Gender and Culture FA16
Prof. K. Orr
Exploring a Matrilineal Society
by Gabriela Rodriguez
1507493400-Mosou-Women-Gender-Culture-Final – you can download a wonderfully arranged presentation.
A matriarchy is defined as a system of society or government ruled by women. In Western
society, most governance and society standards are viewed through the patriarchal point of
view. For the Mosuo however, that is not the case, being one of the only
matriarchies/matrilineal in the world. In order to fully understand what this region of the
world defines as matriarchy and how sexuality, gender roles and responsibilities are in
their community, this study will explore the Mosuo culture, its women and how they
manifest themselves, sexually and socially.
Mosuo Culture & History
The Mosuo are a Chinese ethnic minority group who live high in the Himalayas, in
an area surrounding Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, close to the Tibetan border.
There is not that much known about the history/origins of the Mosuo culture due to
not having a written language, therefore, their entire history is an oral history,
passed down from generation to generation, mostly through local priests called
“Daba”. (Mosuo Culture, 2006)
The Mosuo economy is largely agrarian, potato and rice being their staple foods.
What makes this society so impressively functional is their capability of producing
most of what they need for daily living.
Three aspects of the Mosuo Culture that are particularly interesting due to the
systematic similarities to that of matriarchal societies are their practice of “walking
marriages” which allows them to choose/change partners as they wish, never
having the obligation to marry or even live with their partner; and their integration
of Tibetan Buddhism and their own religion “Daba”. For purposes of this study, we
will be exploring their matriarchal society structures, comparing it to the Western
definition of what a matriarchy is and how these women define their sexuality and
work in their communities.
The Mosuo culture is mostly defined as being matriarchal, a term used mostly to
attract Western tourists and visitors in order for them to understand the culture in
familiar terms. Matrilineal is a more accurate word to describe how this culture
operates yet it still leaves out important aspects of their society. Matrilineal
describes anything related to kinship through a female line. For example, If the
children in a specific culture take their mother’s last name, and not their father’s,
this is a matrilineal tradition. The ancient religion of the Mosuo, the matriarchal
layer, centers around their belief in the divinity of Nature. This is most directly
expressed through the veneration of Gan mu, the sacred mountain, which is
regarded as the Goddess of Love, and for Shinami, the sacred lake, seen as the
Mother Goddess. Nature is regarded as female, as the great Creatrix. The later,
patriarchal layers of religion, to which they have been subjected, have not
succeeded in suppressing these basic beliefs. (Gottner-Abendroth, 1999)
Matrilineal is a more appropriate term to define the Mosuo due to the fact that
women are the head of the house, property is passed through the female line, and
women tend to make the business decisions, but political power tends to be in the
hands of males, which disqualifies them as a true matriarchy. (Mosuo Culture, 2006)
Matrilineality is so dominantly expressed that the Chinese anthropologist Cai Hua
(2001) has claimed that the Mosuo is a society without husbands and without
fathers.This poses a range of challenges to kinship theories whether of the descent
variant or the alliance variant. (Wu, 2009)
An interesting point of research that I stumbled upon was why they chose to trace
their lineage through females rather than males. Mosuo families tend to trace their
lineage through the female side of the family because they may, in some cases, not
even know who the father of a particular child is, therefore, tracing through the
paternal line is difficult, if not impossible. But there is also a practice in which
families that don’t have a female to take the role of a family’s matriarch may
“adopt” a woman from another family, and she will take over as head of the house
when the current matriarch dies. Yet she, and her offspring, will be included in the
The majority of the Mosuo still live according to the patterns of matrilinearity and
matrilocality in big clan-houses that are built in a square. All persons within each
clan-house have the clan name of the eldest woman, the clan mother. These names
are, for example: ”Tiger Mother,” ”Snake Mother,” ”Cougar Mother,” ”Tree Mother,”
and so on. The names, as well as the common ownership of the house and the
land, are exclusively inherited through the female line. (Gottner-Abendroth, 1999)
While these practices under Western culture would be deemed “empowering” for
women, this is so embedded in their culture, it is viewed as the norm. They may be
empowered as a result of their traditions but it is not the sole purpose of why they
operate matrilineally. It is mostly about maintaining a stable number of members in
the family and community and having stability, although, when you put it that way,
that in itself is very empowering. The fact that they don’t seek men to give them
stability, they count on each other and it’s a constant give and take by women and
for women, which are not necessarily expected, but want to create that stability and
work regime for themselves. When conducting online research, many American
news sources called the Mosuo Lugu Lake the Kingdom of Women. As I view it,
while women are the engine and oil that keeps the machine going, they focus more
on the well-being and value the strength in numbers. It would be better described
as the Kingdom of Family, one blessedly free of politicians and preachers extolling
“family values.” There’s no such thing as a ”broken home,” no sociologists wringing
their hands over ”single mothers,” no economic devastation or shame and stigma
when parents part.
