A Women’s World: Meet The Mosuo

Mosuo Woman

This is a man’s world, but it would be nothing without a woman.” These popular James Brown lyrics didn’t just come from a popular song but also resonates with a much deeper ideology about our societal structure. What if women ran the world? Well, in a remote area of south-western China, in Yunnan, the Mosuo is just that; a matriarchal society. Imagine a society solely operated by women. It seems inconceivable. Not because of women’s ability, but because of the male-dominated systems that infiltrate societies abroad.

Lugu Lake in Yunnan, China - home of the mosuo society
Lugu Lake in Yunnan, China
Source: jeffreychen / Getty Images

Inside The Mosuo Society

Lijiang, China - Old women dressed with the traditional attire of their minority in Lijiang Old Town
Source: outcast85 / Getty Images
Lijiang, China – Old women dressed with the traditional attire of their minority in Lijiang Old Town
Source: outcast85 / Getty Images

Tibetan Buddhists called Mosuo, stationed near the foot of the Himalayas, have maintained a controversial lifestyle without the Western stigma. Grandmothers lead their extended families, while their female offspring follow suit. Marriage as we know it is absent from this society, while childbearing and rearing are both praised and required.

Walking Marriages

On-going sexual relationships in the Mosuo culture are known as “walking marriages”. Siobhán M. Mattison, Brooke Scelza and Tami Blumenfield explain these unique arrangements in their article “Paternal Investment and the Positive Effects of Fathers among the Matrilineal Mosuo of Southwest China.” “When a Mosuo woman or man expresses interest in a potential partner, it is the woman who may give the man permission to visit her. These visits are usually kept secret, with the man visiting the woman’s house after dark, spending the night, and returning to his own home in the morning.

The Mosuo Matriarchal Society
Source: Rod Warrington / Flickr
The Mosuo Matriarchal Society
Source: Rod Waddington / Flickr

An interesting dichotomy exists in the Mosuo society between progressive feminism and retaining the ancient “homemaker woman.” Depleted of any paternal obligations, men are viewed simply as “sperm donors”. They are considered sexual options for the women’s choosing, also known as axias. Men live with their extended families, providing some, while generally minimal, influence or support for the children within their household. And their own children grow up solely in the care of the mother and her extended family.

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Choo Waihong

Choo Waihong, a successful former lawyer from Singapore and feminist, found herself fascinated with this community. She ventured out to discover how they truly operate. There she discovered a complete contrast between her extreme patriarchal community within Singapore, and what appeared to be a feminist paradise. She witnessed males both young and old participating in customary maternal roles. However, men largely assisted in tasks that required physical strength and endurance such as building, repairing homes, slaughtering animals, etc.

Source: Rod Waddington / Flickr

Waihong’s visits became so frequent and enlightening, that it eventually became her second home and the focus of her book The Kingdom of Women. Being a single woman, she found great comfort in a community that doesn’t idolize being married by a certain age. However, the irony of women needing to be domesticated with children greatly concerned Waihong. She desired for the young women to know that they have options in life.

Tradition Meets Now

Many Mosuo women work as rowers for tourists who want to ride the lake. In some places, they are fully disguised which is not the case here.
Source: Alex Saurel / Getty Images

Recent times has proved a cultural revolution, but not completely how Waihong expected. As tourism has grown, it has also provided many avenues for additional careers and income. Therefore, many young Mosuo have sought other opportunities beyond sowing crops. More surprisingly, some Mosuo millennials have begun to marry and live with their spouses.

The Freedom to Choose

a young mosuo woman
A Young Mosuo Women
Source: Rod Waddington / Flickr

Some may refer to the ancient traditional Mosuo lifestyle as freedom, while others may see their recent evolution as positive advancement. But what is true freedom? Freedom is choosing the lifestyle that best accommodates you void of societal pressures and conditions. Culture should never define how a woman should live; whether housewife or single mother. The Mosuo community has proved that by empowering women abroad to choose their freedom despite the risk of opposing the “norm”.  While we’ll be singing to the tunes of James Brown for generations, we’ll also be paying homage to the many women who made this a women’s world.

Words by Jada Ledbetter

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