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|Regions with significant populations|
|China (Sichuan · Yunnan)|
|Dongba, Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Regions with significant populations|
|China (Sichuan · Yunnan)|
|Dongba, Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism|
|Related ethnic groups|
Known to many as the Mosuo (Chinese: 摩梭; pinyin: Mósuō; also spelled Moso or Musuo), but known often to themselves as the Na, the Mosuo are a small ethnic group living in Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces in China, close to the border with Tibet. Consisting of a population of approximately 40,000, most of them live in the Yongning region and around Lugu Lake, high in the Himalayas ( ).
Although the Mosuo are culturally distinct from the Nakhi, the Chinese government places them as members of the Nakhi (aka Naxi) minority. Their culture has been documented by indigenous scholars Lamu Gatusa and Latami Dashi (the collection of papers that he edited, published in 2006, contains an extensive list of references in Chinese, and a bibliography of books and articles in other languages [especially English] compiled by He Sanna).
The Mosuo culture is frequently described as matriarchal. The Mosuo themselves often use this description which they believe increases interest in their culture and thus attracts tourism. The term matrilineal is sometimes used, and, while more accurate, still doesn't reflect the full complexity of their social organization. In fact, it is not easy to categorize Mosuo culture within traditional Western definitions. They have aspects of a matriarchal culture: women are often the head of the house, inheritance is through the female line, and women make business decisions. However, unlike a matriarchy, the political power tends to be in the hands of males.
Mosuo culture is primarily agrarian, with work based on farming tasks such as raising livestock (yak, water buffalo, sheep, goats, poultry) and growing crops, including grains and potatoes. The people are largely self-sufficient in diet, raising enough for their daily needs. Meat is an important part of their diet and, since they lack refrigeration, is preserved through salting or smoking. The Mosuo are renowned for their preserved pork, which may be kept for 10 years or more. They produce a local alcoholic beverage made from grain, called sulima, which is similar to strong wine. Sulima is drunk regularly and usually offered to guests and at ceremonies and festivals.
Local economies tend to be barter-based. However, increased interaction with the outside world brings greater use of a cash-based trade system. Average incomes are low (US $150–200 per annum), causing financial restrictions when cash is needed for activities such as education or travel. Electricity has recently been introduced in some Mosuo communities, but many villages still lack electric power. Running water is rare and communities rely on wells or streams. Change is apparent, though, and one can now see satellite dishes appearing in some villages.
Mosuo homes consist of four rectangular structures arranged in a square, around a central courtyard. The first floor houses livestock, including water buffalo, horses, geese, and poultry. Animals may wander through the house during the day. The main cooking, eating and visiting areas are also on the first floor. The second floor is commonly used for storage and for the women’s private rooms; other family members sleep in communal quarters.
As soon as a Mosuo girl becomes old enough, she learns the tasks that she will perform for the rest of her life. Mosuo women do all the housework, including cleaning, tending the fire, cooking, gathering firewood, feeding the livestock, and spinning and weaving. In the past, due to isolation, Mosuo women produced all their own household goods. Today, due to increased trade with surrounding villages and cities, it is easier to attain goods. Nevertheless, some Mosuo women, especially those of older generations, know how to use looms to produce cloth goods.
According to some, men have no responsibility in Mosuo society—they have no jobs, rest all day, and conserve their strength for nighttime visits. However, Mosuo men do have roles in their society. They are in charge of livestock and fishing, which they learn from their uncles and older male family members as soon as they are old enough.
Men deal with the slaughter of livestock, in which women never participate. Slaughtered pigs, in particular, are kept whole and stored in a dry, airy place that keeps them edible for up to ten years. This is especially helpful when harsh winters make food scarce.
Mosuo families tend to trace their lineage through the female side of the family. Occasionally, in fact, they may not know who the father of a child is, which does not carry stigma as in many other societies. An important historical fact often missed in studies of the Mosuo was that their social organization has traditionally been feudal, with a small nobility controlling a larger peasant population. The Mosuo nobility practiced a "parallel line of descent" that encouraged cohabitation, usually within the nobility, in which the father passed his social status to his sons, while the women passed their status to their daughters. Thus, if a Mosuo commoner female married a male serf, her daughter would be another commoner, while her son would have serf status.
