[Perspectives of Traditional Culture of the Matrilineal Mosuo of Lugu Lake] Part 5: Death in the Eyes of the Mosuo - Papers & Essays



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[Perspectives of Traditional Culture of the Matrilineal Mosuo of Lugu Lake] Part 5: Death in the Eyes of the Mosuo


Education runs throughout a person's life. Not only should children be taught how to live better lives, but they should also be taught how to end their lives better. Death is inevitable after life. Nobody can escape the experience of life and death. Respect for death is respect for life. The traditional education of the Mosuo people not only encompasses a love of life, but is also reflected in an unperturbed attitude towards death.


Life and Death, Education, Mosuo Funeral

As the saying goes, "Life and death are not determined by people." However, the Mosuo people believe that "how people live or die" is the manifestation of their own "karma." The Mosuo people believe in reincarnation, whereby the past, present, and future are interrelated. The cultivation of this life has a significant impact on the fruits of the past and the causes of the future.*1 Therefore, the Mosuo people place great importance on education regarding life and death. The author intends to present the Mosuo people's understanding of death through the following aspects, and describe their respect for life by analyzing their comprehension of death.

1. Manner of death

Human beings are inherently mortal. Although life is equal in the face of death, the manner of death can vary greatly. The Mosuo people regard the manner of death as a very important part of their life and avoid ending their lives outside their home. It is deemed most ideal to spend the last moments of life at home.

The Mosuo people classify the manner of death into three types. The first type is normal death, such as death due to aging or illness. The second type is premature death, where children under the age of 13 pass away for different reasons. The third type is abnormal death, such as accident, homicide, suicide, etc. The Mosuo people pay close attention to life and death education in order to prevent the occurrence of abnormal deaths, in accordance with the natural cycle of life and death.

In the past, with the lack of accessibility around Lugu Lake, underdeveloped healthcare and material conditions, normal death was the most common for the Mosuo people. It usually came around the age of 70, as elderly people naturally became aged and infirm and rarely suffered from illness. People relied on walking or horseback riding for travelling, and abnormal deaths caused by traffic accidents were also very rare. Occasionally, there would be one or two accidents caused by logging in the mountains, not to mention isolated incidents such as murder or suicide. The entire area around Lugu Lake was, in general, a place of peace and serenity.

2. Ways of education

Children will start actively exploring this unknown world from the age of three. Parents will educate their children on what places are fraught with danger and what kinds of behavior can lead to accidents. Common safety education includes teaching children to stay away from water to avoid accidentally falling in; reminding children not to go to high places in order to avoid falling; awareness regarding toxic food or dangerous acts, etc. This type of education is the basic early childhood education and numerous ethnic groups have similar warnings. The Mosuo people are no exception. A typical example is the life education of the Mosuo people, which features respect for life and puts life first. In this way understanding death is an important part of education on life and death. The elders in the family convey the knowledge about death to children in their daily life.

Mosuo children under the age of 13 generally do not attend funerals unless it is for a deceased relative. If they do attend a funeral, a soul-calling ceremony must be held when they return home.*2 In daily life, the topic of death is rarely discussed in front of young children out of concern that they are too young and might become scared. Children over the age of 13 who want to attend a funeral will usually not be prevented from doing so by their parents. They believe that as children grow up, it is necessary to learn about death and hope that children can learn some related procedures from attending funerals so that they will not be unfamiliar with them once they become heads of households in the future. Parents answer patiently even when asked about the stories of the deceased, in particular those who died of natural causes, in which case parents will tell children about their stories in great detail so that children will know the meaning of life. For example:

In 2008, an elderly woman in the village passed away and Latso took her little daughter to attend the funeral. On the way back, the daughter asked her, "Where has the old lady gone?" She replied, "The old lady has traveled to another place, and when the journey is over, she will return to this world as a child." Then, she told her daughter the story of the deceased old lady. She was a warm person during her lifetime. Whenever there were happy events in the village, she was always seen singing and laughing in the crowd, livening up the atmosphere. When there was a funeral in the village, she got up early to help the family cook, tending to chores. Now that she has passed away, the village has lost a person who can really make others laugh. The most precious thing living in this world is making others feel happy and warm. The old lady died very peacefully. Before her death, she was still sunbathing in the courtyard of the village and closed her eyes after she returned home at night. This is a perfect ending for a person, and is the result of continuously accumulating good karma and not creating any evil karma during his/her lifetime. She also told her daughter that the deceased should no longer be called by name, but collectively referred to as Wona. Wona is a general term for the deceased among the Mosuo people. After a person dies, the deceased and the living are in two worlds that do not merge, so it is necessary to learn that there are boundaries between the two worlds. After listening to the story, the daughter said to her, "Mom, I want to be a person like Granny Wona too. Whenever there is a happy event in the village, I will go and perform a show for everyone."*3

