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From the Kingdom of Women, With Love


The Mosuo ethnic minority, who live in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in China, revere women. Here, they prepare to perform a traditional dance. PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHANNA HIGGS

LIOUSHUI, China — Known as the Kingdom of Women, the Mosuo are a small ethnic minority group living in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, predominantly around Lugu Lake. The Mosuo have become somewhat famous for their matriarchal society, where the family name and other legalities are passed to the next generation through the women, and the grandmother is the primary authority.

Some experts consider this structure more matrilineal than matriarchal, however, and claim that politics reside with the men. Unlike elsewhere in China and in other parts of the world, when a girl is born in the Mosuo culture, the birth is widely celebrated.

Besides inheriting their mothers’ family names, children are raised by their mothers and others on the maternal side of the family, including the grandmothers, with many generations living under one roof. While children know who their biological fathers are, maternal uncles take on the role of raising children.

Lunchtime in Lioushui, China. “We are very happy when we have girls,” said a young Mosuo woman from the village, “because she will grow to be a grandmother.”

Mosuo are also known for their “walking marriages,” in which young people who have come of age — at 13 — choose who they want to partner with in a relationship. This nontraditional union means that men visit their lovers only by “walking” to them at night and leaving in the morning. Such “open marriages” have also inadvertently bred a tourism industry in the region, attracting visitors seeking sexual liaisons.

“We are very happy when we have girls,” said Wong Jicier Erqing, a young woman from Lioushui village, “because she will grow to be a grandmother.”

The most important person in the family is the grandmother, said Gimalam, another young woman living in Lioushui (most Mosuo do not use surnames). “We have all been brought up by our grandmothers.”

The deep respect given to Mosuo women can also ensure that violence against them is not permitted.

“It’s not allowed to hit a woman in our culture,” said Giruduzhi, a Mosuo man.

Yizu, a woman from a village nearby said, “It is expected in Mosuo culture that men and women be kind equally.”

A Mosuo brother and sister. The respect afforded to women in the matriarchal culture helps to ensure their lives are peaceful and free of violence, according to people there and studies. 

Mosuo women are not only free to choose their sexual partners but also to break off with them as they wish, part of the walking marriage arrangement. Yet one of the outstanding aspects of Mosuo culture is the great importance of love for the family and the grandmother as well as between men and women. A man and a woman engage in a relationship only when they fall in love — without a marriage license.

As Erche, a young man in Lioushui, said, “Love is very important to Mosuo culture.”

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Johanna Higgs is from Perth, Australia. She is working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from La Trobe University in Melbourne and is the director of Project MonMa, a nonprofit group focused on improving women’s lives. She has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and politics from James Cook University in Queensland, and a master’s degree in international development from Deakin University in Victoria. She speaks English and Spanish.

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