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Grandmother sits at the head of the table; her sons and daughters live with her, along with the children of those daughters, following the maternal bloodline. This progressive, feminist world — or anachronistic matriarchy, as skewed as any patriarchal society, depending on your viewpoint — exists in a lush valley in Yunnan, south-west China, in the far eastern foothills of the Himalayas.
An ancient tribal community of Tibetan Buddhists called the Mosuo , they live in a surprisingly modern way: But is it as utopian as it seems? And how much longer can it survive? Choo Waihong set about finding out.
A successful corporate lawyer from Singapore, she left her job in to travel. Having trained and worked in Canada, the US and London, she felt drawn to visit China, the country of her ancestors. After reading about the Mosuo, she decided to take a trip to their picturesque community — a series of villages dotted around a mountain and Lugu Lake — as many tourists do.
But something beyond the views and clean air grabbed her. And I never really belonged at work; the rules were geared towards men, and intuitively understood by them, but not me. It was inspiring.
Warm, curious and quick-witted, Waihong made friends quickly. Young Mosuo are brought up by their mothers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles. The nuclear family as we understand it exists, just in a different form.
These range from one-night stands to regular encounters that deepen into exclusive, life-long partnerships — and may or may not end in pregnancy. Women own and inherit property, sow crops in this agrarian society, and run the households — cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. The men provide strength, ploughing, building, repairing homes, slaughtering animals and helping with big familial decisions, although the final say is always with Grandmother.
A few months after her first trip, Waihong returned to Lugu Lake. A teenage girl, Ladzu, had offered to teach her the Mosuo language, which is passed down orally, and introduce her to her family. Her visits grew longer and more frequent. She became godmother to Ladzu and her brother, Nongbu. Thus she began to put down roots. Her longer stays — she now lives with the Mosuo for a few months, three or four times a year — gave her the chance to discover more about this private, often misunderstood community.
As an unmarried woman in a community where marriage is non-existent, Waihong felt at home. I get a lot of dinner invitations, and my friends are always egging me on to find a nice Mosuo lover. With life centred on the maternal family, motherhood is, unsurprisingly, revered. To even ask that question is to see the Mosuo through our eyes, our way of doing things. There are a lot of cousins around.
To western eyes, this is the less progressive side of the Mosuo way of life. Is a society that, in many ways, emancipates women from marriage, and gives them sexual freedom, actually producing glorified s housewives who have no choices other than motherhood? But I wish it were different. But things are changing. Since mostly Chinese tourists began arriving in the early s, bringing paved roads, an airport and jobs for Mosuo people, their traditional way of life has started to feel outdated to its young inhabitants.
Ladzu and her friends may still be living for motherhood, but she is part of a pioneering generation in transition: She still lives at Lugu Lake, but in her own house, with her husband and son, who was born in February. She is not alone: A minority of men and women marry outside the community and move away.
Education often makes the difference: Even fewer head on to further education. This new rising class has money and the chance to meet people outside the Mosuo community; many families are renting out land for hotels to be built on. Subsistence farming is on the way out, slowly being replaced by the commercial farming of prized local crops.
Where land is still farmed for the family, mostly in more rural parts, children head home to help with the harvest. It is a society in transition, in a country that is changing fast.
Can these naturally emancipated Mosuo women — and men — show Chinese society a different approach to family life? She is less sure. Facebook Twitter Pinterest. Topics Family. Women Parents and parenting China Asia Pacific features. Reuse this content. Order by newest oldest recommendations. Show 25 25 50 All.
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