Matrilineal Mosuo Cultural Decline: Allure of Modernization, Impact of Tourism and Conveniently Customized History

In the 1950s, many of China’s policies towards its ethnic minorities were inspired by those of the Soviet Union. In the northeast near the Sino-Russian border, for instance, the Oroqen (鄂伦春) found their animistic faith banned and their shamans forced to burn their sacred attire and renounce their “spirit dances” (Last Shaman). Many peoples like the Evenki (鄂温克) were forced to hand ownership of their livestock to the state and form politically correct “people’s communes” or the like. Never mind that the reindeer-herding Evenki, who speak a language related to Manchu and resided deep within the Greater Khingan mountains where they had little contact with the Han, had been living a collective lifestyle for centuries without any guidance from Marxist cadres, Russian or Chinese.

Things got even uglier for many minority ethnicities during the Cultural Revolution, when many customs of minority groups were seen as backward, even dangerous superstition that needed to be annihilated.

Inconveniently, these policies and actions do not fit the current narrative of the government — that relations among all 56 officially recognized peoples of the PRC have been and are quite harmonious, thank you — and they are therefore rarely cited or discussed in Chinese media. When they occur in news items written in the West and translated for consumption in China, they must be judiciously packaged.

In the case of ‘Kingdom of Daughters’ in China Draws Tourists to Its Matrilineal Society published recently in the New York Times, and subsequently translated and published in Cankao Xiaoxi (女儿国), this has meant deleting just about all the text (near the end of the original article) that implies that the decline of Mosuo traditions is partly due to 1) Infrastructure projects that are feeding the Lugu Lake tourism boom, and/or 2) Earlier government policies that stigmatized the Mosuo’s “backward marriage customs” and forced the Mosuo to practice “one husband, one wife.”

Cankao Xiaoxi is a respected and influential Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history, and in many newsstands across the mainland the 8- (weekends, holidays) or standard 16-page edition — black-and-white, almost no graphics, on cheap paper that smudges easily over breakfast — sells out every day before noon. Virtually no English is used and little content is added to the text proper. Packaging elements like headlines, sub-heads and captions, however, are totally refurbished, and references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often “airbrushed.”

As usual in my pieces on Cankao Xiaoxi, I run the original English copy immediately below. For the benefit of English speakers who cannot read the Chinese version, I cross out the specific words that were deleted when the article was translated, and indicate any added copy (normally just for readability’s sake) by putting it [in brackets]. This way one can see just how Cankao’s editors “re-package” foreign copy for domestic consumption.


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‘Kingdom of Daughters’ in China Draws Tourists to Its Matrilineal Society

[Lugu Lake’s Culture of ‘Kingdom of Daughters’ Under Threat]

By AMY QIN October 26, 2015 [US-based New York Times web site. Original headline: China’s ‘Kingdom of Daughters’ Draws Tourists to Visit Matrilineal Society (Dispatch by reporter Amy Qin from Lugu Lake, China) ]

LUGU LAKE, China — A young man clad in a white shirt, black pants and red belt suddenly scrambled up the side of a log house and slid feet first into a second-story latticed window.

“This is how Mosuo men would climb into the `flower room’ of the women,” Ke Mu explained to visitors [just] as the triumphant swain [gleeful suitor] stuck his head out the window of the flower room, or private bedroom, and waved his hat.

It was morning in the lakeside village of Luoshui here in southwestern China. On a narrow side street, dusty from hotel construction nearby, a group of young [Chinese] workers, including Ke, 18, was preparing for another day of cultural pageantry at the Mosuo Folk Museum.

Their task [job] is to showcase the traditions of the Mosuo, a minority ethnic group said to be the country’s last matrilineal society, where children take their mothers’ surnames and daughters are preferred to sons.

A fascination with such traditions has led to a booming  [prosperous] tourism industry in this once-isolated region.

Lured by the promise of spectacular natural beauty and exotic  [unique] cultural experiences, hundreds of thousands [large bevies] of visitors , mostly Chinese, are making the journey to Lugu Lake , nestled on a plateau in the mountains between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.

Those numbers are expected to rise with the opening of a local airport this month and later an expressway connecting Lugu Lake to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan.

In response, a number of family-run hotels have popped up along the lake’s pristine blue waters. Visitors can watch residents perform traditional dances in colorful costumes and can take boat rides on the lake as young Mosuo men serenade them with love songs in Naru, the Mosuo language.

All around the village are signs that read, “Welcome to the Kingdom of Daughters.”

Lively as its [the Mosuo’s] traditions seem, however, the Mosuo community [they are] is  facing a crisis. As its interaction with the wider society [outside] increases, residents and outside experts fear that the group’s unique cultural practices are facing a grave threat.

Experts say the population of Mosuo in the Lugu Lake region, [is] estimated to be about 40,000, [. Experts say it] is decreasing as more young people marry outside the group [with other ethnicities] or move to larger cities for work. And without a written language, Mosuo culture is particularly vulnerable to disappearing.

