The foundation of Mosuo culture is the practice of tiesese, or walking marriage, an alternative to matrimony in which men visit women at night to fulfill the need for procreation and sexual gratification.
LUGU LAKE, China — A young man clad in a white shirt, black pants and red belt suddenly scrambled up the side of a log house and slid feet first into a second-story latticed window.
“This is how Mosuo men would climb into the ‘flower room’ of the women,” Ke Mu explained to visitors as the triumphant swain stuck his head out the window of the flower room, or bedroom, and waved his hat.
It was morning in the lakeside village of Luoshui in southwestern China. On a narrow side street, dusty from hotel construction nearby, a group of young workers, including Ke, 18, was preparing for another day of cultural pageantry at the Mosuo Folk Museum.
Their task is to showcase the traditions of the Mosuo, a minority ethnic group said to be the country’s last matrilineal society, where children take their mothers’ surnames and daughters are preferred to sons.
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A fascination with such traditions has led to a booming tourism industry in this once-isolated region.
Lured by the promise of spectacular natural beauty and exotic cultural experiences, hundreds of thousands of visitors, mostly Chinese, are making the journey to Lugu Lake, nestled on a plateau in the mountains between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.
Those numbers are expected to rise with the opening of a local airport this month and later an expressway connecting Lugu Lake to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan.
In response, a number of family-run hotels have popped up along the lake’s pristine blue waters. Visitors can watch residents perform traditional dances in colorful costumes and can take boat rides on the lake as young Mosuo men serenade them with love songs in Naru, the Mosuo language.
All around the village are signs that read, “Welcome to the Kingdom of Daughters.”
Lively as the traditions seem, however, the Mosuos are facing a crisis. As interaction with the wider society increases, residents and outside experts fear that the group’s unique cultural practices are facing a grave threat.
Experts say the population of Mosuo in the Lugu Lake region, estimated to be about 40,000, is decreasing as more young people marry outside the group or move to larger cities for work. And without a written language, Mosuo culture is particularly vulnerable to disappearing.
Even within the community, young Mosuo are increasingly choosing marriage over the foundation of Mosuo culture: the centuries-old practice of tiesese (pronounced tee-say-say).
Known in Mandarin as zouhun, or walking marriage, tiesese is an alternative to matrimony in which men visit women at night to fulfill the need for procreation and sexual gratification. Traditionally, a Mosuo woman might have several tiesese relationships during her life, sometimes simultaneously. Though this has changed as outside values of monogamy and lifetime partnership seep in.
“It would be great to get married one day,” said Lu Ru, 34, who is in a tiesese relationship. “Can you imagine loving someone that much?”
With tiesese, sex is kept separate from family, and men and women are generally expected to spend their lives in the houses in which they were born. As a result, sexual partners rarely occupy the same dwelling. Household harmony is valued above all else, including conjugal relationships.
In traditional Mosuo culture, family life is structured around the basic social unit, known as the “grand household,” in which children are raised by their mother and her side of the family. And while children typically know their biological fathers, maternal uncles are responsible for taking on the paternal role, helping to raise and provide for their sisters’ children.
Men stay with their mothers, and the several generations live in the grand household together.
According to Chuan-Kang Shih, an expert on the Mosuo and an anthropology professor at the University of Florida, the system is underpinned by a fundamental belief that women are more capable than men, mentally and even physically. The Mosuo also believe that everything people value in the world came from a woman, not a man. All male deities are secondary to their patron goddess.
“The system makes so much sense when you think about the overall ways in which family systems have to navigate between sexual desire, stability, domesticity and claims for children,” said Judith Stacey, a professor of sociology at New York University who has written about the Mosuo.
“But it depends on a lack of mobility, which is why now, with all of this inequality as well as economic and geographic mobility, it can’t survive as a system,” Stacey said.
According to historical accounts, life in the Mosuo community was relatively stable for hundreds of years. Starting in the Yuan dynasty, which ruled China from 1271 to 1368, the Mosuo were governed by a native chieftain system with a rigid social hierarchy.
While they lived alongside several other ethnic groups who practiced marriage, almost all Mosuo continued to practice tiesese.
That changed in 1956, when the chieftain system came to an end and the Mosuo were incorporated into the recently established Communist system. Under Communist rule, the social ranks were abolished and the Mosuo were subject to efforts to change what the Communists saw as their “backward marriage customs.”
These efforts culminated in 1975 with an official “one husband, one wife” campaign, which required Mosuo sexual partners to marry and live under the same roof.
Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the government largely receded from everyday life among the Mosuo. But experts say the increased scrutiny left many members with a conflicted attitude toward tiesese.
“In the late 1980s, the Mosuo were either very defensive or denied the existence altogether of the so-called walking marriage,” Shih said. “Then in the mid-1990s, when tourism began in the Lugu Lake area, they began to see it as capital to attract tourists, and they started to boast about it.”
Not everyone is mourning the waning of tiesese. One recent afternoon, Lu Zuo, 78, a retired farmer, sipped yak butter tea on the floor beside the hearth in his longtime tiesese partner’s home in the Mosuo village of Dapo, about a 45-minute drive from Lugu Lake.
A small white bust of Mao Zedong sat above the hearth flanked by two red vertical banners inscribed with Buddhist prayers in Tibetan script.
Lu watched as his daughter and two sons set the table for lunch. Before eating, the daughter, Song Na, 49, took a small piece of potato from the table and placed it on a black stone at the back of the hearth to honor the family’s ancestors.
After lunch, she left her brothers and nieces to clear the table and walked across the street to an empty yard where she would not be overheard.
She talked about her longtime tiesese partner and their two daughters, both of whom were working in Lijiang, about seven hours away by car.
“They probably won’t enter a walking marriage,” Song said. But what mattered most to her was not the tiesese tradition but its underlying values.
“As long as they come back to take care of the household,” she said.