Hua (2001) has theorized that the matriarchal system of the Mosuo lower classes was enforced by the nobility to neutralize threats to their power. Since leadership was inherited through the male family line, potential threats to leadership from the peasant class were eliminated by tracing the lineage of the latter through the female line. Thus, depicting Mosuo culture as an idealized “matriarchal” culture with more freedom than patriarchal societies and with special rights for women, are unfounded. In actuality, the Mosuo peasant class has historically been subjugated and “sometimes treated as little better than slaves.”  Contrary to this theory, Chuan-Kang Shih argued that matrilineality and "walking marriage" (tisese) is a primary institution of family, sex and reproduction, and marriage is secondary. As Shih argues, marriage, as different from tisese, was introduced into Mosuo society through contact with other ethnic groups during the Yuan and Qing empire-building process.
The matriarch (Ah mi, or elder female, in Chinese) is the head of the house. The Ah mi has absolute power; she decides the fate of all those living under her roof. The matriarch also manages the money and jobs of each family member. When the Ah mi wishes to pass her duties on to the next generation, she will give this female successor the keys to the household storage, signifying the passing on of property rights and responsibility.
If there are no offspring of one sex, it is common for a child from another family to join an adoptive household. Such a child might come from a large family, or one too small to continue. Children raised in this sense are genealogically linked to their new households. They are treated as equal family members; in some instances, adopted females become the matriarchs of their adoptive families.
One of the best known, and least understood, aspects of Mosuo culture is their practice of what has been termed “walking marriage” (zou hun in Chinese). There is no traditional marriage in Mosuo culture. Therefore, there are no husbands or wives. The Western conception of marriage has been replaced by “walking marriages” or “visiting relations,” in which partners do not live in the same household. Children of such relationships are raised by their mothers and the mothers' families. Shih (2010) is the most sophisticated anthropological account of Mosuo practices of sexual union.
The Mosuo have large extended families, and several generations (great grandparents, grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, etc.) live together in the same house. Everyone lives in communal quarters, and there are no private bedrooms or living areas, except for women between certain ages (see the section on “coming of age,” below) who may have their own private rooms.
All on-going sexual relationships in Mosuo culture are called "walking marriages." These bonds are "based on mutual affection." When a Mosuo woman or man expresses interest in a potential partner, it is the woman who may give the man permission to visit her. These visits are usually kept secret, with the man visiting the woman's house after dark, spending the night, and returning to his own home in the morning. Mosuo women and men can engage in sexual relations with as many partners as they wish.
While a pairing may be long-term, the man never lives with the woman's family, or vice versa. Mosuo men and women continue to live with and be responsible to their respective families. The couple do not share property. The father usually has little responsibility for his offspring. "It is the job of men to care more for their nieces and nephews than for their own children." A father may indicate an interest in the upbringing of his children by bringing gifts to the mother's family. This gives him status within the mother's family, while not actually becoming part of the family. Whether or not the father is involved, children are raised in the mother's home and assume her family name.
|This section possibly contains original research. (November 2013)|
This type of marriage practice has many positive outcomes. First, it gives both participants equal measures of freedom. It can be initiated at will and ended in the same manner. Only rarely do families become involved. If a matriarch disapproves of a “visitor,” she can make the participants end the relationship, but this seldom happens. In other Asian cultures, “marriage is seen as a group decision.” China, especially, has a history of focusing more on families' ties than the individuals' and works to serve the economic and political interests of these larger parties. Walking marriages, however, negate these social pressures and allow more independence.
Another particularly important result of this practice is the lack of preference for children of a particular sex. For example, in most cultures in the region, a female joins the male partner's family upon getting married. The result is that if a couple has many 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 is a strong preference for male children.
However, among the Mosuo, since neither the male nor female children ever leave the household, there is no particular preference for one gender over the other. The focus instead tends to be on maintaining some degree of sexual balance, having roughly the same proportion of males to females within a household. In situations that this becomes unbalanced, it is not uncommon for Mosuo to adopt children of the appropriate sex or even for two households to "swap" male and female children.
Although sometimes believed otherwise by outsiders:
While it is possible for a Mosuo woman to change partners as often as she likes, few Mosuo women have more than one partner at a time. Anthropologists call this system “serial monogamy.” Most Mosuo form long-term relationships and do not change partners frequently. Some of these pairings may even last a lifetime.