For the Mosuo people, death is an inevitable experience that no one can escape from. However, the greatest respect for death is that when future generations hear the news of your death, they can still share your stories, rather than remaining silent. People tell stories about a person, not only because of what he/she had done during his/her lifetime, but also depending on whether his/her life ended peacefully. In particular in cases of murders or suicides, Mosuo people will choose to remain silent in the belief that such incidents are not only catastrophes for one person or a family, but also for the whole village. People have to hold very large religious ceremonies to quell the unsettling effect of such catastrophes. This is the last way the living want to end their lives, so they usually take very good care of their lives in daily life.

Abnormal deaths mean bad fortune for the Mosuo people. The Mosuo people will raise children's awareness of the existence of death from an early age so that they will hold a reverence for life from a young age. Mosuo children are taught to respect and cherish themselves, others, and all things in nature. Therefore, the general Mosuo public has a gentle temperament. In the face of worldly troubles and annoying trivialities, everyone can maintain a positive and optimistic attitude. It is precisely because of this quality that, with development of the Lugu Lake tourism industry, Mosuo culture has become well-known to the outside world, and more and more people like Lugu Lake not only because of its scenery, but also because of its culture.

People who respect life are unlikely to lose contact with their culture. Although the inheritance of culture depends on the population base, the spirit is eternal. The Mosuo education regarding life and death appears to explain a person's story of life and death, but in fact it is guiding a person's journey from life to death. It is the desire for life and the honesty towards death that have made the hospice care of the Mosuo people very smooth. Many people from the outside world are afraid of death, and when struggling in agony on the brink of death, they urgently need end-of-life care. In some places this has even become an industry, a clear indication of a lack of understanding of death before their passing.

3. Significance of funerals

A funeral is the last honor for the deceased. The grandeur of the funeral not only reflects respect for the deceased, but also reflects the power of the family. The Mosuo people have a rooted culture, and the funeral is one of the most important rituals in a person's life. Therefore, hosting a funeral testifies to the bloodline inheritance between Mosuo people's families. Mosuo people hold different funerals for different forms of death, which means a different education to their children.

A traditional funeral is arranged for a normal death, with the body placed at home for a long time, Daba and monks are invited to recite sacred texts and pray for blessings. An auspicious day and hour is chosen for cremation and the ashes are placed in the family forest, meaning a union with deceased relatives. If it is a premature death, the body of the deceased will be moved to an uninhabited ravine for burial, without a funeral or announcement. The family simply lights a lamp and prays for blessings at the temple. In the case of an abnormal death, a funeral is usually held. However, the body of the deceased will not be placed at home for a long time, but rather be placed near the house of the deceased and cremated as soon as possible after a quick funeral. The ashes will not be placed in his/her own family forest, but rather in a suitable forest chosen by the family. Times are changing, and the forms of funerals are also changing. What remains unchanged is people's consistent understanding of life and death.

Be it the form of death or the meaning of a funeral, it is a farewell for the deceased, while for the living, it is an education. People's experience in this world is like a journey. Despite the various bumpy, stormy, and joyful experiences in life, what matters most for life is peace and tranquility. Nowadays, an increasing number of people suffer from depression and choose to commit suicide. They have not yet realized the importance of life. Although the Mosuo people of Lugu Lake are located in remote mountainous areas with limited material resources, their approach to the philosophical question of life and death is commendable and thought-provoking.

  • *1 Mosuo people practice a primitive religion called Daba and Tibetan Buddhism. The concept of reincarnation is influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.
  • *2 Soul shouting ceremony: Mosuo people believe in the concept of souls and think that the young souls are unstable and will be frightened and leave the physical body. Therefore, after attending the funeral, adults will shout to keep the souls of young ones within the children as they walk back.
  • *3 The interview was compiled on August 27, 2020.
Du Ma La Mu (Lijiang College of Culture and Tourism)

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.