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The Mosuo of the Forgotten Kingdom

Last updated by fabiowzgogo at 2015/6/10

The Mosuo ethnic minority, considered by the Chinese state as a branch of the Naxi ethnic minority, differs sharply from the Naxi in at least one important aspect – and differs in the same aspect from most other Chinese ethnic groups, for that matter, not to speak of from most other societies on the planet – for the Mosuo practice matriarchy, that is, it is the woman who "wears the pants" in Mosuo society. In fact, almost literally, in the sense that it is the Mosuo female who does most of the hard, physical work that men in patriarchal societies do, and this is increasingly seen as a double-edged sword, for while it gives the Mosuo female's matriarchal status legitimacy, it also deprives her of the delicate femininity that most women in patriarchal societies seem to prefer.

A Mosuo Woman

A Mosuo Woman

The looming problem for the Mosuo is that modernity is slowly catching up to Lake Lugu in the form of karaoke DVDs and other entertainment media that give the independent, hard-working girls of Mosuo society an alternative view of what a female can be, and some of them are already showing signs of disaffection with their matriarchal culture. Some of the central norms to Mosuo culture, such as not necessarily taking a single partner for life (aka marriage, civil partnership, etc.), are crumbling.

Peaceful Life of the Mosuo People

Peaceful Life of the Mosuo People

Peaceful Life of the Mosuo People

Today, many Mosuo form loyal partnerships as couples – increasingly as soon as a child produced by the couple is born – whether or not the couple lives together in the same house on a 24 hour basis or not. The Mosuo practice what they call "walking" (tisese, literally, "coming and going" as opposed to "residing") "marriage", or "visiting marriage" (axia), i.e., a man may be invited to spend the night with a female, but he arrives after dusk and leaves before sunrise, and has no parental rights whatsoever vis-à-vis his offspring – indeed, the quotation marks around the word marriage above is to signify that a Mosuo woman can, in principle, receive a different male on each occasion; many of the successive children born to older generation Mosuo females each have different "fathers".

In contrast, some younger Mosuo women say outright that what they yearn for an is outright marriage in the patriarchal sense, i.e., of living together under the same roof, even if they may not be prepared to give up their dominant social position vis-à-vis the male.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. However, my intent, from the outset, and in contrast to many if not most who write on the topic of the Mosuo, is to discourage overly romantic notions about the Mosuo lifestyle, for theirs is not necessarily a society worthy of emulation, much less survival, if the only way that it can survive is either via "hermetic" isolation or by being propped up by well-wishing outsiders (NGOs) that feel that it would be a good thing to preserve the matriarchal society of the Mosuo – in much the same way that they and similar NGOs wish to preserve the Panda – even if the Mosuo themselves may one day tire of being Pandas, as it were.*(1)

*(1) There are those who argue that the panda is not deserving of our help since it has done nothing whatsoever to adapt to its surroundings, such as broadening its menu of foodstuffs and through this, broadening its climatic range. However, this is definitely a minority view – most people feel that the Panda should be preserved. The question of the worthiness of the survival of the matriarchal culture of the Mosuo is another matter entirely, as will be seen in the following.

And we haven't even broached the subject of "men's liberation", which, given outside pressure, will surely come knocking one day, and the question will then be, "How can the Mosuo traditional culture, which denies a male Mosuo fatherhood over his offspring, at all survive if the Mosuo male's parental rights are to be recognized?" In fact, how can women's liberation movements of Western societies, which themselves struggled for years to achieve recognition for women's rights – and some of which groups see in Mosuo culture a role model for the female – at all condone a society which, while it may very well put the female on a pedestal, at least power-wise, does so at the expense of the male, simply reversing the role of the oppressed Western female versus the oppressor Western male? One would think that it would leave all but the most radically militant women's liberation movements with with a very sour taste in their mouths.

As will be seen in the following, the Mosuo differ from their Naxi cousins – with whom, it is assumed, they share a common ethnic origin – in other respects, the most important of which is religion. In fact, as will be seen in the following, the general consensus among Western scholars is that the Mosuo and the Naxi aren't cousins at all, since they differ in just about every respect except for their geographical origin.


