This week’s entry: Mosuo
What it’s about: America has technologically averse subcultures within its borders, and China is no different. The Mosuo (who also call themselves the Na) are a population of roughly 40,000 who live near the Tibetan border, and have remained an agrarian society through China’s industrial revolution. The Mosuo are one of the world’s only matriarchal societies, and perhaps the only culture in the world that doesn’t include marriage, at least not as the rest of the world understands it.
Strangest fact: While the last few decades have seen a heated debate over the nature of marriage, as an older model of a woman effectively being her husband’s property has given way to a modern view of marriage being an equal partnership, the Mosuo subscribe to neither. Instead, the Mosuo practice “walking marriage,” in which there are no lifelong commitments and relationships are based solely on mutual affection, not family alliances, finances, inheritance, or even parental responsibilities.
Extended Mosuo families live together, with a matriarch ruling each family. Families live communally, and only adult women have their own bedrooms. Women can invite men to spend the night at their discretion (“walking” refers to the walk home in the morning), and as they’re not dependent on their romantic partners for financial support or a place to live, women can end relationships with virtually no strings attached. Any children a relationship produces are raised by their mother and her extended family, so while men have no rights or responsibilities to their biological offspring, they’re significantly involved in raising their nieces and nephews.
Biggest controversy: Outsiders often envision this setup as a nonstop orgy of promiscuity, but by and large walking marriage is closer to what Americans would call serial monogamy. Relationships tend to be lasting, sometimes lifelong, but if a couple loses interest in each other, they can simply split up, without cultural, financial, or parental obligations keeping them together in an unfulfilling relationship. Outsiders also assume children often don’t know who their biological fathers are, but there’s still a stigma to women not knowing who got them pregnant. Fathers are generally involved in their children’s lives, but not as day-to-day parental figures, and are less important than aunts and uncles.
Thing we were happiest to learn: The Mosuo’s lack of economic sophistication has in fact boosted their economy. People have mostly held onto an agrarian lifestyle, rejecting most modern technology (although television has crept into some homes), and their economy is still primarily based on bartering. (Pigs and pork are often used as currency.) But Han Chinese looking to observe a simpler lifestyle in action have made Yongning and Yanyuan, where most of the Mouso population live, into a thriving tourist destination.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Mosuo matriarchy probably came about as a way of keeping peasants in line. Historically, the Mosuo were ruled by nobility, who practiced a “parallel line of descent,” in which sons would inherit their fathers’ social status, and daughters would inherit their mothers’. Which meant a nobleman could marry a peasant, and his sons would retain his titles. But if a noblewoman did the same, her sons wouldn’t be nobility.
To further thwart peasant men from infiltrating the nobility, lower classes were strictly matrilineal—meaning property and status were inherited strictly through the mother—so that the nobility were the only men who actually had a family line and could pass on titles and land.
Also noteworthy: While most Mosuo have adopted Buddhism, they historically practiced an animist religion called Daba. Daba centers on a female goddess (perhaps unsurprisingly), and the religion’s rites involve communing with ancestor spirits. However, the Chinese government had a longtime ban on Daba priests (which has since been lifted), and as a result, few of them remain, and most that do are elderly. Many Mosuo worry that when the priests are gone, the faith may disappear, and with it a significant aspect of their culture.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: While the Mosuo version of marriage is unique, it’s far from the only matrilineal culture. Wikipedia, naturally, has a list of matrilineal societies, encompassing cultures on every continent. In most cases, the cultures in question are ethnic minorities in their countries, but there are exceptions, like the Thai.
Further down the Wormhole: As matriarchies have been the exception in world culture, they have been the subject of anthropological fascination. The International Academy For Modern Matriarchal Studies has held conferences around the world in recent years, setting up shop in Texas in 2005. Texas was, of course, one of the states that attempted to secede from the Union during the Civil War. Those states were led by Virginia, home of the Confederacy’s capital and many of its key military leaders, but also the birthplace of many loyal Americans who fought for the Union. Alongside well-known figures like Gen. Winfield Scott and Adm. David Farragut is the lesser-known but pivotal figure of Elizabeth Van Lew, one of America’s most successful spymasters. We’ll go undercover with her next week.