But, in other anthropologists' views, it is a more recent change, "in the face of political campaigns and cultural integration with the Han Chinese", and "previous generations often continued with multiple partners even after a child was born. Some older Na report having upwards of 30, 40, even 50 partners throughout their lifetime". and despite these changes, "notions of exclusivity are not entrenched, and the Na language has no word for 'jealousy'."
The large majority of women know their children's fathers; it is actually a source of embarrassment if a mother cannot identify a child's father. But, "unlike many cultures which castigate mothers and children without clear paternity, Na children induce no such censure". At a child's birth, the father, his mother and sisters come to celebrate, and bring gifts. On New Year's Day, a child visits the father to pay respect to him and his household. A father also participates in the coming-of-age ceremony. Though he does not have an everyday role, the father is nevertheless an important partner.
The coming-of-age ceremony, which occurs at the age of thirteen, is one of the most important events in a Mosuo child's life. Before this ceremony, Mosuo children all dress the same and are restricted from certain aspects of Mosuo life, particularly those that involve religious rites. Also, a child who dies before this ceremony does not receive the traditional funeral. Once they come of age, girls are given their skirts, and boys are given their trousers (thus, it is called the “skirt ceremony” for girls, and the “trouser ceremony” for boys).
After coming of age, Mosuo females can get their own private bedroom, called a "flowering room"; and, once past puberty, can begin to invite partners for “walking marriages”.
This is the center of the household. It combines the worship of nature, ancestors, and spirits. Behind the hearth is a slab of stone (called guo zhuang in Chinese) and an ancestral altar where Mosuo household members leave a food offering. They do this before each meal, even when having tea.
Death is the domain of men, who make all funeral arrangements. It is the only time men prepare food for family and guests. Usually, every family in the village will send at least one male to help with the preparations. Dabas and Lamas are invited to recite prayers for the deceased. Mosuo believe that if a spirit does not have assistance of a Daba, it will be lost. Without Lamas, a spirit will not be able to attain reincarnation. Caskets are small and square, with the deceased's body placed in the fetal position so that it can be reborn in the next life. During cremation, a decorated horse is led around the fire, which Mosuo believe will help carry the deceased's spirit away. Afterwards, friends and family gather to pay their last respects and wish the deceased an easy journey to their ancestral land.
While some Asian cultures practise the custom of eating dogs, this is strictly forbidden to the Mosuo. In Mosuo culture, a myth describes that long ago, dogs had life spans of 60 years while humans had life spans of thirteen years. Humans felt their life span was too short, so they traded it with the dogs in exchange for paying homage to them. Therefore, dogs are valued members of the family. They are never killed, and they most certainly are never eaten. During the initiation rites into adulthood, Mosuo adolescents pray before the family dogs.
The Mosuo are primarily farmers. Subsistence is mostly based on agriculture. Farmers work "seven hours a day and seven months a year". In the past, they cultivated oats, buckwheat, and flax exclusively. This changed under Han influence at the end of the nineteenth century. Since then, these farmers have also cultivated, among other things, corn, sunflowers, soybeans, potatoes and other vegetables such as pumpkins and beans. Potatoes were their main staple for a while until the mid-twentieth century when they began growing rice. Today it makes up more than half of annual production.
Mosuo also have a collection of livestock. Since the early twentieth century, they have raised buffalo, cows, horses, and goats which originated from Han and Tibetan regions. However, their preferred stock is pigs. Pork plays several important roles in Mosuo society. It is fed to guests, is the obligatory offering at funerals, and used as payment or reimbursement. Hua 2001 insists that it is “a kind of currency and...a symbol of wealth”.
Once a year, regions of Mosuo males gather for a livestock fair. They travel for miles on buses, horses, or foot to attend. Here men sell and trade livestock to supplement household incomes.
The Mosuo fish on Lake Lugu and also set land-based fish traps; however, they do not use motorboats, and catching fish in open water using their very primitive gear is not easy.
Daba has been a part of Mosuo culture for thousands of years, handed down through generations by word of mouth. It functions as a repository of most of the Mosuo culture and history. It is based on animistic principles and involves ancestor worship and the worship of a mother goddess: "The Mosuo are alone among their neighbors to have a guardian mother goddess rather than a patron warrior god".
The primary tasks of the priest (or shaman), also called daba, are to perform exorcisms and assist deceased spirits. Priests drink alcohol until they go into a trance and can converse with these spirits. Since the Mosuo have no written language, there is no religious script, nor is there a temple. All Daba priests are male, and they live in their mother's house with their brothers and sisters. When not pursuing their religious duties, they engage in everyday tasks such as fishing and herding.
