(The Guardian) The kingdom of women: the Tibetan tribe where a man is never the boss
It’s a place where women rule, marriage doesn’t exist and everything follows the maternal bloodline. But is it as good for women as it sounds – and how long can it last?
Imagine a society without fathers; without marriage (or divorce); one in which nuclear families don’t exist. Grandmother sits at the head of the table; her sons and daughters live with her, along with the children of those daughters, following the maternal bloodline. Men are little more than studs, sperm donors who inseminate women but have, more often than not, little involvement in their children’s upbringing.
This progressive, feminist world – or anachronistic matriarchy, as skewed as any patriarchal society, depending on your viewpoint – exists in a lush valley in Yunnan, south-west China, in the far eastern foothills of the Himalayas. An ancient tribal community of Tibetan Buddhists called the Mosuo, they live in a surprisingly modern way: women are treated as equal, if not superior, to men; both have as many, or as few, sexual partners as they like, free from judgment; and extended families bring up the children and care for the elderly. But is it as utopian as it seems? And how much longer can it survive?
Choo Waihong set about finding out. A successful corporate lawyer from Singapore, she left her job in 2006 to travel. Having trained and worked in Canada, the US and London, she felt drawn to visit China, the country of her ancestors. After reading about the Mosuo, she decided to take a trip to their picturesque community – a series of villages dotted around a mountain and Lugu Lake – as many tourists do. But something beyond the views and clean air grabbed her.
“I grew up in a world where men are the bosses,” she says. “My father and I fought a lot – he was the quintessential male in an extremely patriarchal Chinese community in Singapore. And I never really belonged at work; the rules were geared towards men, and intuitively understood by them, but not me. I’ve been a feminist all my life, and the Mosuo seemed to place the female at the centre of their society. It was inspiring.”
Warm, curious and quick-witted, Waihong made friends quickly. She discovered that Mosuo children “belong” only to their mothers – their biological fathers live in their own matriarchal family home. Young Mosuo are brought up by their mothers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles.
From the perspective of an outsider – particularly one from China, from where the majority of tourists come – the Mosuo are “condemned” as a society of single mothers, says Waihong. “Children are born out of wedlock, which in China is still unusual. But this isn’t how the Mosuo see it – to them, marriage is an inconceivable concept, and a child is ‘fatherless’ simply because their society pays no heed to fatherhood. The nuclear family as we understand it exists, just in a different form.”
Men and women practise what is known as a “walking marriage” – an elegant term for what are essentially furtive, nocturnal hook-ups with lovers known as “axia”. A man’s hat hung on the door handle of a woman’s quarters is a sign to other men not to enter. These range from one-night stands to regular encounters that deepen into exclusive, life-long partnerships – and may or may not end in pregnancy. But couples never live together, and no one says, “I do”.
“For Mosuo women, an axia is often a pleasurable digression from the drudgery of everyday life, as well as a potential sperm donor,” says Waihong.
Women own and inherit property, sow crops in this agrarian society, and run the households – cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. The men provide strength, ploughing, building, repairing homes, slaughtering animals and helping with big familial decisions, although the final say is always with Grandmother. Although men have no paternal responsibilities – it is common for women not to know who the father of their children is, and there is no stigma attached to this – they have considerable responsibility as uncles to their sisters’ children. In fact, along with elderly maternal great-uncles, who are often the households’ second-in-charge, younger uncles are the pivotal male influence on children.