Myths & Misperceptions
There are, unfortunately (but probably inevitably) a number of myths and misperceptions about the Mosuo. If you do an online search for information about the Mosuo, you will inevitably find at least some of these. At the very least, this information is misleading and inaccurate; at the worst, in some cases, it does great damage to the Mosuo culture. In this section, we seek to address these issues, and present more accurate information.
Myth 1 – The Mosuo and the Naxi are the same
It is true that the Mosuo are officially classified as part of the Naxi minority by the Chinese government. This often causes a great deal of confusion, particularly for Chinese, who mix the two cultures up.
The Mosuo culture is distinctly different from Naxi culture. They have a different language, practice a different religion, and have a completely different culture. However, due to some historical confusions (at various times in history, the Chinese term “Mosuo” was actually used to describe different ethnic groups, including the Naxi), and lack of real knowledge about the Mosuo, they ended up being grouped with the Naxi. (If you'd like to read more detailed anthropological accounts of the different ethnic groups in the area, and the usage of the terms “Naxi” and “Mosuo” in past and present, check out our “Further Information” section).
Myth 2 – Mosuo women are sexually promiscuous
It is true that Mosuo women are free to have different sexual partners, and frequently do not get married. It is true that having multiple lovers, or having children by different men, does not carry a negative stigma (for more information on this, see our section about “walking marriages”).
However, it is common to see the Mosuo portrayed as a culture in which Mosuo women frequently change partners, a kind of “sexual utopia” where women are just waiting to seduce men. This image has been portrayed particularly frequently by tourism operators who seek to attract more people (mostly men) to visit Lugu Lake. There is certainly a thriving prostitution industry at Lugu Lake; however, ironically, most of the “Mosuo girls” who work in the brothels are actually girls from other areas brought in to dress/act like Mosuo women; and are a source of shame to most real Mosuo.
To set the record straight; while promiscuity is certainly not frowned on like it is in most other cultures, most Mosuo women tend to form more long-term pairings, and not change partners frequently. It might be better described as a system of “serial monogamy”, wherein women can change partners, but tend to do so relatively rarely; and while with one partner, will rarely invite another. I've personally met many Mosuo who have had a “walking marriage” relationship with the same man for twenty or more years.
And having a “walking marriage” with non-Mosuo is very strongly frowned on; in the past, Mosuo women who had such a relationship could face very severe punishment from their family if discovered.
Myth 3 – The Mosuo language has no words for murder, rape, etc.
Actually, it is technically true that the Mosuo language has no words for murder or rape. However , this information is frequently used in a misleading or inaccurate manner, to portray a culture in which murder and rape are non-existent.
This is blatantly untrue. Murder certainly happens. And rape, although as far as can be told tends to be less common that in other cultures, also happens.
The lack of a word for “murder” doesn't mean that murder doesn't happen; the Mosuo have a word for “kill”, and simply use that word to describe all forms of killing, including murder. And when I talked to the Mosuo about rape, they said that traditionally the punishment for a rape would be execution – why would they have a punishment for a crime that doesn't exist?
There is a great danger for people coming in to study the Mosuo to idealize their culture; and the Mosuo themselves will tend to encourage this, as they don't like to talk about such things with outsiders. It is important to remember that, while the Mosuo culture is certainly fascinating, and has many aspects from which other cultures should learn, it is a disservice to them to describe them in a manner which is untrue.
As with every culture, the Mosuo culture has both its good and its bad points. Those who are truly interested in the Mosuo should reflect both sides honestly, rather than distorting the Mosuo culture to support a personal agenda.
Myth 4 – Mosuo men don't work, and are there mainly to fulfill conjugal duties
This particular myth is more common in Chinese literature than English, but is a particularly dangerous and misleading one. First, it promotes the myth that Mosuo women are sexually promiscuous, with men kept essentially for providing sexual gratification. And second, it is based on a sad misunderstanding of Mosuo history.
It is true that, traditionally, Mosuo women tend to take on most of the labour duties at home. They take care of the animals, tend the fields, etc. However, this is due to a historic division of responsibilities where Mosuo men were mostly traders, traveling long distances by caravan to trade with other groups. Since the men were frequently gone from home, the women were left to take care of the work. However, when the men were at home, they would also share in the duties there.
In modern times, the practice of having trading caravans has effectively ceased; with the result that one of the primary male roles has been rendered irrelevant. It is true, therefore, that you may often find men lounging around while women work hard; however, this is not universal (I've visited many homes where the men share in these duties equally with the women); and does not necessarily mean that Mosuo men are lazy…it indicates, rather, the need to define a viable new “male” role within the modern realities of Mosuo culture.
And it most definitely does not mean that Mosuo men are kept primarily for breeding stock and procreation.
To discuss these various myths in greater detail, please check out our discussion forums.