This societal system has led to significant cultural differences from which many
other cultures could learn. Mosuo families have an incredible internal cohesiveness
and stability; and certainly, Mosuo women do not (within their culture) face many of
the struggles and barriers that women in many other cultures do. (Mosuo Culture,
Mosuo Women & Sexuality
Traditionally, a Mosuo woman who is interested in a particular man will invite him
to come and spend the night with her in her room. Such pairings are generally
conducted secretly, so the man will walk to her house after dark (thus the
description of “walking marriage”), spend the night with her, and return home early
the next morning. (Mosuo Culture, 2006)
While it is possible for a Mosuo woman to change partners as often as she likes –
and in fact, having only one sexual partner would be neither expected nor common
– the majority of such couplings will actually be more long term. And few Mosuo
women will have more than one partner at a time.
Mosuo women are free to have different sexual partners, and frequently do not get
married, having multiple lovers, or having children by different men, does not carry
a negative stigma as it would for women in other cultures. While this may be
positive and empowering for these women, they often get misrepresented in
studies and in the media. It is common to see the Mosuo portrayed as a culture in
which Mosuo women frequently change partners, a kind of “sexual utopia” where
women are just waiting to seduce men. This image has been portrayed particularly
frequently by tourism operators who seek to attract more people, mostly men, to
visit Lugu Lake. There is a thriving prostitution industry at Lugu Lake; however,
ironically, most of the “Mosuo girls” who work in the brothels are actually girls from
other areas brought in to dress, act and impersonate Mosuo women; and are a
source of shame to most real Mosuo. (Mosuo Culture, 2006)
To set the record straight; while promiscuity is certainly not frowned on like it is in
most other cultures, most Mosuo women tend to form more long-term pairings,
and not change partners frequently. It might be better described as a system of
“serial monogamy”, wherein women can change partners, but tend to do so
relatively rarely; and while with one partner, will rarely invite another.
Even when a pairing may be long term, however, the man will never go to live with
the woman’s family, or vice versa. He will continue to live with and be responsible to
his family; she will continue to live with and be responsible to her family. There will
be no sharing of property.
Most significantly, when children are born, the father may have little or no
responsibility for his offspring, in fact, some children may not even know who their
father is. If a father does want to be involved with the upbringing of his children, he
will bring gifts to the mother’s family, and state his intention to do so. This gives him
a kind of official status within that family, but does not actually make him part of
the family. Regardless of whether the father is involved or not, the child will be
raised in the mother’s family, and take on her family name.
There is a lack of preference for a particular gender due to families never
abandoning each other and rarely leaving the village where they were born in. For
example, in most cultures, the female will join the male’s family when she gets
married. The result is that if a couple has a lot of female children, they will lose
them after marriage, and have no one to care for them in old age; but if they have
male children, their sons (and their sons’ wives) will care for them. So, in poorer
populations in particular, there will be a strong preference for male children.
Another important factor is that when women start participating in “walking
marriages” like mentioned previously, they are not expected to get married and
never move in with their partners due to families wanting to remain with their own.
Among the Mosuo, since neither male nor female children will ever leave home,
there is no particular preference for one gender over the other. The focus instead
tends to be on maintaining some degree of gender balance, having roughly the
same proportion of male to female within a household. In situations where this
becomes unbalanced due to death or other circumstances, Mosuo families may
adopt children of the appropriate gender or even for two households to ‘swap’
Mosuo Children: Coming of Age
The coming of age ceremony, usually at around 12-14 years of age, is one of the
most important events in a Mosuo child’s life. Before this ceremony, Mosuo
children will dress the same, and are restricted from certain aspects of Mosuo life.
But once they come of age, girls are given their skirts, and men are given their pants
(thus, it is called the “skirt ceremony” for girls, and the “pants ceremony” for boys).
After coming of age, Mosuo females can get their own private bedroom; and, once
past puberty, can begin to invite partners for “walking marriages”. (Mosuo Culture,
Myths & Misconceptions
Common myth: Mosuo men don’t work, and are there mainly to fulfill
This particular myth is more common in Chinese literature than English, but is a
particularly dangerous and misleading one. First, it promotes the myth that Mosuo
women are sexually promiscuous, with men kept essentially for providing sexual
gratification. And second, it is based on a sad misunderstanding of Mosuo history.
It is true that, traditionally, Mosuo women tend to take on most of the labour duties
at home. They take care of the animals, tend the fields and do work that by
Western standards would be considered “manly work”. However, this is due to a
historic division of responsibilities where Mosuo men were mostly traders, traveling
long distances by caravan to trade with other groups. Since the men were
frequently gone from home, the women were left to take care of the work.
