Daughters of Mother Lake
by Joshua Samuel Brown
Lake Lugu is the home of the Mosuo tribe, a matriarchal and matrilineal
society, in a valley on the border of China’s Yunnan and
Sichuan provinces. At the center of their home and cultural identity
is a sacred body of water that they call Mother Lake. Sitting at
an elevation of around 7,500 feet, Lugu is a deep pool of pure
azure water dotted by a few small, lush islands bearing Tibetan-style
temples, shrines, and one monastery. The men of Lugu are uncommonly
handsome, the women beautiful and exceptionally outgoing. While
this trait is strange for rural China, in a matriarchal society
it makes sense. In Lugu, women make most major decisions, control
household finances, and pass their surnames onto their children.
what makes the Mosuo truly unique is one particularly juicy facet
of their familial relationships, their practice of zuo
hun, or "walking marriage." The Mosuo do not marry — rather,
a woman chooses her lovers from among the men of the tribe, taking
as many as she pleases over the course of her life. In Mosuo culture,
having mothered children with different men bears no social stigma.
Children are raised more or less communally, and in most cases
grow up in the mother’s home, surrounded by any number of
sisters, brothers, and "uncles."
This highly personal practice (and not their colorful dress and
tribal song-and-dance routines, as official Chinese tourist brochures
would have you believe) has made Lake Lugu one of southwest China’s
most talked-about tourist destinations, infinitely fascinating
to Han Chinese tourists and foreign anthropologists alike. This,
in turn, has changed the economy of the Mosuo from a herding and
farming economy to one of titillation-driven tourism.
It’s at one of the many outdoor BBQ stands that line the
shores of Mother Lake that I meet up with a young Mosuo woman named
Yangmei. Though she tells me she’s 19, her face is still
flush with shades of adolescence. Perhaps it’s her cheerful
disposition that causes me to pick hers over the other BBQ joints
on the town’s one dusty street. Maybe it’s the way
she calls me over.
"Hey, handsome boy…" she yells in Mandarin. "Come
on over, I just killed a goat."
What man could resist a line like that?
"How much?" I ask.
"20 Yuan," (about $2.20 US) she replies, "with
all you can eat and free tea."
Twenty Yuan buys a lot of mutton outside of the big cities, so
Yangmei and I have a lot of time to talk. After exhausting the
usual foreigner/Chinese chitchat about language skills and chopstick
proficiency, the conversation turns decidedly more intimate.
"Why are you traveling alone?" she asks. "Don’t
you have a girlfriend?"
"Not at the moment," I answer. "But I think
you’re a bit young for me."
Thankfully, she laughs at this,
as opposed to throwing tea on me. "I wasn’t propositioning you!" she says. "Actually,
I have a steady boyfriend, though my mother doesn’t approve."
This strikes me as strange. In Mosuo society, a girl is
considered a woman when she turns 13 and has her skirt ceremony. After
the ceremony, she’s come of age, free to choose lovers as
she pleases. I ask Yangmei what her mother’s objections are.
"Mother thinks I’m being disrespectful to our heritage
by having a steady boyfriend. She thinks I ought to follow the
old ways, to take more than one lover. It’s a big problem
between us. Actually," she lowers her voice, "my boyfriend
and I are thinking of leaving Lugu after the summer, and moving
to Kunming [capital of Yunnan province]. We may get officially
As we speak, two Han Chinese men with cameras and pockmarked faces
walk by. They stop for a minute, not to eat, but to take pictures.
"Why aren’t you wearing your Mosuo clothing?" asks
one, seeming somewhat disappointed.
"Ah, I only wear those on special occasions. These are my
"You are very pretty! Did you do zuo hun last night?" asks
the other, shooting Yangmei a sly, sideways leer.
Yangmei just laughs and offers to sell the men some mutton. They
walk on, laughing and babbling in Mandarin.
"Doesn’t that bother you, two total strangers asking
you about your sex life?" I ask when they’re out of
earshot. "Where I come from, a guy gets smacked for that."
Yangmei shrugs. "I’m used to it," she says. "They’re
tourists, they don’t know any better. They don’t care
about our religion, culture, or history. To them, Mosuo culture
is all about sex, nothing else."
In light of the tremendous amount of tourist money that’s
come into Lugu precisely due to this perception (the Mosuo are
the richest tribe in Yunnan), Yangmei’s tolerance of leering
tourists is understandable. Still, I find myself wondering if perhaps
tourism isn’t the ominous shark fin in Lake Lugu’s
once pristine waters. In recent years, Han Chinese men have been
lured to Lugu Lake by the prospect of easy sex, giving rise to
various and sundry unsavory businesses on the outskirts of town.
I ask Yangmei if that’s what the half-dozen or so single
Chinese men walking up and down the town’s one dusty street
"Probably," she says. "With families, it’s
the culture. They really like the singing and dancing shows, that
sort of thing. But with single men, they think all they need to
do is show up and they’ll be invited home by a local girl."
"Does this ever happen?" I ask.
"No!" she answers, laughing. "Those guys will
probably wind up spending the evening at one of the Karaoke parlors
outside of town. The girls who work there aren’t even Mosuo…just
Sichuan women playing dress-up."
Yangmei and I continue talking until the sun goes down. I ask
her questions about Mosuo culture, and she asks me more immediately
practical questions ("How much will my boyfriend and I be
able to make working in Kunming?").
When the sun goes down, I return to my guesthouse, which bears
the interesting though nonsensical name "The Customal Hotel
of the Girl Kingdom." Like most of rural China, women (in
this case, Ms. Tsao, the proprietress of the hotel, and her three
teenage daughters) perform the real work, while the men mostly
seem to loaf around. In the center of the courtyard, a group of
Mosuo men sit smoking and playing cards. The men have an air of
serenity about them, a quality I’ve found in short supply
in the rest of China. The older men, I find out, are "uncles," fathers
to Ms. Tsao’s daughters. The younger ones, I presume, are
the daughters’ lovers, waiting for the evening to end and
the night to begin. In the morning, if tradition is upheld, they
will return to their own homes. It is from this, the sight of local
men walking home after dawn, that the term "walking marriage" is
In the morning, the men are gone, the women are working, and it’s
time for me to be moving on. I decide to hitchhike out of town.
The first vehicle to approach stops, and I hop into the back of
a converted army jeep driven by a Mosuo man wearing a cowboy hat
with a girl of about seven riding shotgun.
The pickup is rattling along the dirt road when the little girl
spots something. "Uncle, stop!" she shouts, and the
man dutifully obeys. A moment later, the girl is scrambling up
a tree about 15 yards from the road. "Uncle, get a bag! There’s
lots of fruit still in this one." The girl starts throwing
down a small yellow fruit, something like a cross between a kumquat
and an apricot.
"Your daughter must have eyes like a hawk to spot those
fruit," I say, wondering if I’m making a false assumption
about their relationship. The man just chuckles.
"Yeah, that she does," he says, and offers me one
of the sour little fruits. "I couldn’t spot them from
that far away." I ask him where they’re both heading,
and he says something that wouldn’t be out of place in many
modern American father-daughter relationships.
"Back to my home. My daughter stays
with her mother on the weekdays, but I take care of her on the
As the van bumps along, I find myself thinking about Yangmei’s
mother, and wondering if her concerns, which seemed so amusing
to me yesterday, might not be legitimate. Might her daughter, by
choosing to love in the way so alien to the Mosuo (yet normal in
much of the rest of the world) be inadvertently planting the seeds
of cultural demise? What will Mother Lake look like 20 years down