Fig 1: Charming Young Mosuo from The Women’s Kingdom Poses for the Camera


The Mosuo live in the vicinity of Lake Lugu, a medium-sized lake (52 square kilometers) – at least compared to, say, Lake Yueyang or Lake Poyang, and a dwarf, of course, compared to West Lake – high up in the Himalayas, on the southeastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (see Figure 1 below, borrowed from Wikipedia but annotated by us, where the clay-colored area represents the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau).


Fig 2: Lake Lugu Perched on the Southeastern Edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau

More precisely, Lake Lugu is located in the north of Yunnan Province, about 100 kilometers, as the crow flies, northeast of the city of Lijiang (formerly Likiang), and, as can be seen in the image (Figure 3) below, the lake actually straddles Yunnan Province (to the left) and Sichuan Province. The distance, by road, from Lijiang is 280 kilometers, which, when you look at the map tells you that this has to be – is! – mountainous terrain, for on the two-dimensional plan, the distance "discrepancy" should not be so great, even given the round-about, twisting and turning route, therefore the only logical explanation is that when the third dimension is added, one gets the surprising difference.

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Fig 3: Map of Location of Lake Lugu in Relation to the Yunnan-Sichuan Border

Figure 4 below shows a more bird's eye view of the relationship between Lake Lugu and the rest of China.

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Fig 4: The Location of Lake Lugu Viewed in the Larger Perspective

If the Mosuo and Naxi have a common cultural heritage – which most Western scholars do not accept, claiming that even the Chinese sources that group the two peoples together present conflicting evidence, since the term “Mosuo” (or “Moso”) was formerly used to denote several different ethnic groups living in the region – then the split would have to have occurred very far back in their history if not prehistory, since little concrete is known about the origin of the Mosuo. When one adds to this the fact that the two peoples practice different original religions – the Dongba religion for the Naxi; the Daba religion for the Mosuo – speak different languages and the one is patriarchal while the other is matriarchal, the case for oneness tends to crumble.

It must also be said that the supposed geographical homeland for these two peoples, the Tibetan-Yi ethnic corridor, which is bounded by Ganzi Prefecture (the city of Garze) and Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture (see Figure 5 below, and note that shan means “mountain”) in present-day Sichuan Province, as part of China’s “Western Territories”, was abandoned early in the Tang Dynasty (CE 618-907)period, after the Tang emperor pulled out of the Western Territories mainly because it was too expensive to maintain Imperial garrisons there, but also because of humiliating wars there, which were costly both in money and in blood treasure.

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Fig 5: The Ganzi (Garze) – Liangshan Tibetan-Yi Ethnic Corridor

The An Lushan Rebellion (CE 741-57) occurred during this time, and it was in connection with attempts to put down the rebellion that the Tang government, realizing the enormous costs to maintaining an army in so remote a corner of the empire, chose to withdraw from its Western Territories, which thereafter were invaded by Uyghurs in the north and by Tibetans – under the Tubo Empire – in the south (see Figure 6 farther below).  

It is believed by some scholars that it was during this period that the Mosuo migrated out of the then Tubo (Tibetan) Empire – or at least near to its border with the Nanzhao Kingdom – due to the religious conversion of the Tubo Empire from the Bön religion to Buddhism in a decree issued by Tibetan King Trisong Detsen (CE 755-97), who made Buddhism the official religion of the Tubo Empire and at the same time banned all other religions, therefore the flight of those groups that refused to give up their ancient religions, including the Mosuo, who practiced an animist form of religion, Daba (animism is characterized by, among other beliefs, the belief that all things, inanimate as well as animate, possess a spirit).


