[Perspectives of Traditional Culture of the Matrilineal Mosuo of Lugu Lake] Part 1: Children Born from <em>Sese</em> (Visitor) Marriages Know Who Their Mothers and Fathers Are - Papers & Essays



TOP > Papers & Essays > New Directions > [Perspectives of Traditional Culture of the Matrilineal Mosuo of Lugu Lake] Part 1: Children Born from Sese (Visitor) Marriages Know Who Their Mothers and Fathers Are

Papers & Essays

[Perspectives of Traditional Culture of the Matrilineal Mosuo of Lugu Lake] Part 1: Children Born from Sese (Visitor) Marriages Know Who Their Mothers and Fathers Are


In the modern society with declining birthrate and increasing aging population, great changes have taken place in the environment for raising children. A matrilineal clan-Mosuo people lives on the border of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in China. It is the last matrilineal clan in China, with a population of about 50,000. Mosuo people maintain the traditional matrilineal family model. They have children in their sese marriage (Male only stays for the night and leaves the house in the next morning.) . In this article, Du Ma La Mu, a Mosuo, talks about the marriage, parenting and family story of Mosuo people around her.


Mosuo people, matrilineal society, education, father, sese marriage, visitor marriage,
Japanese Chinese

At the junction of Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet in southwest China, there is a beautiful plateau lake called Lugu Lake, around which a special group of 40,000 people who call themselves "Na" or are known by others as "Mosuo" have their homes and still keep a rather integrated old-line matrilineal cultural tradition and civilization characterized by extended matrilineal families and "sese marriage."

Therefore, Mosuo people is a focus of attention for the whole world. As a young Mosuo, the author, while inheriting the ethnic culture, tries to make an in-depth examination and study on Mosuo culture from an academic point of view so that more people can have a better understanding of Mosuo people, their simple life and the charm of Mosuo culture. Moreover, Mosuo people's custom of respecting the old and loving the young, gender equality, family harmony and social harmony are also advocated by the present time. The study on Mosuo culture may contribute to the development of contemporary society, family and marriage.

1. Mosuo people

According to the literature, the Mosuo people in Yongning can be traced back to the sixth year of Yuan Ding in the Western Han Dynasty, which has a history of more than 2,000 years. According to historians' research, Mosuo people originated from the ancient Qiang people in the ancient northwest China. During the Warring States Period, some Qiang people, afraid of the threat from the state of Qin, migrated south to southern Gansu and western Sichuan, leading to the separation among their descendants who had to make their own living in different places. Based on archaeological evidence, some experts and scholars put forward the theory that Mosuo originated from the ancient Yi people on Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau and they believe that Mosuo people, as an indispensable part of the social and cultural community of the Tibetan and Burmese, is a part of the Baiyue ethnic group in the historical period of frequent ethnic cultural exchanges on the Tibetan-Yi corridor. Therefore, Mosuo people has a proven written historical record of more than 1600 years.[1] It can be seen from inferences of various sources that there are divided opinions about the origin of Mosuo people.[2] The author argues that although the origin of Mosuo people in Yongning is closely related to the ancient Qiang people and the ancient Yi people, they have deviated from the sub-clan of ancient Qiang people and the sub-clan of ancient Yi people in their own historical evolution, developing their own unique Mosuo matrilineal culture, custom of sese marriage and religious beliefs.

(1) Mosuo matrilineal family

An extended Mosuo matrilineal family is composed of matrilineal blood groups, excluding non-matrilineal blood members. The extended family is composed of members of three generations or more who have mainly come from one or several ancestor grandmothers. Mosuo matrilineal family is linked by matrilineal line, and women hold a noble position in the family with rather strong discourse power in family life.[3] Most men and women in the family choose the form of sese marriage to maintain their relationship, so they can live with their mothers, brothers and sisters throughout their whole life.[4] Usually, the size of a Mosuo matrilineal family ranges from a dozen people to dozens of people. Traditionally, the Mosuos do not leave their original family upon marriage. From the analysis of ancient stories, it can be concluded that they do so because of the deep affection between brothers and sisters. From a realistic point of view, it is because family separation means disrespect for the elderly and fight for property, which is a very shameful thing and will be ridiculed by the world.[5] Therefore, even in a big matrilineal family of dozens of people, there is no dispute in the family, and always full of joy and peace. Children enjoy their happy childhood blessed with love from many "mothers". At the same time, the old people can spend their old age together and enjoy family happiness.

