In southwestern China on the shores of Lugu Lake there is a remarkable people known to outsiders as the Kingdom of Women. They call themselves the Mosuo. They are an agrarian society, practice Buddhism and there are only thirty - fifty thousand of these indigenous people left.
What makes this society so unusual is that they are matrilineal, meaning property is owned by the women and passed down to their daughters. Now, there are other matrilineal societies in the world, most notably in Africa but the Mosuo are unique because they don’t believe in the traditional form of family, whereby a man and a woman marry and raise their offspring. They practice what is called a walking marriage. At the age of thirteen a girl becomes a woman and gets a room of her own in her mother’s house. She can then invite any man that interests her and refuse those who don’t. But her lover must arrive at her house after dark and leave before dawn. All liaisons are kept private and talking about them in mixed company is a social taboo.
In this way their working lives and their nocturnal activities are kept totally separate. Children are raised by the mother’s family. Their uncles, on their mother’s side, act as their male role models. Father’s rarely see their children and there is no word in the Mosuo language for husband or father.
What can we make of all this? Truthfully, I don’t know. But this is such a fascinating culture I had to write about it. I was also touched by the fact that in their society there is no such thing as an illegitimate child. No questions are ever asked about paternity and all children are welcomed and accepted, regardless of gender.
In recent years, due to improved roads, tourists from China have flocked to this region to meet the Mosuo, endangering this unique culture. They are spurred on by tour guides who claim that the Mosuo people are promiscuous and that the women are willing to sleep with any man, but this is simply not true. The Mosuo see their way as romantic and beautiful. They do not have a walking marriage for money, social standing, or familial pressure. They sleep together purely because both parties want to.
Most women in the West have had this freedom for the last fifty years. Mosuo women have been in charge of their lives for the last thousand years, perhaps there’s a thing or two to be learned from them.
If you want to know more about the Kingdom of Women I’ve provided a link to a wonderful PBS documentary.