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Anthropology of the Mosuo People


Matrilineality is currently almost extinct, but it is still practiced in few non-western, isolated communities around the world. In matrilineal societies and households, a family is defined differently. A woman is usually the head of the household. In such society, people practice the maternal descent system rather than paternal descent lines as a system of kinship. Matrilineality does not only refer to the relationship and family structure between two adults of opposite genders as defined previously, but it also determines a structure of inheritance through the female line. Men in Mosuo society in China have less significant or no leadership roles in their households. Sisters and mothers are not only heads of families, but also the final decision-makers. The Mosuo do not recognize terms such as a husband, wife, and/or a typical definition of a family as a group of people that comprises a father, mother, child/children, and sometimes relatives. There are no marital institutions, no partnership/spouse commitments, or legal/traditional marital bonding or celebration of love. Therefore, since the Mosuo people of China have matrilineal traditions, customs, and culture in their society, their lifestyle presents evidence of a preserved ancient culture amidst modern civilization.

Analysis of the Mosuo Culture

Personality training among the Mosuo people is an activity that is commonly associated with women, since the latter do most of the tedious chores, fending for the family through fishing, farming, and livestock rearing. Women are responsible for training other members of the family on skills necessary for survival and role-play in their society. Therefore, females perform most duties in the family. Men acquire skills from other men independently in the community or from their mothers. When a girl turns thirteen, she is officially an adult and goes through an initiation ritual/ceremony that confirms her transition from childhood to adulthood. She is allowed to wear the traditional attire, which signifies her transition to adulthood. All children participate in subsistence farming and perform certain chores in families, where there are very few hands to complete everyday tasks, as soon as they are of age. Both the male and female genders are acceptable, but women are dominant members of every household in the community.

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Traditional subsistence practiced by the Mosuo people involves the division of certain tasks and duties. While the older daughter and the mother in the family concern themselves with chores, housekeeping, and other related tasks, sons (brothers and uncles) look after little children. Men in the house are responsible for planning ceremonies and other related duties such as a funeral. During festivals such as the marking of a new year, selected households prepare certain delicacies that are later distributed throughout the community. Men from neighboring villages and the local ones pool efforts and sometimes resources to assist a family in building a house. During the building process, other female neighbors volunteer to prepare meals for those assisting. Offering money to the helpers is considered to be embarrassing; instead, wine, rice, and other items considered as valuable gifts are given to them. Women take care of the household, feeding and rearing herds (mostly pigs and cows). Household members own everything together, lands, flocks and money made. The whole income is given to the head of the house, the oldest female. She decides what should be done with money and when. Nevertheless, other members of the family can ask her for money if needed.

The traditional economic system is based on an exchange of livestock for other valued commodities such as clothing, jewelry and sometimes food items. On the other hand, subsistence farmers try to sell their agro products to tourists, people travelling through the village to other places, and in the city of Han for money and not commodity exchange. Although wealth is not of importance, it is measured by the amount of livestock a family owns. However, the Mosuo people believe that money cannot buy everything and prefer to be happy with little things such as dancing and singing in harmony together.

The Mosuo people do not recognize, practice or accept marital customs in their culture; as such, they do not get married and have no marriage customs. The Mosuo people use the term “lover” to signify the relationship status with the one they have an affair only. If the latter results into childbearing, the biological father of the child or children cannot claim any sort of ownership over children, as they belong to his wife and her family. The father of the child can only visit his lover (mother of his child/children) from time to time for sexual relations or exchange pleasantries and gifts. He is also not obligated to provide for them, and even if he does so, it is done to support his lover’s family according to his will and capacity. Although some people may have stable partners, but without mutual responsibilities, as either partner can have sexual relations with others and still profess “love” to each other. They are also naturally willing to share their “lovers” with someone else, without grudge or sentiments as long as he or she wishes to have sexual activities with someone else. In Musuo society, it is allowed for any man or women to keep and have several sexual partners if he/she chooses to do so. The residence pattern is usually based on household structures, sometimes similar to matrilocality. The woman who is the head of her family lives with her children, brothers, grandchildren, and male partners, forming an extended family. When a Mosuo woman seizes to be attractive enough to attract multiple sex partners, she usually settles down with her partner. Brothers and sisters live in the same house throughout their lifetimes, except for occasions when men need to relocate and live with their lovers in order not to lose her to someone else. However, a woman can break free from her family to form a new household with her brothers and children. Therefore, the Mosuo people do not recognize marriage; anyone can have access to as many partners as they wish to have. Females are usually in charge of sexual access in an unofficial manner. They personally decide with whom they are willing to share themselves and beds. Mothers and uncles have full custody and authority over children, while fathers have no authority.

The Mosuo people practice the matrilineal descent system, and the lineal descent system is more important to them. Children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces inherit livestock, land, and other belongings from mothers, grandmothers, and uncles. Daughters inherit both power and property from their mothers. An uncle can pass down his belongings or wealth down to his sister’s sons and/or daughters, but not to his own children. Thus, wealth inheritance is based on the matrilineal system from one generation to another.

A few cultural changes have taken place in the Mosuo community. The visitation of tourists, electronic devices and digital media have rubbed off on their mentality and thinking. They are likely to spend more time watching TV soap operas, entertaining tourists and providing other tourist services, rather than being engaged in usual farming, singing and dancing among other choice activities they have enjoyed. The Mosuo people are currently adopting modern technology in their society while still holding on to most of their prominent traditional practices.

The traditions and culture of the Mosuo people are opposite to many other world cultures. People practice the patrilineal descent system in my culture. Fathers are heads of their families, breadwinners and the final decision-makers. Men and women are treated equally, and there are few cases of male dominance over females. Having multiple sex partners is viewed as promiscuity. Marriage is a custom practiced regularly, legal and institutionalized. Most people live in nuclear or extended families. However, comparing both cultures through cultural relativism, the Mosuo people have open relationships in order to avoid physical and emotional responsibilities/commitments attached to getting married and keeping to one partner. Although people may get divorced, my culture recognizes marital commitments and responsibilities between two people who love each other. In my society, anyone is free and entitled to start a new family with whomever he or she wishes. The Mosuo people cannot do that because their intent is to keep family belongings within the family.  

In conclusion, I have learned that the integrated structure of the Mosuo culture is much more than just opposite to what is experienced in other cultures. There is a deep sense of solidarity and support among them. There are no political hierarchies and powers governing the whole village, yet they can live in peace and harmony. The Mosuo people are contented, open-minded and tolerant, helpful and hardworking. They have managed to achieve this having a culture some would call absurd.

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