On a day-to-day basis, Daba plays a far smaller role in the lives of the Mosuo. The daba is mostly called on to perform traditional ceremonies at key events, such as naming a child, a child's coming-of-age ceremony, a funeral, or special events such as the Spring Festival. The daba is also called on to perform specific rites if someone is sick.
A cultural crisis is emerging. Due to past Chinese government policies, which made being a Daba priest illegal (this policy has now ceased), there are very few remaining dabas, most of whom are old men. This leads some Mosuo to worry that Mosuo history and heritage may be lost when the current generation of Dabas are gone.
This religion has become a larger part of their culture in recent years. Today Tibetan-style Buddhism is the predominant religion, but it has been somewhat adapted to Mosuo society. Like the Buddhist population of Tibet, both lay and monastic Buddhists among the Mosuo eat meat. Mosuo lamas offer prayers of thanks and prayers for the dead, offer basic religious and secular education to young children, and counsel adults. In families with more than one male child, one will most often be sent to be a monk.
The Mosuo even have their own “living Buddha”, a man said to be a reincarnation of one of the great Tibetan spiritual leaders. He usually lives in Lijiang, but returns to the main Tibetan temple in Yongning for important spiritual holidays. Many Mosuo families will send at least one male to be trained as a monk, and in recent years, the number of such monks has increased quite significantly. Update: the Mosuo Living Buddha died of old age in April 2011.
In most Mosuo homes, a statue of some Buddhist god can be found above the cooking fire; the family will usually put a small portion of whatever they are cooking in the fire, as an offering to their god. Tibetan Buddhist holidays and festivals are participated in by the entire Mosuo community.
|This section requires expansion. (April 2008)|
The Mosuo speak a dialect of the Naxi language, a member of the Tibetan–Burman family. While there is no question that the language of the "Mosuo" and that of the "Naxi" are closely related (i.e. dialects of one and the same language), some "Mosuo" speakers resent the use of the language name "Naxi", which is commonly used to refer to the dialect of the town of Lijiang and the surrounding villages; a more adequate name would be "Na", which is the common autonym of the "Mosuo" as well as of the "Naxi". A collection of audio recordings is available online.
Generally, since Han Chinese occupation of the region, the Mosuo today use Han script for daily communication. The Tibetan script is mainly used for religious purposes. The existence of Daba script is disputed. The following is the point that it does not exist. For the point that it exists, see Zh:達巴文.
The Mosuo also have their own native religion, called Daba, which uses 32 symbols. However, there are currently efforts underway to develop a written form of the Mosuo language, most notably by the Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association.
There have been many attempts to change Mosuo culture throughout history. First, Han ideals, or the ethnic majority, were instituted in the Yongning region under the Ming Dynasty. Next, Mosuo accepted Buddhism into their culture but they adapted it to fit their values. Neither the Cultural Revolution or trade between different cultures fundamentally changed Mosuo beliefs. Recently, however, Mosuo society is changing quickly.
With heightened technology, there are better roads and transportation. Young Mosuo men and women use these modes to leave their villages and find employment in neighboring cities. Television has brought the ideas of the modern world and an image of a more affluent lifestyle. Also, men have begun to take jobs independent of the household and earn their own income. Older Mosuo fear emerging property conflicts as a consequence. Care for the family, with younger children generations leaving the villages, is also a concern.
Mosuo living near Lugu Lake inhabit an aesthetically pleasing region. Photographers, television crews, writers, and artists are drawn to their homes (Blumenfield). This increased attention has also brought tourists. While a good source of income and trade, it has opened this once isolated culture to the whims of the modern world. Tourism has attracted a red light district to the Mosuo region. Walking marriage is used as a legal excuse for prostitution (Kingdom of Women). Finally, tourism also threatens traditional family and kinship values. The Western idea of cohabitation, or both partners living under the same roof (Ward), have led one-fourth of Mosuo relationships to develop into 'traditional' status with husbands and wives, a 2008 study said. It is unclear how much farther this trend will continue or what other values will be affected.
There are many documentaries made about the Mosuo, in English and Mandarin, and there has even been a film festival dedicated to some of them. Most films perpetuate the myth that women run the society, some even claiming that men have no say in political or household matters and do not work.