Women rule in Chinese outpost


LUGU LAKE, China -- If women ran things, the world would be a better place, or so some people believe. While few societies have ever tested this theory, China's Mosuo minority has been pursuing the ideal for centuries.

Numbering about 40,000, the Mosuo live in relative isolation along the rocky shores of Lugu Lake, a pristine expanse of blue water cradled by the Himalayan foothills of Southwest China.

Tall and self-confident with dark skin and high cheekbones, Mosuo women are masters of their universe. They run local businesses, handle family finances and pass down property and surnames to their daughters.

Many practice the traditional Mosuo "walking marriage," in which they can take various men as lovers with the freedom to move from partner to partner.

Most Mosuo - men included -- think the matriarchal system works quite well.

"It's good for managing the family," says Cao Xinhua, a strapping, 38-year-old Mosuo man with a gleaming smile. "Women are good with money. When men have money, they will go and spend it or find other women or take drugs."

Lugu Lake's picturesque mountain setting and the Mosuo's unique culture have attracted scores of journalists, anthropologists and filmmakers over the decades.

Visitors are most fascinated by the "walking marriage," or "zou hun," as the Chinese call it. Mosuo couples have traditionally lived separately and been free to pursue other romantic interests. In the past, a Mosuo might have had 30 to 50 partners in a lifetime, according to anthropologists.

The "walking marriage" has taken various forms over the years, but Yang Cier's experience seems to be fairly typical among those her age. Yang, 39, makes a living selling fish, tending crops and serenading tourists with Mosuo love songs as she rows around the lake in a dugout canoe.

She met her first lover at a dance when she was 19. Dressed in traditional Mosuo clothes, men and women hold hands around a blazing bonfire and dance something that resembles the Texas two-step. Men wear straw cowboy hats and red sashes wrapped around their waists. The women put on flowered blouses and huge black headdresses draped in strands of pearls. According to custom, Yang's suitor tickled her palm to signal his interest.

The pair slept together for three months until he fell in love with another woman. Yang says she felt neither betrayal nor humiliation after he left.

"This is tradition," she says, as she dips her oar beneath the surface of the lake where the colors range from light amber along the shoreline to indigo a dozen feet down. "I didn't argue with him. We're still good friends."

Because the Mosuo have such a different system of courtship, anthropologists say, many here over the age of 70 have neither the words nor concepts for monogamy or virginity.

Until the 1950s, the Mosuo survived virtually unchanged, despite being surrounded by a Chinese culture that at its worst has encouraged the binding of women's feet and the drowning of baby girls.

After taking control of the country in 1949, the Communist Party tried to absorb the Mosuo. For years, Mosuo men and women had bathed together in hot springs. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao Tse-tung's Red Guards built a concrete partition to divide them.

The government ordered weddings - unheard of in Mosuo culture - on a mass scale to enforce monogamy. Those who refused to marry lost some of their state grain allotment.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, some Mosuo divorced. Today, many still walk their marriages but generally pursue far fewer partners and usually stick with one after a child is born.

Reticent by nature, Mosuo are reluctant to discuss the details of their culture for fear they will be misunderstood or sensationalized. After some prodding, Cao Xinhua shared the story of his courtship over beer and cigarettes one night on the porch of a small restaurant.

Cao has known his wife, Song Namu, since childhood when they worked and played in the fields together. At 24, he began a secret relationship with his love, sneaking into her bedroom at night and slipping out when the roosters began to crow.

A month after the couple had their first child, they announced to her otherwise oblivious family that Cao was the father. "What I tell you now, I can't tell my brothers," says Cao, referring to the details of his courtship. "I'm too shy."

Cao lives with his family, which runs a guesthouse on the edge of the lake. Song lives with her family and their two children. Living separately has advantages, Cao says. It provides men a lot of freedom, holds families together and keeps annoying in-laws out.

Under Mosuo custom, though, Cao gives most of his salary to his wife and has little role as a father. "I wanted to raise a kid in my own family and send him to high school or college," Cao says sadly. "We argued. Finally, I agreed with her."

The Mosuo culture has survived in part because it is isolated from most of the rest of the world. Straddling the border of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, Lugu Lake lies at an elevation of about 8,700 feet. Legend says a team of nine yaks pulled a giant fish from a nearby cave and the resulting flood formed the 20-square-mile basin.

As recently as the 1960s, people could reach the lake only after a 10-day trek. Today, the nearby government is building a road that will reduce the journey to less than six hours.

The signs of a coming tourist onslaught are already evident. Shards of green beer bottles mix with the lake's stony bottom, and the buzz of band saws fills the air as families build guesthouses to accommodate future visitors.

The influx already has led to inevitable misunderstandings. Unfamiliar with the ways of the Chinese, some Mosuo men have tried to "walk marriage" with female Chinese tourists.

One recent night, a pair of young Mosuo men knocked on the door of two Chinese women from neighboring Sichuan Province. After learning that the women did not have boyfriends, the two Mosuo asked - with the directness one might use to request that someone pass the salt - if they could sleep together.

"We're sorry, we don't follow your customs," one woman recalled saying, before collapsing in laughter as she recounted the scene. "If they had invited us to go boating or asked us to take a walk, we would have felt very romantic."

More outside influence means more choices for the Mosuo.

Cier Zhoumalacou, 21, runs a small art gallery on the edge of the lake where she sells paintings and trinkets. She has little use for Mosuo men. "They're pretty lazy," she says. "It's their custom."

She plans to legally marry her Chinese boyfriend, who refuses to participate in a walking marriage.

Although more young people such as Cier are drifting from Mosuo customs, many here believe their unique ways will not disappear soon. Asked how long his culture will last, Cao Xinhua rubs his forehead with his hands and pauses.

"At least 100 more years," he says confidently.

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