Called as the ‘Kingdom of Women’ by the Chinese, the Mosuo is a small ethnic group of Tibetan Buddhists who number around 50,000. They live in the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in China. The Mosuos are a matrilineal society where men and women are allowed to have multiple partners, and a woman has the full agency in choosing who to mate with.
In the Mosuo tribe, women are the head of the family and the property is passed through the female line. Women are the ones who make business decisions, although political power tends to wrest in the hands of the males. There is no concept of a father or a brother. Men do not take part in bringing up the child.
While women inherit property, manage farms, care for the children, and carry out household chores, while men do work that requires physical strength, like building and repairing houses, slaughtering animals, etc. While men do get to participate in the decision-making process, the final word lies with the grandmother – the matriarch of the household.
The Mosuo children only ‘belong’ to their mothers. The biological fathers live in their own matriarchal family home. Since most of the Mosuo women have multiple partners, the identity of the biological father might not be known. It is an accepted part of their lives and there is no shame associated with it, unlike what happens in the rest of the ‘modern’ world. The Mosuo kids are taken care of by the women in the family. Technically, every child in the Mosuo tribe is brought up by a single mother.
In this tribe, the couples don’t live together and there is no concept of marriage. The men and women in the tribe practice something called “walking marriage.” It is another term for nocturnal hookups. There is no interference in the romantic life of men and women by anyone else. This practice allows two people to get intimate just to satisfy their urges. There is no restriction on who they can spend the night with. Their language doesn’t even have a word for ‘jealousy.’
Whenever a man spends the night at a woman’s place, he must return back to his maternal house in the morning. Mosuo women do not have to yield to any reproductive demands unlike other cultures across the world.
The Mosuo tribe challenges most of the beliefs of the rest of the world, starting from marriage, family life, and parenting. Mosuo families believe that the sexual life of a woman is separate from her family life. Women’s sexuality is regulated even by many western countries which are considered progressive. Mosuo’s beliefs are completely against everything that most of us have been raised with.
The tribe has attracted the interest of tourists and anthropologists from around the world, especially since it’s one of the last semi-matriarchal societies in the world. By opening up their culture to visitors, there have been a lot of changes, some of them unwelcome ones. Many of the young Mosuo citizens have started moving outside for work and marrying outside the tribe, which shakes its foundation.
Karolin Klüppel, a photographer who documented the Mosuo tribe, said the following in an interview with National Geographic: “Life is easier when you benefit from tourism but they also feel really saddened by the changes. They were the part of the culture that impressed me so much because they were so strong and so present and full of dignity. The older women were quite present in village life, giving all the orders to family members.”
She had this to say about their love lives: “In Han Chinese society, status really depends on your job and women choose partners differently, love is second or third on the list,” says Klüppel. “For the Mosuo, it's only the heart and love and passion they feel, and if they don’t feel it any more they can stop the relationship and it's no big drama. The feeling of butterflies in the belly is more important than staying together.”
Since many Mosuo people are moving outside, the matrilineal structure will break off and evolve into nuclear families. The traditions associated with the tribe will be forgotten soon. The western world can take a leaf out of the Mosuos on giving women their agency. Their sense of community and self-sustainability is also something that can be emulated.
(Edited by Kanishk Singh)