In China, Mosuo Women Rule

ByABC News
May 16, 2002, 8:28 AM

Y U N N A N  P R O V I N C E, China, May 19 -- In the shadows of the Tibetan range that inspired the mythical tales of Shangri-la, along the shores of Lugu Lake, things really start to heat up when the sun goes down.

The Mosuo people perform their courtship dance, when women traditionally choose a male companion for the night or a year or a lifetime and the men have no say in the matter.

In almost every way, this is a society where women rule the roost. They run the households, control the money, and own the land and property, all to be inherited by sisters and daughters.

"That's the way it's always been," says 69-year-old Bing Ma, with obvious pride. "A good tradition."

She is the matriarch of a typical Mosuo clan in which her siblings, son, three daughters and grandchildren all live under her roof all their lives.

Then, there's the Mosuo style of marriage called tisese, or walking to and fro where a son works in his mother's fields all day, eats his mother's cooking, then goes to visit his wife at her mother's house, which is also where his children stay with their mother, never the father.

It may sound bizarre to a Western visitor, but anthropologists say because the men have no power, control no land, and play subservient sexual roles, they have nothing to fight over making this one of the most harmonious societies on the planet. The Mosuo people, estimated to number around 50,000, have no word for war, no murders, no rapes, no jails.

Geography was a major factor that enabled the Mosuo people to preserve their matriarchal way of life. A few decades ago, it took a whole week for a caravan of mules to reach Lugu Lake in southwestern China from the nearest trading center of Lijiang. At present, it still takes six to seven hours of driving on a four-wheel-drive jeep along a scenic mountain highway with dangerous zigzags and breathtaking views to reach Lugu Lake from the airport in Lijiang.

During the height of Mao Tse-tung's communist rule in the 1960s and '70s, China's hard-liners forced the Mosuo people to abandon their practice of "tisese" and adopt the practice of monogamy. But when China relaxed its tight social controls during the post-Mao era, the Mosuo people reverted back to their traditional sexual practices.