The Last Matriarchy Society: The Mosuo

The Mosuo minority is the last matriarchal society in the world. In the past, it was difficult to imagine women having complete control in authority in their society. This concept is what has made the Mosuo minority one of the most well-known minorities in China. For this research, I decided to write an 8-10 page paper on the history on this unique minority. I will dive into different traditions, lifestyles of both sexes, as well as the negative and positive aspects of tourism. Another important aspect is how their culture may be deteriorating at a pace they may not be able to control. These traditions have lived for over 2,000 years, but they are now caught between the present and their cultural past.

To begin, the basic geographical background knowledge was necessary. Their location is in southwest China in a valley on the border of the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. The most well known landscape of this society is Lugu Lake. It takes a foreigner at least 2 days to reach this location by road. Other means of transportation are very difficult due to the landscape. There are around 40,000 Mosuo people that live in this society. They also spread out in a series of other villages around the lake. Some foreigners describe this society as paradise because of the beauty of the landscape and the simple lifestyles portrayed.

Women have the most power and control over basic lifestyle choices as well as major decisions. For example, women control their household finances, have the rightful ownership to land and houses, have full custody rights to the children, and hold down some of the most essential and demanding jobs. More often we hear of certain aspects of Chinese culture still practicing arranged marriages and men having the upper-hand with most situations. Having a society completely flipping the scenario and surviving for over 2,000 years is quite impressive. Men have their roles and jobs in this society, however, women posses the dominant roles.

One of the most famous traditions are the walking marriages. Women are not expected to marry in this culture, and it is as if marriage is a never-existing concept. When girls turn the age of 13, they go through a ceremony that makes them a woman. At this age, women are allowed to take as many, or few, lovers as they please. They receive their own bedrooms and are given full disclosure behind those doors. When, or if, they have children with their lovers, the biological father does not have a large role. The children will live under the mother’s family. The children’s uncles take on the role as a father figure.

However, this tradition can twist the idea of why these women live these lives. This has a major impact on certain tourism aspects. Foreign males may see this tradition as an open invitation and believe that these women will sleep with anyone. However, that is not the case. Women have complete control over who they choose to have relations with. However, tourism can create this misconception which continues to raise many issues for their community. This is one of many issues that tourism has inflicted on their culture. However, tourism is also one of the main sources of income. Tourism has a strong, and necessary, aspect on the survival of the Mosuo culture. On the other hand, there continues to be negative, and degrading, points of view that are continuously casts over them. 

Women, as well as men in this culture are struggling. With living in this fast-paced world, many are beginning to doubt whether or not they wish to leave. There have been instances throughout their history of people leaving this way of life, but not as much as now. This concept is one that can threaten this culture’s entire future. Many may want to settle down and get married. Some may want less-demanding, or more demanding lifestyles. Men want to have a say in their biological child’s life. Some still struggle with the concept of women having the dominant roles. This issue has existed throughout their entire history. However, it is most prominent today because many want to adapt rather than settle.

There are many aspects of this culture that are really fascinating. These women taking charge in a strongly male-influenced country creates a completely different take on the importance of other minority cultures. The traditions, lifestyles, and aspects of tourisms are by far the most compelling and important factors in this culture. There are clear positive aspects, and there are the negative aspect as well. Will this culture be able to sustain their traditions and lifestyles, or will tourism and modernity somehow bring everything to a screeching halt? The answer to that will never be easy.

5 thoughts on “The Last Matriarchy Society: The Mosuo

  1. James Bayne

    To see this minority within China is really quite interesting considering that most of the country favors men over women. This has lead to the population gap within China and the dwindling fertility rate in China. I am curious to see what the fertility rate in the Mosuo minority is and what the ratio of men to women is. The fact that there isn’t marriage within this community leads me to believe that they don’t have a huge problem with having enough children. It also leads me to believe that there may be more balance between the men and female populations in terms of size. Perhaps women outnumber the men within this minority? Regardless I am really intrigued about how this minority came to be considering the Confucianism that China’s society was built on.

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  2. Travis Soterion

    I love how we can sometimes learn the most from diamonds in the rough. The culture is important because it is unlike what much of the world is used to. When looking at this from the outside it is extremely foreign and different from what is “normal”. It pushes our mental boundaries of what cultures exist and function properly. The fact that this is the only matriarchy left in the world is incredible and shows how the “standard world culture” can trickle into ones like this. Do you entirely blame tourism on the dismantling of this culture or are there other factors involved?

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  3. Anthony Parker

    Your post fascinated me quite a bit right from your title. I was very intrigued to read about this group in China that lives in a matriarchal society, especially because my artifact analysis for the Cultural Mosaic of Jordan dealt with a very patriarchal society. It’s especially intriguing because the idea of patriarchal society is so ingrained in our world, that it is fascinating when one happens upon an opposite. When you have women in the Jordan that are restricted in what they are culturally allowed to do under the Jordanian Civil Code, it is intriguing to read about the opposite: a society in which women make the decisions and do what they please, without any of the restrictions they might find in the Jordan. Your post goes further in analyzing the misconceptions that patriarchal Westerners think about the way these women live, merely because these women are in a position of power, or that these Westerners feel disempowered by the idea of matriarchy. Overall, this serves as a fascinating window into another way of living life, especially when comparing these strong, powerful women in the Mosuo Chinese minority to the Circassian women in my artifact from Jordan, cooking in a kitchen like they are expected to.

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  4. Alan Meehan

    It is interesting to look at a culture that has an aspect that is fundamentally opposite of the way that most of the other cultures in the world have it. It makes you wonder what the source of the difference is and how they got there. The answer to why the Mosuo minority is matriarchal is likely the same reason that most other cultures are patriarchal; because they are. When a cultural structure is in place, it is hard for people to see past it and consider other possibilities, even if the rest of the world sees it the opposite way. This can also be seen with the outsiders’ views of the culture, when men from other cultures think that the women of the “walking marriages” will sleep with anyone because they don’t understand the idea of women choosing who they want and having power in a society.
    Despite the main difference that everyone will likely see with the Mosuo culture, they are still obviously a culture and society made up of individual humans. Many of them may want to either change or leave their society in search of progress or better lives. This may lead the Mosuo culture becoming smaller or different, but that is part of the cultural evolutionary process that affects all cultures. Just like biological evolution, the fitness of a culture cannot remain constant in a changing environment, even if it has historically been strong enough to survive 2000 years. Nobody can say whether that is good or bad. We can learn from such a culture, and we should. The Mosuo culture can teach us that there is more than one way to do something, and our way isn’t necessarily the only way or the best way.
    This idea can help people to become more accepting of people from other cultures, even when such a culture is very different. This can lead to more accepting and culturally diverse societies, allowing a much wider range of perspectives to coexist. As I have learned from my own project about the Austrian election, groups that are over-protective and exclusionary about their cultures can be a pretty scary thing in this global society. The election there almost put a man in the office of president that threatened to pull Austria out of the European Union if Turkey was allowed to join, claiming that they are not European and shouldn’t be allowed. This idea that a culture should be excluded from trade and cooperation because they are too different is an idea that will likely have to disappear from many places. We need more cooperation now than ever.

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  5. Pingback: Some Of The World's Matrilineal Societies | SheThePeople TV

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