For over 20 years, Choo Waihong worked as a corporate lawyer at a couple of prestigious law firms, primarily in Singapore and Los Angeles, leading a busy life that left her little time to see the world.
In 2006, she got tired of always being on the move and decided to retire early to travel. She went in search of her Chinese roots, exploring the big cities and later arriving as a tourist at Lake Lugu, the home of the Mosuo tribe in the southwest of China. She was so fascinated by the way of life of this community that she chose to move in with them for much of the year.
“I liked the Mosuo people and their lifestyle so much that I returned again and again, staying longer to become part of their community. Building a cabin on the land of a friend from there was part of the adventure that attracted me to spend more time,” said the lawyer, who started as an outsider and today knows the Mosuo culture better than some locals.
Choo grew up in a world where men are the bosses and used to fight a lot with her father, considered the boss in what she described as an “extremely patriarchal” Chinese family in Singapore. Her experience on Lake Lugu was so different from what she had known until that moment that she began writing a book to record everything she learned of the Mosuo way of life, called “The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains” (I B Tauris & Co, 2017).
She started the book almost without planning it, pushed on by a friend from London who came to visit her once at her cabin on the lake. Writing the book also gave Choo the impetus to delve into what the feminist essence meant for one of the last remaining matrilineal and matriarchal societies in the world.
In the Mosuo tribe, children belong to their matrilineal family. They live in the mother’s family home and are raised by their mother, their grandmother, aunts, and uncles under one roof. All descendants are born out of wedlock and the nuclear family as we understand it exists differently.
Men and women have occasional nightly encounters when they want to be together, without obligation or prejudice. The hat of a man hanging on the handle of the door to a woman’s room is a sign telling other men not to enter. These encounters can range from one night to exclusive lifetime partnerships that may or may not result in pregnancy, but couples never live together or formally marry.
Women are the ones who inherit property, plant crops and manage farms, care for offspring, and carry out household chores. Men take on tasks that require more physical strength. They take care of building and repairing houses, sacrifice animals, and help with big family decisions, although the last word always lies with the grandmother, who is the matriarch of the household.
According to Choo, 30,000 to 40,000 people belong to the Mosuo community. Its culture has become increasingly popular over the years, attracting many onlookers since the area was first opened to travelers two decades ago.
Most of the visitors are Chinese from other parts of the country, probably because the lake is away from the main known tourist routes and therefore foreigners need more time and effort to detour to this remote inland mountainous region (although today one can fly directly to their new little airport in the mountains).
Choo said that some visitors who arrive to the lake do not understand the sexual freedom of the Mosuo community. Many hope to be “lucky” to get an overnight adventure with a Mosuo woman during their stay, only to find out Mosuo women are more discriminating than that.
Chinese outsiders see the concept of the Mosuo matrilineal/matriarchal family structure as a rarity, so different from their own patrilineal/patriarchal tradition. “This they find difficult to understand, how the head of the family can be a woman when the Chinese family is, and always has been, a family definitely dominated by men,” added Choo.
The number of visitors has grown so much that today the entire economy surrounding the lake depends on tourism. The change in the economy has also hastened changes in the unique culture and many special customs of the ancient Mosuo tribe. For thousands of years the Mosuo were relatively poor subsistence farmers, but now they perform modern tourism-related jobs that did not exist before. With these jobs, many people have stopped cultivating the land and instead earn their living purely from tourism.
Life on the lake a few years ago was extremely rudimentary, but since moving into modern times, every farm has electricity, running water, WiFi, and a solar-powered hot water source in the home. Every adult has a mobile phone, a bank account and understands everything there is to know about a loan or a mortgage.
All those under the age of 30 have attended school until at least high school, while most of their mothers and fathers never studied and cannot read or write. The Mosuo in remote villages now have the same access to educational opportunities as in the rest of China. They are schooled in the official language, Mandarin, and the curriculum follows national models.
This fact alone, according to Choo, has brought immense changes to people’s lives, hopes, and expectations, including the possibility of being able to go out into the world at large and be employed in jobs that their ancestors would never have dreamt of doing.
At the same time, their traditional matrilineal family structure is also evolving in tune with the nuclear family structure prevailing in the rest of China. Today the Mosuo youth are more inclined to adopt what for them is “the new and modern way to legally marry” and form a nuclear family structure in a separate home. This divides the matrilineal family configuration and also means that marriage now unites the couple as a permanent couple contrary to traditional Mosuo custom.
“All my younger friends have married and established homes with the man and the woman together in what is fast becoming a patriarchal family. The children born to the couple belong to the couple and not to the larger matrilineal family tree as before,” said Choo.
In fact, they will grow up without understanding or experiencing the great matrilineal family atmosphere of a typical Mosuo home. “Unfortunately, this may be the beginning of the collapse of the matrilineal and matriarchal world of Mosuo,” she said. Her task, with her book, is to collect and immortalize the testimony of the fast-disappearing Mosuo culture.
There are still some women-centered communities in Asia. The Garo and Khasi tribes, numbering around a million people, are matrilineal societies, mainly in India, that are oriented toward but not dominated by women. In a Khasi family, the youngest daughter inherits the ancestral property. In the Garo community, women inherit but do not make managerial decisions.
The Indonesian island of Sumatra is home to what is believed to be the world’s largest matrilineal society: the Minangkabau, with some 8 million members. Women play an essential role in the education of their children and have inheritance rights, while men are expected to accept jobs elsewhere and hold political and religious positions. When they get married, the man moves into the woman’s house. Their community is also changing and many have moved to larger cities, where they no longer follow their traditions.
Ana Salvá is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia.