Part of an interview with Ethnologist Yan Ruxian by Chen Xinxin about the Mosuo, one of the world's few remaining "innocent" communities.
The Mosuo, an ethnic minority living on the shores of beautiful Lugu Lake at the juncture of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, are one of the few remaining matriarchal societies in the world. With their unique mystery, the Mosuo community is attracting an increasing number of scholars, tourists, journalists and artists.
Recently I spoke with Professor Yan Ruxian, a research fellow with the Institute of Nationality Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in an effort to learn more about the Mosuo.
Following her first contact with the Mosuo community in 1962, Professor Yan paid seven more visits, developing a friendly relationship with the Mosuo and thus enabling her to know more about them. Their life stories, joys and sorrows have touched Yan. Every time she talks about staying with them and about her ties to the community her eyes tear over.
The Mosuo attach more importance to family than to marriage itself, an outlook which seems incredible and perhaps even impossible to comprehend for those from modern civilizations. When talking about the Mosuo social system, Yan says that matriarchy, which has been practiced among the Mosuo people for hundreds of generations, is quite rare today.
Although the Mosuo matriarchy is not the same as those of prehistoric times, this community offers good opportunities for anthropological study, since it sheds light on and gives a better understanding of human history.
Yan believes that human ethics have hitherto experienced three stages of development: the first stage saw ethics complying with matriarchal standards, which became the norm for 90 percent of humankind in the first 3 million years of history; the second stage coincided with the disintegration of the matriarchal system, the formation of a patriarchal society and the shaping of trade and commerce, when patriarchy dictated the dominant values; and the third stage is characterized by the individualism that accompanied the birth of capitalism.
The matriarchy of the Mosuo people is a holdover from the first stage.
Yan describes one Mosuo family she knows well as having three generations: four sisters with ten children and many grandchildren. They are all the offspring of a common ancestral mother. Children do not often know who their father is, but are in close contact with their mother and maternal uncles.
Maternal love creates strong family cohesion: each child is well cared for, all family members work according to their ability and all are treated equally.
This equality is not absolute: The elderly are more respected, youngsters more beautifully dressed, and the children given more care.
In one family members of different generations live in harmony, free from the commonly-seen contradictions among in-laws. Equality between men and women, respect for the aged, good care for children, harmony among family members and friendly relations with neighbors are not seen as extraordinary virtues but as normal everyday behavior.
One never finds Mosuo exalting men or looking down on women, neglecting the elderly, drowning unwanted infant girls or quarreling with neighbors. It's natural that some might compare the Mosuo community to a land of virtue.
The Mosuo are intelligent, not uncivilized or living in a savage state as imagined by some.
With traditional virtues as rules of everyday life, few Mosuo feel threatened and productivity is very high, allowing for a higher standard of living compared to neighboring ethnic groups.
There is planning for all crops: with seeds and harvests set aside, remaining crops are used to brew wine and other beverages. Per capita grain output was over 1,000 kilograms in 1995.
Nearly every Mosuo family has ten pigs, and almost everyone works in a tourism-related business. The Mosuo homeland is a place of beautiful mountains and lakes. Mosuo have a keen appreciation of beauty.
The men appreciate the way women dress, their graceful movements when walking, and even the elegant way they eat; while women enjoy a strong physique, a man's hearty laugh and their witty and humorous conversational skills.
Since there is no marriage there are no monogamous Mosuo couples. Many ask, how do two lovers get along? There are a few Mosuo who do formally get married, but most don"t, Yan said. They follow the unique tradition of zouhun, or unfixed marital relations, by which a man goes to his lover at night but leaves before daybreak.
Mosuo boys and girls are considered grown up when they reach the age of 13, when a coming-of-age ritual is held and they are allowed to begin social intercourse, although they don"t have friends of the opposite sex until they are physically mature.
In the Mosuo language there are two words for "friend", axia for lover or sexual partner and azhu for friend in the platonic sense. Grown-ups enjoy complete freedom when seeking an axia; neither the family nor the community interferes.
A Mosuo mother will prepare a single room, called "guestroom," for her grown daughter.
Young men and women have the right to make their own decisions in choosing a partner; if two Mosuo are fond of one another they may become "husband" and "wife" the same day they meet.
A mother may give her daughters advice but rarely forces them to act a certain way.
In a matriarchal family, relations among family members are based on mutual respect, and any problem is submitted for discussion and negotiation. According to Yan, during her long stays among the Mosuo, she has never seen people quarrel or come to blows, and children are never abused as in patriarchal families, when disobedient offspring are punished for not listening to their parents.
When one grows tired of a sexual relationship, a simple expression of discontent can sever the bond. The other party is expected to yield gracefully. Axia is based completely on the will of both parties.
A survey of the Mosuo from the 1960s showed that some remained with one axia, while others had had nearly a hundred in their lifetime. Such comings and goings are not seen as a question of fidelity but as a purely private affair - gossip is very rare.
It is a custom that lovers give each other presents, but these gifts are limited in quantity. In this case the man no longer owes obeisance to his own family, but if the axia dies before him, he is very likely to be driven out of the house by her children, because the Mosuo consider it unlucky to have a man of different lineage living with them under the same roof.
With rising ethnic consciousness, however, the Mosuo have realized the importance of their own traditions and have recognized their lifestyle is a tourism draw.
The Mosuo realized a class society a long time ago. But despite the existence of private ownership of family property, they keep their own code of conduct and morals in line with the matriarchal system.
Within a family all members have common ownership of family property and enjoy equality in most affairs.
Full article with many examples of Mosuo's every day life.