Matriarchal Marriage Patterns of the Mosuo People
History - a largely isolated but harmonious community
The Mosuo live at the shores of lake Lugu, situated on the South-West of China, it has common borders with the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan. The population of the ethnic group of the Mosuo is 30.000. They have their own distinct language, but no script. They have their own native Daba religion and some are adherence to Tibetan Lamaism. The highest elevation of the area they inhabit is 3.200 meters and the lowest 800 meters. They have inhabited this area more than 1600 years according to the documents of the Han Dynasty.
Due to the very mountainous terrain they inhabit the Mosuo have not had much contact with the "outside world" except through and ancient "Tea-Horse-Road". Many of their daily needs are met through trading with a caravan. This ancient route heads to the North and meets the following places: Yongning-Lijiang-Zhongdian-Deqin-Mangkang-Zuogong-Leiwuqi-Naqu-Lhasa. There is also a Southern route which is further and it takes the caravan one whole year to make the journey to Tibet and back. The Mosuo community has been isolated for a very long time and has lived a self reliant and self-managed lifestyle. This provides very clear evidence of the validity of its culture and traditions.
Could it be said, that this culture has maintained itself through its own strengths and abilities? The answer is negative. When the army of the Yuan Dynasty advanced from three different routes from the North to the South to fight the Dali regime, one of Kublai Khan's routes reached the Mosuo area. The perception of the Mosuo among the leaders of the army was that of a peaceful community, because of their policy of non-resistance. (In fact the Mosuo had no ability to resist.) The area where the Mosuo lived was named "Yongning", i.e. "a place of eternal peace and stability". The army of the Yuan Dynasty took camp for a time at the valley in Yongning, which is called "Riyuehe", which means "the place where sun and moon are in harmony." Here the army was able to recover and the Mosuo were not bothered.
Lamaism gained influence at the end of the Yuan Dynasty. This also had an influence on the cultural development of the Mosuo. They accepted into their culture what brought improvements to their lives. For example, the religious leadership of Lamaism was kept separate from the political leadership of the local area. Lamaism was purely seen as a religion which gained strength through families which took on board its values. Each family set up a special room for the recitation of the Lama scriptures. Family members would only visit the temples on festival days. In this way the influence of Lamaism and the Tibetan culture on matrilineal Mosuo culture was limited. In this way they conserved their own culture. In this context the word "isolated" has its own relative meaning. Based on their own ways of conserving their culture, nowadays 60% of the Mosuo are still living in matriarchal families.
In view of the local historical and social circumstances the Mosuo have still preserved a very harmonious family structure. The matriarchal family is composed exclusively of matrilineal members, including grandmother, mother, maternal aunts, and uncles (mother's brothers), sisters and brothers, and the children of oneself and of the sisters. No members of the parental side are part of it. The members of a matrilineal family belong to a mother or her sister's children. Children remain in the maternal home throughout their lifetime and work there together with their brothers and sisters who belong to the household. The mother is in charge of the economics of the family and its just distribution. If there are several sisters in a family, one of them will be elected as the "Dabu", the matriarch, the woman who is the smartest, most capable and impartial of them all. The brothers of the mother are responsible for the religious activities and rites around the year.
There is a clear division of labour between men and women. Woman are responsible for household duties and men for heavy labour. Any income gained by work such as building work or business will be handed to the clan-mother, the Dabu, who will used it to meet any need of the family for clothes, food, housing and services which they can not provide for themselves. Divorces, quarrels and strife are not known in Mosuo communities. The benefits of this kind of family culture are listed below:
1. There is great support among all members of the family. Each member is a descendent of the mother. The relationship of the family member with each other is free and easy. They get on well with each other without strife among brothers, wives, uncles or nephews.
2. Marriage is free and based on love. It is not affected by political, economic or religious factors. Elders never interfere with the choices of the young. The only exception is the case of being too closely related, members of the same clan. There will be an intervention in such a case by the mother's brother. This intervention is accepted and as a result struggles over issues as such never occur.
3. Mosuo families care for their own. The young and the old are looked after very well and disabled people have a special place in the community as they are seen as messengers sent by God.
4. The population increase is steady but slow. Men and woman are equal. Boys are not regarded as more important than girls, girls actually are more preferred. The fertility rate is not very high. The children are common to the sisters who live together. In this way the gender balance is kept perfectly.
5. The birth process is easy and they take good care of the children. Many of the young Mosuo live the custom of "visiting marriage", and bear their children when they are in the best physical condition. As soon as young woman is pregnant she shares her mothers bedroom in order to avoid being "visited" again, this is to protect the embryo.
6. The property of the family always stays intact. Matriarchal families gather great financial strength in spite of the size and many needs of its members. The setting up of separate families would incur great expenses and divide the acquired wealth.
7. A clear division of labour encourages all the members who are engaged in different jobs according to their own special abilities. Some members set up businesses, but all work is completed with ease and attention.
8. There is a reasonable arrangement between work and the rest of life. Mosuo people are simple, honest and unspoiled. People often sleep without shutting their doors and no one pockets anything found on the road. Mosuo greatly enjoy the plentiful provision of nature and a happy peaceful family life.