Fig 6: Tang Dynasty Western Territories under Uyghur and Tubo (Tibetan) Rule

The area of the Yunnan-Sichuan border where the Mosuo currently live was on the southeastern edge of the Tubo Empire (aka the Tufan Empire) and on the northwestern edge of the Nanzhao Kingdom (see Figure 7 below), a lesser kingdom that was a vassal state under the Tubo Empire for a number of years, and which the Tang Dynasty had great difficulty dislodging (the Tang armies that were sent against Nanzhao were brutally slaughtered) until the kingdom foolhardily tried to expand its territory into neighboring Sichuan Province, after which the Tang emperor, seeing this as a challenge that could not be condoned, despatched a more determined army to the region that ousted the Nanzhao, who retreated back to Yunnan.


Fig 7: Lake Lugu vis-à-vis the Tubo (Tufan) Empire and the Nanzhao Kingdom

Eventually the Nanzhao tired of their vassal relationship to the Tubo Empire and allied themselves instead with the Chinese near the end of the Tang Dynasty, and together the Chinese and the Nanzhao, with the help also of the Uyghurs, pushed the Tibetan Tubo armies out of China's "Western Regions" and the area again came under Tang domination. It was at this time that the Mosuo embraced Buddhism, though they fused it with their Daba religion.

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Fig 8: Mosuo Woman Working in the Fields

As a way of defining what Mosuo culture is, it might be helpful to present a number of common myths about the Mosuo and their culture, and, in debunking these myths, thus paint a picture of what the real Mosuo culture stands for...

Myths and Misperceptions About Mosuo Culture

Note that not all of the myths about the Mosuo are undisputed, such as the first alleged myth we deal with here, namely, that the Mosuo, at some point back in their history, belonged to the Naxi ethnic minority (we leave it to the reader to decide this question on the evidence presented, acknowledging, however, that the evidence presented below is not necessarily exhaustive, though it does cover the main points on both sides of the argument).

The Mosuo Belong to the Naxi Ethnic Minority – Since the Mosuo speak a different language and practice a different religion from the Naxi, how can the two belong to the same ancestral tribe, ask most ethnologists?  Moreover, these scholars point to many discrepancies in Chinese historical annals where the use of the term "Mosuo" seems to be so broad that it was variously used to describe not only the Mosuo and/or the Naxi, but additionally the Yi, who also lived in the area. In other words, the term "Mosuo", during some periods of early Chinese history, served as a catch-all name for, at times all and at other times only some of the ethnic peoples inhabiting the region in question, namely the Tibetan-Yi ethnic corridor just south and west of Chengdu and extending west-southwestward. This would suggest that there perhaps exists no scientific justification for including the Mosuo in the Naxi ethnic minority, but rather, a historical-conventional justification.

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Fig 9: Mosuo Women in Traditional Costumes Performing a Lively Folk Dance

On the "pro" side (the above can be considered on the "con" side), it is believed that the religion of the Naxi, the Dongba religion, and that of the Mosuo, the Daba religion, might have had a common ancestry, but that at some point the ancestral religion divided into the two different branches, or sub-religions, where the Dongba posited a paternal spiritual ancestor while the Daba posited a maternal spiritual ancestor. To further strengthen the "pro" argument, if only circumstantially (it is hard to lump two cultures with different languages and different religions in the same pot!), note that this entire mountainous area is characterized by high mountain ranges with valleys in between, almost sealing the groups off in each their valley.

When the famous multi-tasker (to use a modern expression), the Austrian-born American explorer, Joseph Rock – who was also a geographer, a linguist and a botanist, and later served as a tour guide for a group of university scholars visiting the area – explored the region, which was centered around the present-day city of Deqen (see the upper left-hand corner of Figure 3 above), and which was referred to as Shangri-la in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton (the anglicized Chinese name for Shangri-la, as can be seen in the same Figure 3 map above, is Shangelila), he wrote the following in a 1929 edition of National Geographic magazine:

"No outlook in any direction! Here people live and die without the slightest knowledge of the outside world! How oppressive to be buried alive in these vast canyon systems! Or are they happier for it?"

Perhaps DNA evidence may one day definitively determine the question one way or the other; in the meantime, take your pick!

