For nearly 2,000 years, the Mosuo (pronounced MWO-swo) have lived in the Yunnan and Sechuan provinces of southwest China, practicing matriarchal traditions. One of China's 56 designated ethnic minorities, the Mosuo population of 56,000 people is tiny compared with China's overall population of 1.3 billion.
The majority of Mosuo families live around Lugu Lake, a region that was isolated from the rest of world until the 1970s. At 8,580 feet (2,600 m) above sea level, it is the highest-altitude lake in the Yunnan province. It is also the second-deepest body of water in China, at some points deeper than 297 feet (90 m).
Mosuo women carry on the family name and run the households, which are usually made up of several families, with one woman elected as the head. The head matriarchs of each village govern the region by committee.
As an agrarian culture, much of the Mosuo daily life centers around tending to crops and livestock, with villages and households bartering between them for basic needs.
A typical Mosuo house is divided in to four separate structures around an open courtyard. Traditionally, families share the building with livestock, and the living and sleeping areas are communal. With tourism and the modern world encroaching, some of this traditional structure is beginning to change. As shown in Zhou's film, electricity has now reached the more accessible Mosuo villages, which has brought satellite dishes and television -- and the cultural ramifications that come with it.
The Mosuo are best known for their tradition of zouhun, or walking marriage, in which youths who have gone through a coming of age ceremony at the age of 13 are permitted to choose their own axia, or relationship. This nontraditional union means that men visit their lovers only by "walking" to them at night and leaving in the morning. If a child is born from the union, it is taken care of by the mother's brothers.
With an increase in tourism to the area in recent years, many outsiders arrive expecting a "Shangri-La" of utopian free love. But this perception has been pushed mainly by the tourist trade, eager to attract more people to the area, rather than a reflection of true Mosuo culture. Women are free to take different sexual partners, and there is no stigma attached to bearing children with different partners or eschewing marriage. But more often than not, Mosuo women only take one sexual partner at a time, and often sustain long-term relationships with only one person. Misconceptions (or canny exploitation) of the Mosuo's sexual proclivities -- depending on which way you look at it -- have certainly fueled prostitution around Lugu Lake. But many of the women working in the brothels are more often Han Chinese women, from outside the region, who pass themselves off as Mosuo women.
The traditional Mosuo religion worships nature, with Lugu Lake regarded as the Mother Goddess and the mountain overlooking it venerated as the Goddess of Love. The Mosuo also practice Lamaism, a Tibetan variation of Buddhism. Most Mosuo homes dedicate a room specifically for Buddhist worship and for sheltering traveling lamas, or monks.
The Mosuo language is rendered not in writing, but in Dongba, the only pictographic language used in the world today. The Mosuo language has no words for murder, war or rape, and the Mosuo have no jails.
What is a Matriarchy?
Given that Mosuo women make most of the major decisions, control the household finances, and pass on the family name to their children, many anthropologists classify the Mosuo culture as a "matriarchal society."
But those who have studied these ancient societies are often at odds as to what to label them. Many prefer to call societies, like the Mosuo, "matrilineal" societies. In these cultures, the mother passes her name on to her offspring, and families live in clans that consist of at least three generations of women and the directly related men.
Some anthropologists believe that in order to have a true matriarchy, women must also control sources of food and how it is distributed throughout the clan. As Matriarchies are chiefly agricultural societies, where goods are shared throughout the community, no-one person in the group is allowed to accumulate more wealth than another. In true matriarchal societies, the relationship of "father" is not important, since a child takes the mother's clan name and is raised by the members of the clan. Uncles tend to be the most important men in a child's life.
Matriarchies Around the World
Many groups still call themselves matriarchal societies despite what anthropologists might say. Motherliness is the principle that holds them together, although each society differs slightly in how they define their lives.
The Minangkabau people of Indonesia have developed a culture in which women are at the center of economic and social power as well as at the heart of daily family life. Some four million Minangkabau live in the highlands of West Sumatra, where the women control land inheritance, and husbands move into wives' households when they get married. Those who have studied the Minangkabau say there is sexual equality between men and women.
For the Nagovisi, one of three tribes living on a large tropical island of South Bougainville -- west of New Guinea and north of Australia -- women take charge of food production, while their husbands help only with heavy physical tasks.
In Northeastern India, the Khasi and the Garo also pass down property and tribal office through the female line -- from mother to youngest daughter. But unlike the "walking marriage" practiced by the Mosuo, all able-bodied adults are expected to marry. If the marriage doesn't work out, couples are allowed to separate and marry someone else.
It's common among many of these ancient customs that men remain loyal to their mothers, sisters, nieces and nephews throughout their lifetime, whether or not they also form bonds with wives and daughters.
Followers of matriarchal societies say there's evidence of the powerful role of women in ancient mythology. In the Minoan culture of ancient Greece, the Great Goddess held a spot above all other gods. Minoan art supports this idea, showing powerful priestesses who dominated religious ceremonies and women wielding battle axes and swords. Young Minoan women were trained in all the physical activities of their male peers and ran all aspects of their communities, while men spent months at a time at sea.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of early "girl power" is the legendary kingdom of female warriors, the Amazons. Although details about them vary, the Amazons were depicted as beautiful and bloodthirsty women, with strong matriarchal ties. They heralded from what is now modern day Turkey. When called upon, the men played their part in reproduction, or they served as slaves. Male babies were often killed or sent back to their fathers, and girls were raised by their mothers to tend to crops, hunt and become the warriors they were famed for being.
Sources: Mohawk Valley USA (regional magazine of Three Rivers); "Matriarchy: History or Reality?" by Jaana Holvikivi; "The Gift," by Heide Gottner-Abendroth; The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia; archive.org; Time Asia.
Time Asia reports on the affect of tourism on Mosuo living by Lugu Lake.
"Ladies of the Lake"
Peter Ellegard of CNN Traveler reports from the village of Luoshui and meets Cha Cuo, the outspoken woman in "The Women's Kingdom" who chose a Han man for her walking marriage.
"The Sirens of Lugu Lake"
Another useful travelogue written by Jim Goddman is available at this site.
"The End of Innocence"
Laura Hutchison contemplates how a balance might be found between cultural identity and a new market economy in this article.
This site includes background information and photographs of the Lugu Lake region.
"Leaving Mother Lake"
Namu, the most famous Mosuo in China, ran away from her village as a young girl and became notorious for her many public relationships and untraditional views on sex and feminism. This is a Time Asia review of her first English-language autobiography, Leaving Mother Lake.