Probably the most famous – and most misunderstood – aspect of Mosuo culture is their practice of “walking marriages” (or “zou hun” in Chinese), so called because the men will walk to the house of their ‘partner' at night, but return to their own home in the morning.
The Mosuo generally live in large extended families, with many generations (great grandparents, grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, etc.) all living together within the same house. For the most part, everyone lives within communal quarters, without private bedrooms or living areas. However, women between certain ages (see the section on “coming of age”) can have their own private bedrooms.
Traditionally, a Mosuo woman who is interested in a particular man will invite him to come and spend the night with her in her room. Such pairings are generally conducted secretly, so the man will walk to her house after dark (thus the description of “walking marriage”), spend the night with her, and return home early the next morning.
While it is possible for a Mosuo woman to change partners as often as she likes – and in fact, having only one sexual partner would be neither expected nor common – the majority of such couplings will actually be more long term. And few Mosuo women will have more than one partner at a time. More than one anthropologist has described this system as “serial monogamy”; and, in fact, many such pairings may last for a lifetime. ( In recent years, a lot of information about the Mosuo has portrayed their culture as a sexually promiscuous culture in which women change partners frequently; this is addressed in greater detail in our “Myths & Misinformation” section.)
Even when a pairing may be long term, however, the man will never go to live with the woman's family, or vice versa. He will continue to live with and be responsible to his family; she will continue to live with and be responsible to her family. There will be no sharing of property.
Most significantly, when children are born, the father may have little or no responsibility for his offspring (in fact, some children may not even know who their father is). If a father does want to be involved with the upbringing of his children, he will bring gifts to the mother's family, and state his intention to do so. This gives him a kind of official status within that family, but does not actually make him part of the family. Regardless of whether the father is involved or not, the child will be raised in the mother's family, and take on her family name.
This does not mean, however, that the men get of scot-free, with no responsibilities for children. Quite the opposite, in fact. Every man will share responsibilities in caring for all children born to women within their own family, be they a sister, niece, aunt, etc. In fact, children will grow up with many “aunts” and “uncles”, as all members of the extended family share in the duties of supporting and raising the children.
The result – as different as it may be from other systems – is a family structure which is, in fact, extremely stable. Think about it. Divorce is a non-issue…there are no questions over child custody (the child belongs to the mother's family), splitting of property (property is never shared), etc. If a parent dies, there is still a large extended family to provide care.
One particularly important result is the lack of preference for a particular gender. For example, in most cultures, the female will join the male's family when she gets married. The result is that if a couple has a lot of female children, they will lose them after marriage, and have no one to care for them in old age; but if they have male children, their sons (and their sons' wives) will care for them. So, in poorer populations in particular, there will be a strong preference for male children.
However, among the Mosuo, since neither male nor female children will ever leave home, there is no particular preference for one gender over the other. The focus instead tends to be on maintaining some degree of gender balance, having roughly the same proportion of male to female within a household. In situations where this becomes unbalanced, it is not uncommon for Mosuo to adopt children of the appropriate gender (or even for two households to ‘swap' male/female children).