The Mosuo culture
Mosuo Culture has attracted a lot of interest in recent years. There have been books written about them, documentaries produced about them, and scores of anthropologists coming to study them. Yet, for all of this, much of the information that is out there about the Mosuo is misleading at best, and at times damaging. We hope to provide more accurate information here, to help people understand this unique and fascinating culture!
There is not that much known about the history/origins of the Mosuo culture. The Mosuo don't have a written language (but we are working to help them develop one!), so their entire history is an oral history, passed down from generation to generation, mostly through local priests called “Daba”. There are occasional references in Chinese written history, but due to the many different names that have been used throughout history, it can often be difficult (or impossible) to demonstrate that these definitely refer to the Mosuo. So much of what is “known” about the Mosuo is a patchwork collection of “most likely” hypotheses.
Of course, this inevitably leads to different/competing theories, and if you do study anthropological writings about the Mosuo, you likely will end up hearing different ideas. Some people trace Mosuo heritage back to Mongolia; others consider the Mosuo to be native to the Yunnan/Sichuan area. In the end, it can be difficult to prove/disprove any of these theories; so this site, for the most part, focuses instead on the situation today, and on those aspects of history that are documented.
Three aspects of the Mosuo culture that tend to attract the most attention are their practice of a system that is similar to matriarchal systems; their practice of “walking marriages”, an alternative system whereby women can choose/change partners as they wish, and couples do not live together or get married; and their integration of Tibetan Buddhism and their own religion, “Daba”. As each topic is quite complex, we've designated separate sections for each subject.
The Mosuo are a Chinese ethnic minority group who live high in the Himalayas, in an area straddling Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, close to the Tibetan border. Although officially classified as part of the Naxi minority by the Chinese government, they are actually quite a different group, with different language, culture, religion, etc.
Most people who know about the Mosuo tend to identify them with Lugu Lake, however the majority of Mosuo do not live at the lake, but rather in small towns and villages scattered throughout the mountains. Estimates as to their numbers vary, but are most likely around 40,000.
The Mosuo economy is largely agrarian, and they are capable of producing most of what they need for daily living. In the past, Mosuo men would take trading caravans to other parts of China, to buy/trade products they could not produce locally. Unlike most of China, the staple food is potato, rather than rice (although under increasing Chinese influence, this is changing).
The average annual income for the majority of Mosuo would be around US$150-200, which is quite low even by Chinese standards. This does not mean that the Mosuo are starving to death; they are quite able to provide for their basic needs. However, it does mean that even relatively small costs for things such as education, travel, etc., can be prohibitively expensiven.
There are several other minorities who live in the same area, primarily the Yi, the Naxi, and the Pumi. Each has its own unique culture; and in some cases, some intermixing of cultures has taken place, lending even greater variety to the local culture. So depicting any of these minorities as being “like this” can be rather misleading.
For further discussion of Mosuo matriarchy, religion, and the “walking marriages”, check out our section on Mosuo culture. There is also a lot of inaccurate information out there about the Mosuo; take a look at our “Myths & Misperceptions” section to get a better understanding of the real situation.