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A Mosuo woman near Lugu Lake.

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 50,000, most of them are found near Lugu Lake, high in the Tibetan Himalayas 27°42′35.30″N 100°47′4.04″E / 27.709806°N 100.7844556°E / 27.709806; 100.7844556.

Although culturally distinct from the Nakhi, the Chinese government places them as members of the Naxi (or Nakhi) 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 most frequently described as a matriarchal culture.[1] In fact, the Mosuo themselves frequently use this description, to attract tourism and interest in their culture. Sometimes, the Mosuo will be described instead as "matrilineal", which is probably more accurate, but still doesn't reflect the full truth.

The Mosuo culture defies categorization within traditional Western definitions. They have aspects of a matriarchal culture, in that women are, in many households, 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.

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 trousers (thus, it is called the “skirt ceremony” for girls, and the “trouser ceremony” for boys).

Before coming of age, children are forbidden to participate in certain activities, particularly those that involve religious ceremonies. Also, a child who dies before having this ceremony will not receive the traditional funeral.

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 families tend to trace their lineage through the female side of the family (they may sometimes not even know who the father of a particular child is, so tracing through the paternal line is impossible). 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. She, and her offspring, will be included in the ‘family genealogy'.

Some anthropologists studying the Mosuo describe it as a culture that focuses not so much on the female lineage, as on the lineage of the house itself. Mosuo usually live in large, extended families, with several generations living together. It is not uncommon for families to "adopt" outsiders into their family. This may be to maintain gender balances; it may be because another family has become too small to maintain its numbers; it may be due to orphaning of a child, etc. Once adopted, that person is considered a part of the “house”, on equal footing with everyone else in the house, and sharing in that house's history and heritage. However the family name is inherited by the daughter and so is the proprietorship.

There is also a very important historical component which is often misunderstood to those studying the Mosuo. Historically, the Mosuo have had a feudal system in which a small nobility controlled a larger peasant population. The Mosuo nobility practiced a more ‘traditional' patriarchal system, which encouraged marriage (usually within the ‘nobility'), and in which men were the head of the house.

It has been theorized that the matriarchal system of the lower classes may have been enforced by the higher classes as a way of preventing threats to their own power. Since leadership was hereditary, and determined through the male family line, it virtually eliminated potential threats to leadership by having the peasant class trace their lineage through the female line. Therefore, attempts to depict the Mosuo culture as some sort of idealized “matriarchal” culture in which women have all the rights, and where everyone has much more freedom, are based on faulty evidence; the truth is that for much of their history, the Mosuo peasant class were subjugated and sometimes treated as little better than slaves.

There is a viable argument to be made that the “matriarchal” system of the Mosuo was actually enforced to keep them in servitude to the ruling Mosuo class. Yet, practically speaking, this system has led to a number of unusual traits within Mosuo society. Mosuo families have an incredible internal cohesiveness and stability.

Walking marriages

Probably the most famous and most misunderstood aspect of Mosuo culture is their practice of “walking marriage” (or zou hun in Chinese), so called because the men walk to the house of their ‘partner' at night, but return to their own home in the morning.

The Mosuo generally live in large extended families, with many generations (great grandparents, grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, etc.) all living together within the same house. For the most part, everyone lives within communal quarters, without private bedrooms or living areas. However, women between certain ages (see the section on “coming of age” above) can have their own private bedrooms.

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 walks to her house after dark, spends the night with her, and returns home early the next morning.

While it is possible for a Mosuo woman to change partners as often as she likes – having only one sexual partner would be neither expected nor common – the majority of such couplings are actually more long term. Few Mosuo women have more than one partner at a time, and more than one anthropologist has described this system as “serial monogamy”. Some of these pairings may even last a lifetime. In recent years, much information about the Mosuo has portrayed their culture as a sexually promiscuous one in which women change partners frequently.

Even though a pairing may be long term, the man never lives with the woman's family, or vice versa. He continues to live with and be responsible to his family; she continues to live with and be responsible to her family. There is 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.

This does not mean, however, that the men have no responsibilities for children. Every man will share responsibilities in caring for all children born to women within their own family, be they a sister, niece, aunt, etc. In fact, children grow up with many “aunts” and “uncles”, as all members of the extended family share in the duties of supporting and raising the children.

One particularly important result of this practice is the lack of preference of parents for a child of a particular gender. 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 is a strong preference for male children.

However, 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, it is not uncommon for Mosuo to adopt children of the appropriate gender or even for two households to ‘swap’ male and female children.