In addition, the Mosuo matrilineal families go out of their way to have a clear division of labor between men and women in providing strong support for the old and young. In the family, major activities such as funerals, trade and businesses, house repairing, etc. are undertaken by men, and general housework, property management, etc. are by mothers and smart and capable women in the family. Mosuo people believe that the rational division of labor in the whole society secures the stable development of the society, and the rational division of labor in a family naturally promotes the economic development and civility of the family. At the same time, Mosuo people is an ethnic group that pays special attention to ethics.[6] The big matrilineal Mosuo family respects the old and cares for the young, courtesy coming first, and brothers and sisters supporting each other. Neighbors live in harmony, respect each other and help each other. Courtesy and civilized behavior is manifested in all aspects of daily life, shaping Mosuo people's voluntary code of conduct. The polite and civilized social ambience has bred gentle, warm, proper demeanor of Mosuo people since their childhood. At present, the harmony of family, marriage and society is a major social issue, and many people yearn for the life style of Mosuo people and many documentaries have been created based on their life.

(2) Sese marriage (Visitor Marriage) of Mosuo people.

The Mosuo people's model of marriage is a marital culture that domestic and foreign historical researchers, researchers on ethnic culture and tourists are most fascinated in. This is a bizarre and unique form of marriage and its outstanding feature is that it retains the primitive model of matrilineal marriage. The Mosuo people call it "se se," "se." "se se," means "go" and "go and go." So people also translate it as "visitor marriage." Men and women in sese marriage don't have their own marriage or family. They don't have much intersection in their work and life, so they belong to their own matrilineal families.[7] A man in sese marriage leaves for his wife's house at night, and her wife waits for his arrival at sunset. The next morning, men in sese marriage get up early and go back to their own homes, just like a date. Men come late at night and leave early in the morning, while women wait for them silently, day after day, raising children by themselves.

Next, a typical couple is selected from hundreds of ordinary Yongning Mosuo couples in sese marriage to tell the story of their sese marriage. The couple are Mosuo people born in the 1960s. The 60s generation lives in a period of collision between tradition and modernity playing a key role in whether Mosuo culture of extended matrilineal family and custom of sese marriage can last. Therefore, taking the story of a Mosuo couple's sese marriage as an example, the author describes in detail the ceremonies in their marital life. The story shows a child born by sese marriage knows who his/her mother and his/her father are.[8]

2. The Mosuo people's story of sese marriage

In our life, everyone from the outside who meets a person in sese marriage often asks, "What is a sese marriage?", "Why did you get into sese marriage?", "Is it true that you don't need to be responsible in sese marriage?" These questions trouble many Mosuo people who work and travel outside their home. For outsiders, this is a mysterious and rare life that they don't have the opportunity to feel and experience at their will. But for the Mosuo people, this is their tradition. Like the existence of family and forms of marriage of other ethnic groups, it's the product of social development. Some people even ask Mosuo people, "Do you know who the father of your child is?", which makes Mosuo people angry and puzzled. Actually, just like the whole humanity, every ethnic group has a different way of life. According to our survey and research, be it old Mosuo or young Mosuo, they have the same interpretation of love. Their needs are simple and mundane, which makes sese marriage so precious.

(1) Planting a good seed and nurturing a life of love.

