Y U N N A N P R O V I N C E, China, May 19, 2002 -- 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.
However, times are changing for the Mosuo people. The rapid pace of modernization throughout China today has brought better roads and communications even to the shores of remote Lake Lugu, triggering an invasion of tourists — and tourist dollars.
Suddenly, farmers are leaving their fields for tour-guide jobs. Women earn money dressing up tourists in traditional clothing. And the young are starting to abandon tradition for all things modern.
Even more troubling, some male tourists here are perpetuating a myth that the tradition of walking to and fro means promiscuity or free sex. And that's what many men are coming for. There's now even a Lake Lugu red-light district, where prostitutes from other parts of China dress up as Mosuo women and offer their services.
The older generation is dismayed by all of this. For the first time, they are wondering how much longer their unique culture will survive.
Today, even their age-old courtship dance has lost its way. It's now become a nightly show in which, for a small fee, the tourists are invited to join in.
"Tourists are welcome here so they can witness our way of life," Bing Ma said. "But for those who come here looking for free sex, we do not welcome such people.
"I intend to pass on this way of life to my daughters and granddaughters," she said. "But it is difficult to say if this tradition will continue to survive in the distant future. For my part, I will do my best to ensure that our way of life is passed on to future generations."