Even within the community, young Mosuo are increasingly choosing marriage over the foundation of Mosuo culture: the centuries-old practice of tiesese (pronounced tee-say-say) [zouhun]. Known in Mandarin as zouhun, or walking marriage, tiesese is an alternative to matrimony in which men visit women at night to fulfill the need for procreation and sexual gratification. Traditionally, a Mosuo woman might have several tiesese relationships during her life,   sometimes simultaneously. Though  this has changed as outside values of monogamy and lifetime partnership seep in [and the phenomenon of lifelong partnering relationships has gradually appeared].

“It would be great to get married one day,” said Lu Ru, 34, who is in a tiesese relationship. “Can you imagine loving someone that much?”

With tiesese [zouhun], sex is kept separate from [and] family [coexist independently], and men and women are generally expected to spend their lives in the houses [homes] in which they were born. As a result, sexual partners rarely occupy the same dwelling. Household harmony is valued above all else, including conjugal relationships.

In traditional Mosuo culture, family life is structured around the basic social unit, known as the “grand household,” in which children are raised by their mother and her side of the family. And while children typically know their biological fathers, maternal uncles are responsible for taking on the paternal role, helping to raise and provide for their sisters’ children.

Men stay with their mothers, and the several generations live in the grand household together.

According to Chuan-Kang Shih, an expert on the Mosuo and an anthropology professor at the University of Florida, the system is underpinned by a fundamental belief that women are more capable than men, mentally and even physically. The Mosuo also believe that everything people value in the world came from a woman, not a man. All male deities are secondary to their patron goddess.

“The system makes so much sense when you think about the overall ways in which family systems have to navigate between sexual desire, stability, domesticity and claims [rights to raise] for  children,” said Judith Stacey, a professor of sociology at New York University who has written about the Mosuo.

“But it depends on a [population’s] lack of mobility, which is why now  with all of this inequality as well as economic and geographic mobility,  it can’t survive as a system,” Stacey said.

According to historical accounts, life in the Mosuo community was relatively stable for hundreds of years. Starting in the Yuan dynasty, which ruled China from 1271 to 1368, the Mosuo were governed by a native chieftain system with a rigid social hierarchy. While they lived alongside several other ethnic groups who practiced marriage, almost all Mosuo continued to practice tiesese.

That changed in 1956, when the chieftain system came to an end and the Mosuo were incorporated into the recently established Communist system. Under Communist rule, the social ranks were abolished and the Mosuo were subject to continuing efforts to change what the Communists saw as their “backward marriage customs.”

These efforts culminated in 1975 with an official “one husband, one wife” campaign, which required Mosuo sexual partners to marry and live under the same roof.

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the government largely receded from everyday life among the Mosuo. But experts say the increased scrutiny left many members of the group with a conflicted attitude toward tiesese.

“In the late 1980s, the Mosuo were either very defensive or denied the existence altogether of the so-called walking marriage,” Shih said. “Then in the mid-1990s, when tourism began in the Lugu Lake area, they began to see it as capital to attract tourists, and they started to boast about it.”

2 thoughts on “Matrilineal Mosuo Cultural Decline: Allure of Modernization, Impact of Tourism and Conveniently Customized History

  1. Around Christmas in 1998, I went to Lijiang on a trip about the World Expo in Kunming, and talked with two shamans of the Naxi people. One of them recalled how their centuries old scriptures were burned or dissolved in water, then rubbed on walls during the Cultural Revolution. The murals in their temples were also smeared. In 1998, only about a dozen shamans were struggling to pass down their tradition to younger apprentices. A few years ago when I went back to Lijiang, the Naxi hieroglyphs were widely featured on various tourist items. A local friend who had studied the ancient scriptures said most of the hieroglyphs on T-shirts and walls in Dayan town were gibberish. The mayor of Lijiang had recently banned noisy performances in the old town to bring back peaceful nights.


    1. It’s important to document these excesses during the Cultural Revolution, but virtually all post-1949 histories of minorities ignore them and/or mention them only briefly. I’ve written about one such travesty, regarding the most famous Xinjiang-based singer of the Kyrgyz epic “Manas.” Readers can see it in full at

      One reason it’s important to document these excesses is that there is always the threat they will re-occur. It will be important when that happens to be able to point to the past and warn about letting cultural artifacts be destroyed again. It’s not unlike what’s going on in the US right now with Donald Trump calling for banning the entry of all Muslims to the US; obviously the next step might be internment of those already in the US. But the US has done that before, to Japanese who were US citizens, during WWII. To rebut Trump’s proposals, it’s been important to remind Americans — We’ve been there before — and we don’t want to go there again!

      Re: the ban on loud music in Lijiang, I suspect we may not have the full story. It’s well known that one of the Naxi elders, now quite old, was (until recently, at least), arranging for very old (and frail) Naxi musicians to perform ancient Naxi music frequently for visitors, including foreigners. I forget his name, but the authorities despise him because at each performance, he always talks about how Naxi artists were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. So, if the performances have been curtailed or stopped — I have no idea — it might well be to shut him up, rather than the music per se . . .


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