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The Mosuo: China’s Last Matrilineal Society

Source: Rod Waddington of Flickr

Sprawled across a lush valley in the Yunnan province are the villages of China’s last matrilineal society: the Mosuo people. Living by Luga Lake, this tribal community exists in a societal structure that most of the world can only imagine — one where neither the patriarchy nor marriage — as we know it — exists!

Though the Mosuo are not a completely matriarchal society, a great part of their culture certainly paints an interesting picture to the rest of the outside world. Defined by a history that has endured for over 2,000 years, this cultural minority has structured their lives around female agency and preserved a unique cultural heritage that deviates from the perceived gender roles of the global norm.


The Mosuo Matriarchs

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the Mosuo community is the amount of power and respect a woman inherently commands by virtue of her gender. According to the customs of this ancient tribe, surnames and property are inherited by daughters, households are run by mothers, and the family itself is ruled traditionally by the matriarch grandmother. 

Though men are provided with responsibilities involving manual labor and do exert some influence over family decisions, their roles may seem curiously lacking when compared to most of their global counterparts. This may due to the fact that men are typically only involved in the households of their mothers, as impacted by the “walking marriages” tradition of the Mosuo people. 


On Mosuo Romance: “Walking Marriages”

Marriage, in the general sense of the word, does not really exist for the Mosuo. Instead, they have 走婚 (zǒu hūn), which may be translated to a “walking marriage.” In a tradition unique to this tribe, men are expected to live in their mothers’ homes and are permitted to visit their partners only in the evening. Romantic couples do not traditionally live together because the Mosuo prefer to separate romance from their daily normal lives. 


A Mosuo bride. Source: Rod Waddington of Flickr


Because romances are also not perceived to essentially be permanent, women are free to change their axia or partners as they wish, with no social consequences whatsoever in regards to the casual nature of their relationships. However, this doesn’t mean that life-long partnerships do not exist. Walking marriages are observed to be typically long-term in nature. 

Due to the unique arrangements of walking marriages, children in these communities are raised solely by the families of their mothers, with involvement from grandmothers, aunts, and uncles. Often enough, fathers aren’t largely recognized and possess limited involvement, if any at all, in the upbringing of their offspring. 

Despite this, men may still have paternal roles. Although they aren’t expected to be active in raising the children of their partners, they do often serve as fatherly figures to the children of their sisters. 

Even though the community’s small population count of just 40,000, the Mosuo’s distinct female-oriented traditions have more than attracted global attention in recent years. Sharing a strong sense of identity, the women of Mosuo are happy to express pride in their cultural heritage and continue to preserve their traditions to this very day. 


Have you also heard about the Chinese female pirate, Zheng She? You can read about her here.

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