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Fig 10: Aristocratic Mosuo Women in Youngning (Lake Lugu), 1928

"So precarious are the conditions in their home city that costumes and jewelry were kept on an island in Youngning [Lugu] Lake for fear of raids by the Konkaling bandits."

– Joseph Rock

Mosuo women are promiscuous – This myth is predicated on the fact that it is the Mosuo female herself who chooses her partner for the night, whenever she is desirous of a partner. In principle, therefore, the Mosuo female can choose a different partner on each occasion. It is true for some of the older Mosuo women still living in the Lake Lugu area that several, if not all, of their children have different fathers, but this should more properly be interpreted as a series of longer-lasting relationships, not innumerable "one-night stands" (the term "serial monogamy" is perhaps more appropriate to the Mosuo's "walking marriage"). After all, the Mosuo live – and have always lived – in tight-knit communities where mutual respect could not have stood the test of time had the sexual relations of the Mosuo female been as promiscuous as some sensationalist sources would have us believe.


Fig 11: Looking Like a 17th Century Dutch Painting...

A Self-Confident Young Mosuo Woman in Colorful Garb

It is true that since the myth has been spread, attracting numerous tourists to the area in search of casual sex, brothels have sprung up around Lake Lugu, but the prostitutes in question are all outsiders, brought in to serve the tourist "needs" created by the myth, and dressed to resemble Mosuo women.

This myth has been around for some time. The Russian-born explorer, Peter Goullart, author of the 1955 book, Forgotten Kingdom, who was based in Likiang (present-day Lijiang, southwest of Lake Lugu and still the main trade center for the Mosuo) – and who lived in the city when it was part of the revived (during WWII), ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road, then a smuggling route that served as a supplemental supply route to the Burma Road that stretched from Rangoon to Kunming, but which latter, more visible supply route was constantly bombed (interdicted) by Japanese air forces despite the best efforts of the Allied air contingent, the Flying Tigers, to defend the Burma Road (hence the revival of the ancient Tea and Horse Caravan route) – described visits to Lijiang by the Mosuo in rather salacious terms, suggesting that the Mosuo were indeed promiscuous.

However, the "testimony" provided by Goullart seems to have been nothing more than repeated hearsay, not first-hand account, and since wagging tongues do have a tendency to produce 5 hens from a single feather (viz., the Hans Christian Anderson tale There Is No Doubt – and here is a blogsite that retells the tale in condensed form for those who aren't familiar with it), the "testimony" should be treated more as gossip than reality.


Fig 12: So Idyllic, But Can It Last?

As indicated in the above, the present-day tendency is for the Mosuo to form "permanent" (as permanent as patriarchal marriages, in any case) partnerships as soon as a child is born, though the Mosuo partnership convention, whereby the male visits his "wife's" abode only by night, still stands, i.e., the matriarchal lifestyle of the Mosuo is still maintained, though it is under an existential threat due to encroaching modernity via contact with the outside world... in a few decades, this Shangri-la may very well have ceased to exist!

The Mosuo have no words for "murder", "rape", etc. – a claim made not by the Mosuo themselves but by ill-informed outsiders, is pure myth, if, by this, one would suggest (as many ill-informed outsiders do) that rape and murder are non-existent among the Mosuo. Both murder and rape exist in Mosuo society, albeit, on a much lesser scale, comparatively speaking – i.e., per capita – than is typical of other cultures. Technically speaking, there are no separate words for "murder" and "rape" in the Mosuo language, which is a spoken language only, though efforts are underway to create a written language for the Mosuo – the word for killing in general also covers the killing of a fellow human being; as for rape, given that this is a matriarchal society, it is punished quite severely: by execution.

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Fig 13: Lined Up Like Birds On a Wire Admiring a "Bird"

Mosuo males have no other responsibilities than fulfilling their conjugal duties – is another widespread myth about the Mosuo. It is true that today, the role of the Mosuo male is changing, apparently for the worse, since Mosuo society itself is changing, and this change has already deprived the Mosuo male of one of his historically primary duties: to make the periodic trek to Lijiang with a mule pack in order to purchase the required provisions that the Mosuo can't themselves grow, or produce, at Lake Lugu (note that since this was traditionally a male task, the sight of a female Mosuo in Lijiang would have been something a rarity, though it surely occurred on occasion).

