The Place In China Where The Women Lead

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(Top) Geze Duoji's sister Danzeng Nongzuo enters her home. (Left) Zhaba Songding's mother Cili Zhuoma carries a load of hay home. (Right) Nazhu Zhuoma visits her husband's home.

Tourists are drawn to the shores of Lugu Lake in southwest China by tales of an exotic "Kingdom of Daughters," where the women of the Mosuo ethnic group head one of the world's relatively rare matrilineal societies.

In fact, the tourists have created their share of problems over the years.

The Mosuo's "walking marriages," in which Mosuo women traditionally were allowed to have multiple lovers, have enticed some tourists to try to take liberties with local women.

"So we have to beat them up," says Mosuo tour guide Geze Duoji. "After that, they behave better," he adds with a chuckle.

In recent months, the building of roads and an airport have increased the trickle of visitors into a tsunami, inundating the pristine alpine region with people, traffic, garbage and noise, and putting pressure on the local culture.

The Yunnan provincial government has responded by ordering a halt to the building of hotels on Lugu Lake.

Geze Duoji notes that the Mosuo have traditionally given careful consideration to balancing factors such as population, food supply and land.

The government's moratorium on hotel building suggests that the Mosuo may have reached a sort of equilibrium between economic development and traditional culture.

Tourism has helped the Mosuo to emerge from centuries of poverty and isolation in the highlands of northwest Yunnan.

In Luoshui, the most built-up village on the lake, every family sends a member to a sort of nightly barn dance for tourists, and gets a cut of the ticket sales. One of the dancers is 34-year-old Nazhu Zhuoma.

Most of her family's income comes from tourism. In addition to income from the barn dance, she also rents out an inn on the lake for out-of-town businessmen to run.

Nazhu says everyone in her family does whatever they're best at.

"My mom feeds the pigs and chickens," she explains. "I take care of relations with the businessmen, and paperwork for the inn, such as permits and contracts."

Her mom is the honorary head of the household, but Nazhu herself manages the family's finances. Family members give her any money they make, for her to allocate as she sees fit.

In traditional Mosuo families, brothers and sisters live their whole lives together in the same house. They live with their mothers, and their mothers' brothers and sisters. Households can have three or four generations and dozens of people in one home, all of them related by blood, and none by marriage.

"Our language has no word for aunt," Geze explains. "Your mother's sisters are all your mothers. Which one gave birth to you is not important."

Everyone shares the family's belongings equally, he continues, as well as responsibility for raising their sisters' kids. The kids take their mother's surname. How many children to have, and when, is up to the women to decide themselves, with perhaps some consultation from other family members.

"I don't think I ever discussed whether or not to have children with my husband," Nazhu Zhuoma says matter-of-factly. "It seems he didn't really have much to do with it."

She and her husband Zhaba Songding did manage to have two kids. He takes care of them while she works. But he doesn't live with her. He spends the nights with his wife, and returns in the mornings with the children to spend the days at home with his mom, where his siblings and maternal relatives also live.

In a "walking marriage," it's the men who do the walking.

Before he got his wife's family's permission to marry her, Zhaba admits he didn't get much sleep.

"I had to sneak into her home after her family had gone to sleep around midnight or 1 a.m.," he recalls, "and leave at around 5 or 6 a.m. before they woke up."

Thanks to this arrangement, the Mosuo say, male-female relationships are free of possessiveness, jealousy or regard for economic status, and their society has practically no widows or orphans, no war or crime.

Of course, they admit, it is also a survival mechanism. With the advent of tourism, survival is no longer an issue for the Mosuo, and so their social structure has begun to erode, as they opt for smaller families with higher incomes.

Geze Duoji estimates that roughly a quarter of Mosuo people have abandoned matrilineal families. He says there have only been two periods of serious damage to the matrilineal system in recent history. The first time was during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, when matrilineal families were banned.

The other is the present day, since the beginning of tourism. Chinese tourism to Lugu lake began in the early 1980s. Foreigners were allowed in in the early 1990s.

Nazhu Zhuoma says that the prospect of freedom from family pressures once tempted her to leave her mother's home.

"But because I'm an only daughter, I know I must inherit the family line, I mustn't shirk my responsibility to my family."

Geze Duoji says that most of the psychological pressure on the Mosuo comes from being misunderstood or looked down upon. He says may Chinese tourists see the Mosuo and their matrilineal society as primitive and weird.

"Many people say: 'You're so backward, now that you've met advanced people like us, why do you still practice these walking marriages?'" he says. "It makes me furious. We feel we have no way to interact with outsiders on an equal footing."

Geze says that many outsiders have the impression that Mosuo women lord it over men. In fact, he says, decisions are made democratically at family meetings, with each adult member having his or her say, and labor is divided in a humane and equitable fashion.

Men preside over everything related to death, he explains, such as funerals and slaughtering livestock, while women are in charge of everything related to birth and life.

Traditionally the Mosuo's political leaders were often women. Today, most Mosuo officials are men, but this too is a division of labor, as the Mosuo feel men are better suited to act as envoys to the outside world of male-dominated politics.

Many Chinese and foreign journalists have reported that Mosuo couples signal romantic interest in each other by tickling the palms of the hands. Geze says that this is simply a myth propagated by tour guides to entertain tourists.

Much of the time, Geze says he tells inquisitive tourists that he's not Mosuo, so that he doesn't have to answer their bothersome questions.

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