As a result of this some scholars hold that Mosuo communities are free of six problems which face of current modern society:
1. the problematic social status of the two genders and the missing space for feelings;
Mosuo people's "visiting marriage" can be defined in a simple way: Either woman or man will marry the other freely. The lovers meet at night at the woman's house and at dawn the man goes home to his own maternal family. The couple will not set up a new family and do not share property. Any children resulting from the union of the couple are the woman's children and the man helps to raise the children of his sisters. On the basis of not having any economic ties, or political or family pressures influencing their decision the erotic love and affection are the only basis of their relationship. As a result, any development of in the relationship which results in them separating is not going to influence the children at all.
There are possessive phenomena in patriarchal monogamy and polygamy - as far as I know - such as to possess emotions, children, rights and goods. Mosuo separate the issues of emotions and the material world with its economic requests, so the only factor which influences the choice for a partner is love and affection. The material status of the mother is not shared with the partner so love is really shared in equality. So a very wealthy man can not gain a woman's attention with his wealth, because it belongs to the man's family.
But what about the question of jealously? What if a man tries to win the love of a woman who already loves another man? Will there be violence, or dissention be sown? Will revenge be taken or will the offended suitors try to buy popular support? In fact, nothing will happen. This has to do with the whole philosophy of Mosuo life which is expressed in the following sentences from the Daba scriptures:
"Love is without fault,
People should comply with the laws of nature: water can not be held back from flowing, a tree can not be rescued, if it will die. People should enjoy life, which has been given to them. The woman has the right of choice among the Mosuo. If a woman is loved by two men at the same time, the one who is not chosen should not hold ill feelings, because he loves her sincerely and holds no grudges as he makes no demands with his love. He may still get a chance later on if he is patient enough. He gains something just by loving, even if his desire is not fulfilled. The heart can only be conquered by another heart, everything else will hurt the heart. Mosuo people understand that love is a fragile feeling. Friendship can only last through tenderness and affection. People who experience jealousy might make fun of the opponent, but without hostility.
As a result of such attitudes and ideas love and marriage are truly free for Mosuo-women, and they are regarded as a happy people who know how to love. In fact, Mosuo women are gentle, kind, uncomplicated, capable and hardworking, but they are not without politeness. A Mosuo woman obtains status and authority through her diligence and intelligence instead of having it bestowed on her by others. It is said in a poetic way that her deepest emotion is
"like good tea made with fresh water
Attitudes and concepts in tradition - a society supported by matriarchal thought
What is held true in patriarchal and matriarchal societies is very different. For example, in patriarchy man is fundamental, woman nonessential; man is the seed and woman is the carrier; man is the superior sky and woman is the inferior earth; man is the shining sun and woman is the pale moon. The focus is on the man, the woman is only an appendage. The worst expression of this attitude is man is holy and woman is unclean and able to defile the holiness of man. Women are insulted and abused by many vicious labels patriarchal society puts on them.
I want to provide a few insights into matriarchal attitudes and thoughts. On the first page of ancient Mosuo scriptures of Daba-religion are the following sentences:
"Water is the source and trees have the roots.
The words illustrate the differences between matriarchal family and patriarchal one. In matriarchal families difficulties among the members can be easily negotiated, because they all come form the same mother and are more considerate of each other. It is different in patriarchal families, here persons may be often hostile to each other such as the wife and her husband's mother or the different wives of brothers. The different family composition is the simple explanation for that.
I tend to listen to what the people say. Here is another example: An old Mosuo woman once said: "The woman is source and man is course; female is bone and male is blood. Why? Because new life emerges from the woman! A person's shape is completed inside the woman's body. People will grow up after birth but the structure of the body, the arms, feet, nose, ears, mouth and all the other organs are completed before birth. The whole course of the creation process is completed within the mother. The father provides a little seminal fluid which can be compared to blood, sweat and water and will disappear quickly. New life from the mother is more permanent."
From the ancient Mosuo thought we know that the most important three rites of passage: birth, adult initiation and death, are penetrated by this kind of thought. In the Mosuo clan-house, there is a special room for deliveries, which is also used for the death of the mother. The whole family is very happy about the new birth, especially the mother and her sisters. Male family members are not allowed to participate in the birth process, they are not even allowed to enter this birthplace, the origin of this new life. All the female relatives from nearby villages will visit the mother and baby in the first month bringing chicken, eggs, brown sugar and butter. After the baby has completed its first month of life, a very important rite of passage will be held and women play a leading role in this. Male members keep silent and are not taking part in the performance of this rite. Otherwise they will be laughed at. The thought of "female being source and male being course" is advocated from the beginning to the end of the birth rite, as if the arrival a new life has nothing to do with men.
Another great festival for the Mosuo is the adult initiation rite, which is held when the children are thirteen years old. This process is enabling the young persons to become proper family members, and now they can express their opinions and are not given special care anymore. At this special celebration, the mother's brothers invites Lama and Daba to bless the children with a ritual. However the mother dresses the daughter with special festive clothes of a young woman and gives her a special treasure to hold in her hand. It is easy to see that the mother's brothers show their responsibility through a formal ritual only, while the mother is the real life guarantee. After the rite the mother will take the children to the relatives and receive many gifts. Male members will never have this kind of honour given to them.
The situation is different at funerals; men arrange the whole funeral procession no matter who the deceased is. Women avoid taking part in the funeral. Here, strong matriarchal thought is revealed. The place for new life is sacred, men can not take part in it. And woman won't witness scenes from the end of life or of disease and decay to death. Only the men can confront all of these.
We can see all of Mosuo life from the beginning to the end is penetrated by matriarchal thought. I could give countless additional examples from myths, folklore and folksongs of the Mosuo.