It is indeed true that many of the tasks that males in patriarchal society typically perform, and which, in that selfsame patriarchal society, are considered too physically demanding for a female, are typically done in Mosuo society by the female, but this is connected to the superior social position of the Mosuo female versus the Mosuo male, and, one might argue, is possibly even crucial to maintaining the Mosuo female's position as the gender that "wears the pants" in the female-male relationship. Regarding the Mosuo male's changing social role, because provisions today are fetched in Lijiang by motorized vehicles, this gives the typical Mosuo male a lot of idle time, where they tend to congregate in public squares and while the time away in not very productive chitchat.

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Fig 14: Relegated to Second-Class, "Flunky" Status?

But Mosuo males do indeed regularly perform physical work for their mothers, with whom they live. Note that we said "work for their mothers", which is a crucial difference, since it does nothing to cement relations between the Mosuo "marital" couple, it only strengthens the mother's hold over her children, especially over her male children, even when they are no longer children. Men plow their mother's fields – or at least break the ground in late spring/ early summer – and sometimes tend to the family's horses, and even where a woman may be in charge of the regular fishing trip to the lake, she depends on the family's stronger male(s) to haul in the heavy catch in the nets.

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Fig 15: Not Often Highlighted, But Class Distinctions Exist in Mosuo Culture

Today, there are other avenues for work for Mosuo males, and these avenues are expanding the more that Mosuo society comes into contact with the outside world, both locally and from farther afield. For example, many Mosuo males now work in the Lake Lugu guest houses where tourists stay, and in some cases, if the daughter and her "walking marriage" partner run a guest house together with the daughter's mother, then the Mosuo male – who may need to be present at all hours of the day and night in the event of emergencies (the guests are, after all, more accustomed to dealing with males when it comes to mechanical things that need repairing) – lives under the same roof with his so-called "walking marriage" partner, something that would have been unheard of only a decade ago. Also, when tourists need a guide for fishing trips on the lake, it is a Mosuo male who fulfills this function.

As Mosuo society develops in response to outside influences, more and more economic opportunities for the Mosuo male will make themselves available, and this will undoubtedly put a strain on the Mosuo's matriarchal social structure, for if males eventually becomes the bigger "bread winner" of the two, thanks to employment in the tourism sector, then at some point the Mosuo male can be expected to demand recognition commensurate with his earning power, and even where an economically independent Mosuo male may not have a conjugal partner though he continues to live with his mother, delivering his wages to her except for whatever pocket change mom permits him to keep, the dominant "bread winner" role of the male will at some point surely cause rifts in the social fabric of Mosuo society that will be difficult if not impossible to repair without fundamentally altering the Mosuo's matriarchal social structure.


Fig 16: Choreographed Karaoke, Mosuo Style?

Moreover, since the Mosuo female has traditionally been the "bread winner", she has not had time to obtain an education, whereas the male has increasingly had plenty of free time on his hands, thanks in no small part to the introduction of motorized vehicles into the life of Lake Lugu, and was perhaps therefore interested in education as a diversion, if for no other reason. Almost all – if not all – of the local Lake Lugu government officials who represent the Mosuo vis-à-vis the regional government (roads have to be built and maintained, electricity provided, etc., as well as health services and other social services) are males, and this education and concomitant economic gap – and the prestige gap that it engenders – cannot but be a ticking bomb under the Mosuo's matriarchal social structure.

The Future Of Mosuo Society Under The Pressures Of Change 

Quite frankly, as we have already seen in the above, the future looks rather bleak for the Mosuo's matriarchal society. The older generation Mosuo females proudly maintain their dominant role as the family's matriarch – and young teenage Mosuo girls, in awe of their proud grandmothers, also subscribe to this traditional view of Mosuo culture – but the older teenage and young adult Mosuo females are more susceptible to the pressures of outside society. Many young adult Mosuo females compare themselves unfavorably with the delicate femininity of females of patriarchal culture, where the female does not traditionally perform hard physical labor but instead has soft hands and fewer – and less deep – wrinkles, etc., as banal as it may sound, since the females of patriarchal culture do not typically work out of doors performing manual labor.


