the bathroom and Baima led us to the backyard, through multiple storerooms holding farm equipment. There were entire rooms stacked full of bags of red rice. Baima, ever the businessman, had tried urging his family to start selling the crops to exporters, since red rice was getting increasingly popular in Japan. It would be much more profitable than storing it and selling domestically. But his mother refused, Baima said despairingly. She still considered rice more valuable than money, remembering the days of extreme shortage where having rice ensured your family wouldn’t go hungry.

Behind the compound was a stretch of rice fields and, just beyond, the outhouse. Their dog was tied to a chain, howling and lunging at the intruders. Baima told us that he had tried several times to install a working toilet. His family just kept removing it, saying it wasn’t useful. They wanted to harvest waste for fertilizer.

family-mother Baima’s mother (left) with their household cat (right).

After we did our business, Baima brought us back to the main room of the compound. Delicious-smelling chicken was cooking on the hearth. Beside the hearth, his aging mother greeted us. A cat watched us warily from one side of the room. We learned that cats are not regarded as pets, but rather as guardian spirits for the Mosuo people. The cat gets to come and go as it pleases. As we ate our meal, we respectfully dropped some chicken on the ground for the cat watching over us.

family-lunch The lunch meal served at Baima’s home: cured pork, stewed chicken, potato chips, and sauteed wild herbs along with herbal tea.

We learned a great deal about Baima’s family history. His mother had lived through the days of the Communists taking power. She remembers government officials in the 1950s arriving to impose the Communist system. This came to a head in 1975, when the government ordered the Mosuo to follow the “one husband, one wife” policy. Multi-generational households were dismantled and Mosuo couples were made to live together. Baima’s mother was forcibly removed from her ancestral home and moved to this new house with her husband. They lived here for three decades before he passed away, raising two daughters and two sons.

Now the matriarch of the household was Baima’s eldest sister. She stopped by the main room to greet us, along with her two young sons. Baima was the youngest child of the four siblings — his older brother was out farming, and his second sister had left a few years ago to go to college in Lijiang, the nearest major city. She stayed there after graduation and married a Han Chinese man, assimilating into mainstream society.

Even though Baima’s mother was now sixty or seventy years old, she was still energetic. She could spend more of her day observing Buddhist rituals now that she had already passed on the household responsibilities. Every day, she climbs the hill at the edge of town to the shrine at the top. I was amazed to hear that. We had tried to make the trek up there ourselves before lunch. After hiking for 45-minutes up steep hills and through thousands of prayer flags, I couldn’t believe an old grandmother could still make this climb.

family-shrine Prayer flags surrounding the local Buddhist shrine.

It didn’t escape our notice that there were no girls in the next generation. Baima visibly winced when we brought it up. We learned that all of his siblings had produced sons, even the older brother who was in a walking marriage. His eldest sister refused to have any more children, laughing when we asked the question and ignoring her mother’s lamentations. It was clearly a constant argument in the household. So all the pressure to continue the family line fell to Baima. He needed to find a wife soon and produce a daughter, who could then be adopted into the family to continue the next generation of the household. “You’re our only hope,” his mother said to him.

We finished our lunch and were led to an adjoining living room. We chatted for a while, drinking tea and waiting for our driver to finish his smoke break. I noticed two portraits hanging on the walls— one was of Chairman Mao and the other was of Xi Jinping.

Fifteen minutes later, the driver was done. We went outside to go back our hotel and, the day after, back to the modern world.

Building a new highway

mosuo-dump-truck Two men attempt to right a tipped dump truck.

Currently, making the trip is difficult. It takes nearly five hours to get there from Lijiang (丽江), the nearest major city. The journey takes you through steep, winding mountain roads. Our group of five hired a local guide and were crammed into an old van. Every hour or so, the driver would turn off the road to give the poor car a break and make sure the engine didn’t overheat.

At one of these breaks, I watched as a charter bus carrying a load of Chinese tourists pulled to a stop. The bus driver had rigged an internal setup to automatically douse its engine in water when it stopped. Watching the water steam off the bus, I wondered if I should buy some bottled water to pour on our van too.

Residents had set up pit stops along the road to sell snacks and food while visitors waited for their vehicles to exit the danger zone. They charged travelers a 1RMB ($0.15USD) fee to use the bathroom. Baima told us those fees were one of the main ways struggling residents can make money.

But change is already happening. A five hour drive usually means that visitors must make a real trip out of it: extended stays with at least a few nights spent at Lugu Lake. Now the government is building a highway which will shorten the journey to only two or three hours. Dramatically decreasing the travel time will make the area more accessible to tourists, maybe even for short day trips. More tourists means more opportunities for economic growth and lifting locals out of poverty.

The non-locals we met on our trip were generally respectful and interested in understanding the Mosuo culture. But new economic opportunities can create different kinds of problems. Lugu Lake has amazing natural beauty and increased accessibility opens up the area to investors who want to take advantage of the scenery with no regard to the local lifestyle. A Shanghai developer is already planning to terraform acres of unused land into fruit tree orchards and luxurious villas, hoping to build whole-cloth a vacation destination for wealthy Chinese. Depending on how popular these ventures are, it could create economic pressures to rapidly commercialize and discard historical traditions.

fruit-orchards These hills will be converted into fruit orchards over the next few years.

Easier transportation into the area also means easier departure. More and more young Mosuo are leaving Lugu Lake for better education and work opportunities. The deterioration of the culture will continue at an increased pace with another barrier removed. We were told that these traditions would probably be extinct within another decade.

The Mosuo have a profoundly unique culture. But as the outside world more deeply penetrates the Lugu Lake area, it becomes critical to record and reflect on their dwindling traditions. Thinking deeply about these customs and how they play out in the modern world is important for two reasons — first, because it could help us understand how the community can adapt in order to preserve some aspects of this way of life. And second, because this new perspective gives us insight on how to reframe our own lives in a happier and more supportive way.

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