Imagine if your brother raised your children and your husband visited a few times a week. This is the ancient cultural practice of the Mosuo people – one of the last surviving matriarchal societies in the world.
Image: Musuo woman Du Zhi Ma, 68, poses in front colorful Musuo textiles at her home in Luoshui Village on the edge of Lugu Lake. (Dave Tacon) In a remote corner of Southwest China in the Yunnan province, the Mosuo people live as one of the world’s last matriarchal societies. Erin O’Dwyer visited a Mosuo village to produce a documentary for 360documentaries. In the village women are the head of the household, children are raised in the mother's home and uncles play father to their sister’s children. In villages that sprawl around pristine Lake Lugu—high on the Tibetan plateau in Yunnan province, about a day’s journey from the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city Lijiang—women are head of the household. They control the wealth, inherit the property and do most of the manual and household labour. Children are raised in the mother's household and uncles play father to their sister’s children. 'People say the Mosuo are a matriarchal society but actually it’s a matrilineal society,' says French anthropologist Pascale-Marie Milan, who is living with the Mosuo as part of her PhD research. 'There are matrilineal societies in India and Africa but those societies have marriage. In the Mosuo society there is no marriage. In their custom, the man visits the woman in the night. It’s the only society that does that now.' In the Mosuo’s dialect there is no word for husband or father. In a 'walking marriage', a woman can take as many lovers as she pleases. A man comes to a woman’s house at night, arriving under cover of darkness and leaving again before dawn. The relationship is only made public once children come along. Even then, lovers live separately and can end their relationship easily. Adult males stay living in their mother’s homes, and the children and property always belong to the mother.
Image: The Mosuo girls dress in elaborate costumes for the fire dance. If a boy is interested in a girl he taps her on the hand during the dance. (Dave Tacon) Image: Mosuo villagers perform a fire dance for tourists. (Dave Tacon)
Anthropologists believe walking marriages could have begun as early as the 8th century. It was a way of protecting family wealth and keeping the family clan together. And despite a push towards traditional marriage from the Chinese Government for the past half-century, walking marriage is still the norm among the Mosuo. It's practised as widely by young people in their twenties as it is among their grandparents. 'Because we do walking marriage, we have no idea what it’s like to live with your wife in a conventional marriage,' says a 23-year-old Mosuo man, who lives with his mother, grandmother, two older sisters and two of his eldest sister’s children. 'Walking marriage was part of our culture from ancient times so I as a Mosuo boy should follow the tradition.' In the Mosuo’s dialect there is no word for husband or father. In a 'walking marriage', a woman can take as many lovers as she pleases. A man comes to a woman’s house at night, arriving under cover of darkness and leaving again before dawn. Now, though, the Mosuo's ancient ways are at the mercy of modern China. Domestic tourism is exploding across the country and tourists are coming to Lake Lugu in rapidly rising numbers. The same new roads that bring the tourists to see the Mosuo’s rare culture and stunning mountain-and-lake home are also taking young people away from the villages for the first time. Teahouse owner Xiao Ming, 25, spent five years working in factories in Guan Dong province before returning to Lake Lugu two years ago. He came home wanting to find a girl and settle down. 'In the city I realised that our way of seeing relationships is totally different,' says Xiao Ming. 'People I...