Fig 17: Threatened Species? A Hard-Working, Dignified Mosuo Grandmother

As indicated, Chinese and Japanese karaoke DVDs are seen today in many Mosuo homes, and the contrast in gender roles, where the female of patriarchal society is pampered if not put on a pedestal, makes its silent but deep impression. Add to these social pressures the stories of Mosuo girls who left Lake Lugu and lived elsewhere in China, or in Japan or America. And even where disappointed, returning Mosuo females, having given up the patriarchal lifestyle of the outside world, upon returning to Lake Lugu denounces the patriarchal social structure of the outside world, praising instead her native matriarchal social structure, there is surely an optimistic tendency for the individual Mosuo girl from Lake Lugu, on hearing such testimony, to believe that where her "sister", the returning "prodigal daughter", may have been incapable of making a go of it in the patriarchal society of the outside world, she could most certainly make a go of it.

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Fig 18: The Times They Are A-Changin'!

But the Mosuo female is only one-half of the equation, even if that equation is changing; the other half of the equation is the Mosuo male and that half of the equation seems to be changing even more rapidly, in response to outside pressures, than that of the Mosuo female.

But perhaps the greatest threat to Mosuo culture is not the change in the way that the Mosuo will gradually come to see themselves and their society vis-à-vis the outside world, but the direct influence of intermarriage, patriarchal style, between the Mosuo and outside society. So far, one has only heard of a few such marriages, and most of them seem to have failed, but in time, especially with changing attitudes on the part of younger Mosuo females, such marriages will surely increasingly succeed, with more and more Mosuo females leaving Lake Lugo to live in Beijing, in San Francisco and in Soho (a part of London's fashionable West End), and if, or perhaps when, given the influx of tourists, that happens, then at some point there will be a shortage of females at Lake Lugu, with Mosuo males similarly leaving Lake Lugu in search of new opportunities in Lhasa, in Kunming, in Chengdu, or even in neighboring Lijiang.

And then there is the problem of the disenfranchisement of the Mosuo male who doesn't even have parental rights in his native matriarchal society. As the male's economic power and resulting social prestige increases, this will surely encourage him to claim his rights, firstly as a father, then as an equal to the Mosuo female.

If one adds up all of the influences that are set to be tugging, in each its separate direction, at Mosuo society, then it is very, very hard to see how Mosuo society, in the long run, will be able to withstand these pressures, though this does not mean that Mosuo society is anywhere near the precipice yet. But when the "social erosion" to Mosuo society, due to the sum total of these disruptive if not destructive influences, reaches a tipping point, the dissolution of Mosuo culture could be nearer than one might imagine today.

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Fig 19: Wouldn't It Be Nice to Have the Best Of Both Worlds?

If the Mosuo's matriarchal culture is to withstand these many pressures, then the Mosuo must begin to confront them now, rather than first react to them after they have posed an existential threat to their society. There is no means whereby the clash of the matriarchal culture of the Mosuo with the patriarchal culture of the outside world – which clash is already taking place – can be mitigated other than by confronting this clash, these threats, head on, with eyes wide open, and adapting to them. The threats are not likely to go away – quite the contrary, they are likely to arrive in increasing numbers and on multiple fronts.

The sight of a strong, independent female in general – and in particular the sight of a strong, independent Mosuo female – is a thing of beauty, but if that beauty is purchased at the expense of reducing the Mosuo male to a second-class citizen, if not to a deadbeat (many young Mosuo females speak disparagingly of the men of their villages, speaking, in contrast, with admiration for the independent, purposeful males who arrive from the outside), then that beauty loses a great deal of its allure. Wouldn't it be nice to have the best of both worlds? But is this at all possible? The questions, alas, are easier to pose than their answers are to find!