Tserlam is a 50-year-old Mosuo woman who has two daughters with Zahi Bing Zo, her husband of sese marriage. They have been in sese marriage for more than 30 years. They met in a cinema. There was only one cinema in the local area. A new movie was put on every week, and shown repeatedly for a week. The cinema was the best place to meet people of the same age and make friends in that era. At that time, the movie ticket was twenty cents, but it was a luxury for Tserlam to see a movie, so she seldom had the opportunity to frequent the cinema. She went to the cinema for the first time to see The White-Haired Girl, because more than one person recommended it to her. So one night she went to the movie with her childhood friend and happened to run into Zahi Bing Zo, the friend of her childhood friend. She remembered that Zahi Bing Zo was wearing a clean white shirt, very good-looking. She thought, "once it is the matsutake season,I will sell matsutake and buy a white shirt for my brother.[9] He will look very handsome in that." The impression of his white shirt was all she could remember from that day. Later, she went to the movies several times with her childhood friend, and got to get along with Zahi Bing Zo very well. The two went steady out of love for each other. At that time, Tserlam was twenty years old.

One day after they went out for a while, Zahi Bing Zo's mother came to visit Tserlam's house with a lump of tea and a jar of wine. She vaguely heard his mother talking about her family and asking them to get into sese marriage. Tserlam's mother didn't say no, nor did she say yes. After a while, an elder in the village of Zahi Bing Zo brought some tea, wine, candy, etc. and a silver necklace to honor the ancestor worship ceremony of Tserlam's family and said that Zahi Bing Zo's mother asked him to help to bring about this marriage.[10] That's how Tserlam got into sese marriage.

Tserlam once told the author that her mother acquiesced in this relationship, and later she herself acquiesced in this marriage too. Because in the two years that she got to know Zahi Bing Zo, she found that Zahi Bing Zo was a hardworking person, his mother and sisters were kind, and she never heard any villager badmouth his family. So she believed Zahi Bing Zo was honest and children born in the future would be good kids. Her mother agreed that Zahi Bing Zo's family was a big matrilineal family of integrity, brothers and sisters getting along well with each other and she had never heard of Zahi Bing Zo's love affairs and believed that her daughter' marriage with him would be reliable. In this way, they have been in sese marriage for decades, even though both of them live in their own mother's houses getting together at dusk and parting in the morning. For so many years they love each other, live in harmony and miss each other. In their daily life, they help out to each other's housework of big families. As always, Zahi Bing Zo comes over at night and goes back in the morning, without interruption. For Tserlam, what she wanted for love and marriage was so simple. She did not think about each other's social status, wealth or family background. They chose to be together only because of good characters and upbringing.

After getting married for a while, Tserlam's mother took her to Gemu Goddess Mountain to burn incense and hang prayer flags in the temple, and later took her to reinforce a small bridge with wood in a ditch at the foot of the mountain.[11][12] That small bridge was mainly for people who came up to the mountains to cut firewood. Mother told her that doing so would help her have a healthy baby in the future. At the same time, it also taught her that as a woman, the most important thing was to have a kind heart and always think of others. In the traditional matrilineal culture, most family members are of the same matrilineal blood. In addition, Mosuo people's tradition respects mothers and worships the Goddess. It is believed that without Gemu Goddess, Mosuo women wouldn't have children and without Mosuo women, there wouldn't be any Mosuo descendants. Mosuo women are the roots of a family, so everyone respects Mosuo women. However, to run a matrilineal family entails the compassion and wisdom of Gemu Goddess so that every matrilineal family may pass on to the next generation filling the whole family with warmth and love. Therefore many Mosuo women are more careful with their conduct after getting married.

(2) The bowl of sweet wine as a tribute on father's family ceremony of ancestor worship

After getting married for half a year, Tserlam became pregnant, and the whole family was happy for her. Her grandmother offered a tribute of lamp to the temple in the honor of the unborn child and asked the Lamas in the temple to chant sutras for the child and the mother.[13] Zahi Bing Zo was full of joy and came to Tserlam's house earlier than usual to accompany her. Considering Tserlam's physical condition, he often took time to help Tserlam's family with wood cutting and fields plowing. From initial shyness to appearing together openly in front of people, their sese marriage became solid as time went by. Zahi Bing Zo also went to Daba to seek advice.[14] Daba told him that when he went to wood chopping in the mountain, he should hang Tserlam's dress that she usually didn't wear on the pine tree at the mountain pass. He should also remember to hang the prayer flags at the pass so that he could be blessed by the gods and Tserlam would give birth smoothly.[15]