Daily life

The Mosuo are primarily an agrarian culture, and their daily life reflects this. Most work centers on raising crops, such as grains and potatoes, and caring for livestock, including yaks, water buffalos, sheep, goats, and poultry. So far as dietary needs go, the Mosuo are largely self-sufficient, able to raise everything they need for day-to-day life. Meat is a significant part of the Mosuo diet; as the Mosuo lack refrigeration, most meat tends to be salted or smoked, to be preserved for future use. The Mosuo are somewhat famous for their preserved pork, which can be kept for 10 years or more and used when needed.

The Mosuo also have their own local alcohol, called Sulima, which is made from grain and is similar to strong wine. It is drunk quite regularly, and almost always offered to guests. It will also be drunk at all important ceremonies and festivals.

Local economies tend to be barter-based, with people simply trading for what they need with each other; however, as interaction with the outside world becomes more common, there is also greater use of a cash-based system of trade. As average incomes are quite low (as low as $150–200 US in some areas), there are severe financial restrictions when cash is necessary, such as for education, travel, etc.

Mosuo homes are generally designed as four rectangular structures, built in a square, with an open central courtyard. Animals and humans will live together in this home, with much of the first floor dedicated to housing for the livestock, such as water buffalo, horses, geese, and poultry. It is, in fact, not uncommon to have animals wandering in and out of the house all day. The first floor will also have the main cooking area, and the main eating/visiting area. The second floor is used most commonly for storage, and for the private rooms for Mosuo women; the rest of the family will sleep in communal quarters.

Electricity has only recently been introduced to Mosuo communities; in fact, many villages still have no electricity. And running water is almost non-existent, with communities tending to rely more on local wells or streams. However, things are changing very quickly, and it is not uncommon to find at least one or two homes in a village that will have a satellite dish in their courtyard, and a karaoke machine hooked up to their TV.


The Mosuo practice two different religions. They have their own religion, called Daba, which has been a part of their culture for thousands of years, and which 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" (Mathieu, 2003). Mosuo also practice Tibetan Buddhism, which became part of their culture in more recent history, but today plays a far larger role in their daily life and is the predominant religion.

The Mosuo even have their own “living Buddha”, a man said to be a reincarnation of one 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.

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.

Daba, on a day-to-day basis, plays a far smaller role in the lives of the Mosuo. The Daba priest (or shaman) is also called “daba”, and 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 will also be called on to perform specific rites if someone is sick.

The Daba religion also functions as the repository of most of the Mosuo culture and history. Since the Mosuo have no written language, their history/traditions are passed on orally from generation to generation; it is primarily the responsibility of the Daba priest to memorize this, and keep it for future generations.

This has resulted in something of a cultural crisis; 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, leading to the worry that Mosuo history and heritage may be lost when the current generation of Dabas are gone.


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 very 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 chart of ancient Mosuo symbols (and meanings written in chinese) found at the Mosuo Cultural Museum, Lugu Lake.

Generally, since 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.[2] 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.

See also


  • Cai Hua, « Une société sans père ni mari : les Naxi de Chine », Presses Universitaires de France, 2001.
  • Cai Hua, A Society Without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China, New York: Zone Books, 2001.
  • Latami Dashi (editor), 摩梭社会文化研究论文集(1960-2005)",云南大学出版社,主编:拉他咪达石
  • Christine Mathieu, A History and Anthropological Study of the Ancient Kingdoms of the Sino-Tibetan Borderland – Naxi and Mosuo, Mellen Studies in Anthropology Vol. 11, 2003.
  • Yang Erche Namu and Christine Mathieu, Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World, Little, Brown: Boston, 2003, ISBN 0316124710, ISBN 978-0316124713.


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.

  • Without Fathers or Husbands (1995, 26 min., Royal Anthropological Institute). Made by Chinese born, French educated anthropologist Cai Hua. It does not make claims about matriarchy.
  • “A World without Fathers and Husbands.” Eric Blavier (2000, 52 min.)
  • “The Ladies of the Lake: A Matriarchal Society" (20 min.)
  • Mosso, the Land of Free Love: The Last Matriarchy (2006, 50 min.)
  • Mosso, the Land of Free Love: Walking Marriage (2006, 50 min.)
  • Kingdom of Women: The Matriarchal Mosuo of China (2007, 54 min.)
  • Frontline World : stories from a small planet (June 27, 2006, 9 min)
  • Mosuo Song Journey, by Diedie Weng and Carol Bliss (2007, 37 minutes)


  1. ^ York, Geoffrey (2004) Mother Land, Globe & Mail, 24 September 2004 (subscription)
  2. ^ Often mistaken for a written script, these symbols do not represent a written language. There is currently no written form of the native Mosuo language; it is a purely oral language in which all history, tradition, and ceremonies are passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.

External links

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