Imagine a land where matrilineality prevails and where men and women describe a culture of equality, love and non violence. A place where men speak openly against violence against women and where women describe a home of equality and safety.
Settled around the sparkling waters of Lugu lake, in Yunnan province, China you can find just that. There live the Mosou, considered to be one of the last matrilineal groups in the world.
After years of travelling through some of the most hostile parts of the world to women, where discrimination and violence run rife, I was intrigued by the Mosou. I wanted to know more about the great freedoms that women were reported to be enjoying and what it was that led them to place equality at the center of their culture.
I travelled from the old city of Lijang over the spectacular mountainous terrain to the sparkling waters of Lugu Lake, the land of the Mosou. The green and blue waters of the lake sparkle under the bright sunlight and the enormous surrounding mountains give it a sense of illuminating power. The colourful flowers and the traditional Mosou buildings give you the sense that you are somewhere unique.
Elderly Mosou women wrapped in traditional clothing walk slowly around the lake, chanting Buddhist prayers, an evening ritual from the Buddhism that has played a fundamental role in shaping Mosou culture.
The natural beauty of the lake and the surrounding mountains give the region an incredible appeal, an appeal which is amplified by the Mosou’s values of equality, love and non violence.
Values which are reflected in the way that they see the surrounding environment. The mountain is seen as a goddess and the lake as the mother, an indicator of the revered role held by women in Mosou culture.
I stayed almost two weeks with the Mosou and spent my days speaking with different men and women from all parts of Mosou society. I met with young women running local businesses, elderly women working on farms and also many Mosou men. Everyone I met described a culture where women are respected and cared for. The grandmother is the central authority in the family and each house has a special room known as the grandmother’s room.
Wong Jicier Erqing, a local man working in a museum explained that while men and women follow gender roles, the men are in charge of making money and building the house while women take care of the children, cook and work in the house, value is still divided equally in Mosou culture. ‘Men and women are equal,’ he said.
Families are often still happier when they have a girl however.
‘The girl is going to keep the family going. The young girl will also grow to be a grandmother,’ he explained.
One of the most interesting aspects about the Mosou is their relationships between men and women. They practice what they call walking marriages which is much like a relationship between a boyfriend and girlfriend. This would traditionally involve men climbing the walls of the woman’s house to enter through the window of his lover. This tradition has slowly changed however and relationships are now instead initiated through the telephone, as one young woman explained.
Men and women are also not required to get married but rather they stay in their walking marriages and can change them as they wish.
For Walabi a woman working on a farm outside of Lugu Lake, she explains that a woman can have children with many different men as she likes and is free to separate from a man that she no longer wants to be with. ‘It’s very normal for women to have many different men,’ she explains.
Children are also not cared for by their fathers but rather it is the uncle, the mother’s brother who takes responsibility for her children. The children are then raised in the maternal household with their mother and her family.
For Luruduoji another Mosou man living by the lake, he attributes the strong role of women in Mosou culture to the important role of the mother.
In the families, women are considered to be the head, they are the boss, as one young woman explained. Whoever earns the money from outside has to give the money to the woman and it is she who manages it and everything that is needed for the family. This gives women an important and respected role within the culture.
One of the most admirable aspects of the Mosou culture however, is their non tolerance of violence against women. All of the Mosou women and men that I spoke to during my time at Lugu Lake explained that violence against women is not permitted in Mosou culture.
Bingmalam for example, a young 22 year old woman who is planning on continuing the Mosou tradition of not marrying, said that she doesn’t think that violence or sexual harassment are problems for Mosou women. She said that if she were to have a problem with a man, then she would tell her family and, she would fight the man.
Luruduoji agreed that it is unacceptable for Mosou men to hit women. ‘If I saw a man hitting a woman than I would try to stop it,’ he said.
Dumalam a local hotel manager in Lioushui agrees that women are safe in Mosou culture. She attributes the great protection enjoyed by Mosou women to the culture. ‘It is because of the Buddhism,’ she explains.
As we talk I look around the traditional wooden structure of the hotel and with the lake shimmering in the background I reflect on how rarely throughout the world I encounter countries, or cultures, that promote equality between men and women. Rather cultures are usually set up to suit men and men only. This most often involves discriminating against women, controlling her sexual behavior and giving men permission to perpetrate violence against her. Looking at Dumalam who comes from a culture that is so different from all of that, I wonder what its like for her to hear stories from other parts of the world where men continuously perpetrate violence and discrimination against women and girls,
She frowns and shakes her head, ‘its not good,’ she says.