In a couple of months into Tserlam's pregnancy, her mother chose an auspicious date to cook sweet wine for her.[16] When a Mosuo woman is pregnant, both men and women's families will go out of their way to prepare sweet wine for the pregnant woman. Because on the first day of the child's birth, the woman's family will take sweet wine to the ancestor worship ceremonies of the man's family and the relatives' family. Through this ceremony, families of both men and women can share this joy. Tserlam gave birth on a "Gepan"in her grandmother's room.[17] During the pain of laboring, she heard the old people chanting sutras by the fireplace. From the cracks in the wooden shack, it could be seen that the fire was burning very well. She believed that a new life would come soon, so she waited patiently and finally the first cry of the child broke the silence in the air.

Her grandfather got up and put a butter lamp in the ancestor worship place of her grandmother's room.[18] Her grandmother touched the child's hand with a pine torch and lit the fire in the fireplace with the pine torch and then lit the butter lamp. Early the next morning, her grandmother told her aunt to send a bowl of sweet wine to Zahi Bing Zo's home. This was to propose a toast to his family's ancestor worship altar. They would know that they picked up a child last night.[19] Then other aunts were told to send sweet wine to relatives. Mosuo people is rather implicit in expression and the news about a newborn baby is delivered through this bowl of sweet wine dedicated to the ancestor worship altar. This bowl of sweet wine toasted to the ancestor worship altar of the father's house is not only an announcement that the man's family had a baby, but also a tribute to the ancestors of the man's family on behalf of the child in acknowledgment of the ancestry.

(3) Father's love going deeper from horseback.

A week after the birth of Tselem's daughter, many relatives and friends came to congratulate her with local wild chickens, eggs, bacon and pastry including Zahi Bing Zo's family. He told Tserlam's mother about the date of one-month celebration for the newborn and the number of participants so that the woman's family could prepare gifts in reciprocity.[20] On the day of the one-month banquet, Zahi Bing Zo led a horse on the back of which there were sweet wine jars and baskets full of gifts, accompanied by his mother, aunts and his sisters. Each of them carried a basket on the back, holding one chicken or two in the arms. This was the first time that the man's family had ever come to the woman's house. The gifts brought by the man's family were dedicated to the worship altar of the woman's family, including pork fat, ribs, eggs, butter, pastry, brown sugar, sweet wine, Surima wine, etc., as well as children's clothes, longevity locks and bracelets. The woman's family asked the man's family to rest by the fireplace in the grandmother's room entertaining them with sweet wine. After a while, Tserlam's grandmother took the child out of the lattice plate and showed her to the relatives of the man's family. In the afternoon, Zahi Bing Zo's mother distributed the gifts to the relatives and neighbors of the woman's family, and then discussed with Tserlam's family the arrangement for the banquet the next day. The next day, friends and relatives got together, chatting and drinking together, sharing this joy together. The visitors were mainly women, who wouldn't leave the woman's house until after breakfast the third day. The woman's family would reciprocate the man's family with red rice, textiles and other gifts.

It can be seen from many Mosuo women interviewed that Mosuo people attach great importance to the sense of ritual in marriage and family, which mainly include praying and wishing ceremonies. The most common ceremony is people-centered. All sorts of ceremonies are carried out in the honor of people. The cultivation of self-esteem is a focus in their married life. Only a kind person can give birth to a life of love. Therefore, Mosuo people have a particularly strong sense of respect and care for life. In their marital relationship, they respect their partner like a guest while at the same time preserving the romance of voluntary devotion. Through the short story of this article, we can see that Mosuo people reinforce their relationship through mundane ceremonies of ancestor worship, birth celebration, ceremony of acknowledgement of the father, etc., stabilizing the marriage. In Mosuo people's traditional marital culture, although there is no paper certificate of marriage, nor daily routine of cooking and household chores ordinary for most husbands and wives, there is still no absence of the substance of love and marriage, ie, freedom and loyalty.