However, when the men were at home, they would also share in the duties there.
Today, the practice of having trading caravans has effectively ceased; with the result
that one of the primary male roles has been rendered irrelevant. It is true,
therefore, that you may often find men lounging around while women work hard;
and does not necessarily mean that Mosuo men are lazy, it indicates, rather, the
need to define a viable new “male” role within the modern realities of Mosuo
culture. This is particularly interesting to think about, especially since we’re so used
to discussing gender roles and how they contrast each other. Mosuo males
however, don’t have an issue with how their role is defined, but they often don’t
have roles to fulfill, it is the lack of duties for them to fulfill what makes this societal
structure so interesting and different from the patriarchy we live in.
Mosuo Women Today: How modern times have empowered this community
The Mosuo community upholds unique traditions, among them weaving, an
important cultural skill symbolizing the ability to provide for the family.
Luru-Dashima, a female artisan from the Mosuo community in southwest China,
never imagined her painstakingly hand-woven scarves would sit atop shiny shelves
in Tangs, an upscale Singaporean department store. But for its latest Christmas
sale, Tangs chose products not from Europe’s famous fashion houses but from
villagers located in a remote part of Yunnan Province.
Industrial mass production also had a profoundly detrimental effect on the
community’s way of life as local shop owners in the nearby tourist town of Lijiang
failed to appreciate the Mosuo craft and sold the precious scarves at cut-rate prices
in order to be competitive with mass-produced goods.
“We do not know how to do business. Now scarves are made by machines, so sales
of our hand-woven scarves were particularly difficult,” says Aqi-Duzhima, leader of
the Mosuo Traditional Weaving Association. “We could not find a way out.”
To help the struggling community, the United Nations Development Programme
(UNDP) launched a culture-in-development project to introduce Mosuo craft to an
international audience and create new markets.
The project emphasizes the unique tradition and handmade aspect of the Mosuo’s
handicraft. Every scarf tells a story and shows that people’s passions and
livelihoods are deeply embedded in cultural roots and traditional way of life.
The opportunity to sell the scarves in Singapore raised the value of Mosuo
products. Each scarf sells, on average, for 200 Chinese Yuan (US $33), and the
weavers earn around $20 per item. (UNDP, 2016)
This portion was taken from an article written by UNDP.org, one of the few sources
that has studied the Mosuo women through the modern lens.
Equality, Societal Issues and Gender Biases: What we can learn from the
First, in this tribe women do all the work – including physical labor. Men do little or
nothing all day. Second, there are no marriages in this tribe. Consequently, they
have no concept of ‘husband’ or ‘father’. The Mosuo tribe is a clear example of how
gender roles are in fact “socially-ascribed” or socially appointed. Women’s biological
function of childbearing has been traditionally used as an argument for the
“natural” assignment of household responsibilities to women. It is known that
childbearing is biologically restricted to women, however, household work is socially
determined.In the Mosuo society, men participate in child care as uncles and
brothers, but do little else. The assignment of productive work to women, including
physical labor, has less to do with biological functions, and more to do with the
social structure that matrilineal behaviors adopted by this community have
Mosuo women give us a valuable lesson: contrary to fears raised by those who
hesitate to empower women, societies don’t fall apart when women have control.
In fact, the female-dominated society of Mosuo exists in love and harmony, an
evident contrast to male-dominated societies that exist in violence and hate.
The Mosuo people have successfully averted many social problems. As a result,
their language has no words for war, murder or rape.
Although the Mosuo experience is certainly far from the ideal of gender equality, it
shows that there is nothing natural or inevitable about gender biases. A bias for
one or the other is influenced by power relations and social roles, not biology. If we
truly believe that every individual – regardless of race, ethnicity or gender – is
entitled to the same privileges and benefits development has to offer, we must seek
to transform the very structures that perpetuate and reinforce inequalities.
Bibliography and works cited
(1) ”Mosuo Culture.” Mosuo Culture. Lugu Lake Mosul Cultural Development
Association, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2016. http://www.mosuoproject.org/mosuo.htm
(2)”Gender Lessons from the Mosuo People of China.” Action for Economic Reforms
(AER). N.p., 2010. Web. 11 Dec. 2016
(3)”China: Mosuo Women Artisans Reach World Market.” UNDP. N.p., n.d. Web. 11
(4) Gottner-Abendroth, Heide. ”The Structure Of Matriarchal Societies.” Revision21.3
(1999): 31. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.
(5) Wu, Yunchuan, and Gunnar Haaland. ”From House Structure To Gender
Relations: Exploring The Na (Mosuo) Of Yunnan Province, China.” Dhaulagiri: Journal
Of Sociology & Anthropology 3.(2009): 19-40. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 11 Dec.