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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.

But 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 married."

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 everyday clothing."

"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 are after.

"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 derived.

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 weekends."

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 the road? 

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