  • [1]Ninglang Yi Autonomous County Chronicle Compilation Committee. Ninglang Yi Autonomous County Chronicles [M]. Kunming: Yunnan Ethnic Publishing House, 1993:176-178.
  • [2] The old people in Zhebo Village, Yongning Town, told that their ancestors lived at the foot of Gemu Goddess Mountain since ancient times, and the myths and legends of their villages have a long history, with traces of indigenous people.
  • [3] Mu Lichun. History of Mosuo in Yongning [M]. Kunming: Yunnan Ethnic Publishing House, 2015:69-70.
  • [4] The lofty status of Mosuo women does not mean that they are higher than men or that of men is lower. But with regards to the development of women in the whole history, in the living environment of Mosuo people, women have more freedom and discourse power.
  • [5]From the field survey in Yongning Town in April 2018.
  • [6] From the field survey in Yongning Town in April 2018.
  • [7] The term "sese marriage" is a foreign word for Mosuo people, and it is directly named after the verb "go". The correct naming of Mosuo marital culture remains to be considered. At present, without the best translation for Mosuo's model of marriage, this paper uses the term "sese marriage" to describe the custom of Mosuo people's "se se" marriage.
  • [8] This story comes from the field research in Yongning Town in October 2019.
  • [9] Matsutake: It is a wild fungus growing on the lakeside of Lugu Lake. It is a famous local specialty. Mosuo people make a living on picking matsutake in the mountains.
  • [10] When Mosuo men and women decide to get married, they need to have a ceremony to worship the ancestors. Through this ceremony, they ask for the blessing of their ancestors and their families, which is also the legal guarantee for this relationship to enter into marriage.
  • [11] Gemu Goddess Mountain: Gemu is the name of Mosuo goddess. Therefore, the mountain in the east of Yongning Town, which looks like a lion, is regarded as the embodiment of Gemu Goddess, the patron saint of Mosuo people. Therefore, Gemu Goddess Mountain is the most important mountain in Mosuo culture, and it is a mountain that blesses Mosuo people with abundant grain and prosperous population.
  • [12] In Mosuo people's belief, building roads and bridges for others is the best way to accumulate good luck and blessings.
  • [13]A praying ceremony in Tibetan Buddhism.
  • [14] Daba: a flamen in Daba belief, a traditional Mosuo religion.
  • [15] A simple ritual of praying for the blessing of the natural gods in Daba belief.
  • [16] Sweet wine plays an important role in the childbirth of Mosuo people. It is a necessary milk-producing nutrient for women in the first month after laboring, the best gift to prove the birth of their children to friends and relatives, and also a tribute to ancestors.
  • [17] The place where Mosuo people's life and death ceremonies are held.
  • The fireplace of Mosuo grandmother's room is used to worship gods, and it usually also refers to the whole fireplace. Therefore, all ceremonies can't be held without the fireplace, without worshiping the ancestors. This is the place where people are connected with God.
  • [19] Picking up children: Mosuo's way of referring to giving birth to a child, because Mosuo people believe that the arrival of children is a gift from heaven and a blessing that people pick up. An expression of showing awe.
  • [20] One-month ceremony: for Mosuo people it is important that at the one-month celebration of the newborn the man's family has a banquet at the woman's house when the relatives of the woman's family and the villagers are invited so that they can express their gratitude for the woman's family enduring the pain of laboring.
Du Ma La Mu (Lijiang College of Culture and Tourism)
Du Ma La Mu_profile.png

Mosuo native, teacher with Lijiang College of Culture and Tourism, master in religion from Southwest Minzu University. Engaged in a number of social field research projects, such as the national language protection project Mosuo language rescue and protection, the project of National Social Science Fund " Cultural History of Disaster of Yunnan Indigenous Minority Groups", etc. Since 2011, following up with studies on Mosuo matrilineal culture (marriage, religion, etc.).Also engaged in related cultural researches and visiting scholars' projects.