Quest for Harmony: The Moso Traditions of Sexual Union and Family Life

Quest for Harmony: The Moso Traditions of Sexual Union and Family Life

Quest for Harmony: The Moso Traditions of Sexual Union and Family Life

Quest for Harmony: The Moso Traditions of Sexual Union and Family Life

Synopsis

In this long-awaited ethnography, Chuan-kang Shih details the traditional social and cultural conditions of the Moso, a matrilineal group living on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces in southwest China. Among the Moso, a majority of the adult population practice a visiting system called tisese instead of marriage as the normal sexual and reproductive institution. Until recently, tisese was noncontractual, nonobligatory, and nonexclusive. Partners lived and worked in separate households. The only prerequisite for a tisese relationship was a mutual agreement between the man and the woman to allow sexual access to each other. In a comprehensive account, Quest for Harmony explores this unique practice specifically, and offers thorough documentation, fine-grained analysis, and an engaging discussion of the people, history, and structure of Moso society. Drawing on the author's extensive fieldwork, conducted from 1987 to 2006, this is the first ethnography of the Moso written in English.

Excerpt

We have a very special case on our hands. It is special not just in the sense that every culture is unique in its own right and different from others in one way or another. Rather, it is special in the unequivocal sense that its patterns of fundamental social institutions, such as institutionalized sexual union, household organization, and kinship system, had been literally unknown to anthropologists before it appeared on the anthropological horizon just a few decades ago. It is also one of the very rare societies in which women are recognized as culturally superior to men. Moreover, because of its unique cultural norms, this society has had low fertility and mortality rates since premodern times—a pattern conventionally associated with modernization. With features like these, this case is bound not only to expand the limits of our knowledge but also to force us to rewrite many basic concepts in our textbooks.

Our case is the Moso, an ethnic minority group who live on the highland around the upper reaches of the Jinsha River in Southwest China. The Moso have a population of about forty thousand, mainly distributed in Ninglang County of Yunnan Province and Yanyuan, Muli, and Yanbian Counties in Sichuan Province (NLYZZZXZBJWYH 1993). Those who live in Ninglang County are mostly concentrated in what are now Yongning and Labo xiang (rural townships), or what I call the greater Yongning area (see Map 2).

The cultural center of the Moso is situated at Yongning proper, a basin of 41.23 square kilometers at an elevation of 2,650 meters, surrounded by mountains up to 4,332 meters above sea level. The Yongning basin was ethnically homogeneous until the early decades of the twentieth century. At present, however, it is the home of eleven ethnic groups. In spite of the change, the Moso is still by far the dominant group in this area. According to the government annual survey, by December 31, 2006, the Moso in Yongning and Labo numbered 11,278, accounting for 36.53 percent of the total population of 30,870. Next to the basin is Lake Lugu, a plateau lake of 48.45 square kilometers straddling the Yunnan-Sichuan border. Rivers crisscross the basin area.

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