Magazine article Geographical

'We Really Don't Need Husbands': Among the Musuo People of China's Yunnan Province, Tradition Dictates That Women Call the Shots, There Are Not Marriages and Sexual Partners Lead Separate Lives, Even If They Have Children Together

Magazine article Geographical

'We Really Don't Need Husbands': Among the Musuo People of China's Yunnan Province, Tradition Dictates That Women Call the Shots, There Are Not Marriages and Sexual Partners Lead Separate Lives, Even If They Have Children Together

Article excerpt

'It's better for men and women to live apart because there is less conflict. If you and your love-friend live together, it will lead to arguments about lots of small things.'

It's 8pm, and the moon is full behind the jagged peaks that encircle Lake Lugu like dragons' teeth. The white eye of a motorbike headlight approaches and then passes into the blackness.

Walking beside me on our return from the market, Gongts Dash Duma, or Qi Du as she is known, looks back along the road the bike rider has taken. 'Didi--my little brother,' she says with a grin. 'He's going to see his aipengyou.'

A few minutes later, a second bike bumps past on the pock-marked road, then a third. There's a slow but steady stream of riders now and most are on their way to visit their aipengyous--sexual partners with whom they usually only meet at night-travelling to their lovers' home after sunset and returning to their own houses at first light.

Earlier visitors to this mountainous region of southwest China named such relationships 'walking marriages'. Now, the men of Yunnan Province's minority Mosuo people use speedier methods of travel to get to their loved ones. But the principle remains the same: when a man and a woman begin a physical relationship, neither of them has any expectation that they will share daily life or a home--even if they have children together.

SEPARATE LIVES

Here, in one of the world's last remaining matriarchies, Mosuo men and women usually live in their mothers' houses their entire lives, believing that their birth family is far more reliable than families formed by marriage. 'We have a saying that explains it,' says Qi Du back at the wooden farmhouse where she lives with her extended family. She's stirring up a potent concoction of fermented rice and fried egg in a wok over the open fire that she says will help fend off the bitter, late-autumn cold. 'A man and a woman are like two trees growing side by side: their roots are separate, but their branches overlap.'

A Mosuo saying goes something like this: 'If you [a woman] are lying dead by the road and your love-friend walks past, he will keep walking. If your little brother sees you there, he will stop and cry.' Qi Du is a chatty, smiling woman in her early 40s with a passion for gambling on card games. She sees no reason to live with a long-term partner to achieve happiness in love, sex and child-rearing. 'We really don't need a husband because in every household, you have a brother and a lama [a male family member who has been educated at the local temple and lives as a monk],' she says.

Marriage, in the conventional Western sense, didn't exist among the Mosuo until new rules were imposed in the mid-1960s during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, forcing couples to enter official marriages in the same way as the nation's Han majority. Until then, if a woman and man wanted to start a sexual relationship, he would start to visit her house at night. When one or both partners wanted to end relations, he would simply stop visiting.

UPHOLDING TRADITION

Today, life around the lake is changing rapidly due to increased exposure to outside cultures. But with the rules less rigidly enforced by the current government, many in the 50,000-strong Mosuo community choose to follow their culture's traditions. 'People [lovers] don't get angry with each other, because we don't have to get a divorce,' explains Qi Du. 'If we don't get along, we don't get along and simply stop seeing each other.'

And, she adds, since most Mosuo people remain living with their birth family rather than their spouse, break-ups are less disruptive than in other cultures. 'The men don't tell the women what to do, the women just do it,' she explains. 'If the women don't want to do something, we won't. If we do, we do.'

Qi Du's grandmother, Gonts Bima, in common with other Mosuo grannies, is the household's matriarch and responsible for making all the family's major decisions. …

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