[Perspectives of Traditional Culture of the Matrilineal Mosuo of Lugu Lake] Part 6: Mosuo Women's Choice of Marriage in Different Times - Papers & Essays



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[Perspectives of Traditional Culture of the Matrilineal Mosuo of Lugu Lake] Part 6: Mosuo Women's Choice of Marriage in Different Times


Education runs through people's life. From baby babbling, through growing up and giving birth to children, all embody the traditional education of a people. Mosuo birth ceremonies, adult ceremonies and weddings all exemplify the traditional education of Mosuo people. The marital customs of Mosuo people have taken root in the soil of their traditional culture, and it is particularly important to capture the changes of their viewpoint on marriage.

Numerous scholars have studied the custom of visiting marriage of Mosuo people, describing it as "the town of no husbands nor fathers." Is it really like this? Or is it just "a choice of survival"? Whatever kind of speculations and descriptions, as long as eyes are cast on the Mosuo people, the culture of visiting marriage will place a mysterious veil on the Mosuo. The uniqueness of Mosuo marital culture comes from the Mosuo people's understanding of marriage. Through interviews with Mosuo women from three time periods in discussion regarding marriage, this paper reveals the evolution of Mosuo marital culture, rendering a better understanding of the impact of Mosuo traditional education on choices of marriage.

ⅠMosuo women in the 70-80's of the last century

Shortly before and after the Liberation of New China, nobody could control his or her own destiny. Before the Liberation, since Mosuo men had to go out of town to make a living, they could not stay with their wives and children. After the liberation, the spouses from visiting marriage of the old generation of Mosuo women quit their life of making a living in places outside their hometown and gradually settled down there. They cultivated land and started an idyllic life. Since then, Mosuo marital culture began to change without people realizing it.

For example, here is an excerpt from an interview:

I don't know who my father was, and my mother never told me. It has now been a long time since my mother passed away, so I will never know who my father was. But some old people in the village knew who my father was, and have said that I look like him. I never talked to my father myself, but my husband told me that he once saw my father on the street. He went over to say hello and bought two packs of cigarettes for him. Ever since then, we have had no contact. My father must have passed away many years ago, as we are also getting old. I am over 60 years old now. But I know who my younger brother and sister's biological father is. He is from our village and often comes to our family to help. We all call him "Ah Wu".*1
Most of the old people of my mother's generation live this kind of life. They stay in their mother's home to have children without sharing a household relationship with a man. We don't think it is special, in the belief that it's something we are used to in life.*2

In the interview, more than one person described the life of their parents, saying: "their fathers don't live with them, but often come to the children's home to help out with some agricultural work." From the interview with Zasima above, we can see that in the life of Mosuo people before the Liberation, there were indeed some children who didn't know who their biological fathers were because of different reasons, but it doesn't mean that the life of all Mosuo people is the same. Even before the Liberation, there was a role for fathers in the life of Mosuo people, but this role was played by the hero of visiting marriage, "Ah Wu," who may or may not be the children's biological father. Whether there is a bloodline in the marriage of Mosuo people is not the cornerstone of maintaining the husband-wife relationship, hence the partner of the visiting marriage bears the responsibility of being a father.

This relatively free marital mode was a strange concept for Mosuo women in the 70s of the last century. This was because between 1956 and 1978, the state provided guidance and mandated a specific form for the Mosuo marriage and family. The concept of "monogamous" marriage and family has penetrated into Mosuo society.*3 A lot of Mosuo women born around 1950 left their matriarchal families in the 70s and formed new families with their visiting marriage partners. At this time, wedding, marriage, ru zhui (husband adopted by the wife's family & their children taking the surname of the wife) penetrated the lives of Mosuo people. Here is another excerpt from an interview:

The father of my children and I first got into a visiting marriage, and then I formed a new family with my husband along with our three children in 1982. After leaving the big Mosuo family, I felt that everything was a new start and life was very difficult, with my youngest son and daughter being only 1 and 3 years old at that time. On weekdays, my husband and I had to work, otherwise there would be no food, so it was very troublesome. At that time, my eldest daughter was eight years old and though she could take care of the two younger children, I still had to come back home to do household chores. I couldn't have supper until finishing attending to the livestock at home which was at around nine or ten o'clock in the evening. Day after day, it was hard work. I missed the time when I lived with my brothers and sisters and other family members. It is not as hard as living with my own family. I went on like this for 14 years. In 1995, my mother died, and there was no one to take care of my brother and sister in my hometown. I left my husband without hesitation and returned to my matriarchal family. Our separation only ended the family we set up, but the father of my children and I still maintained the initial visiting marriage relationship. There was no division of property. Our house was used to raise some livestock, and he went back to his mother's home and I went back to my matriarchal family. Since then, I have never thought of leaving my mother's family, and I don't encourage my two daughters to form their own families unless they want to. It would be too hard. In the hustle-bustle of the big Mosuo family, there is always someone who is willing to share the burden of life with you.*4

Although there are cases of separation after the formation of new families, most of them stay together after being married. For example:

I got married in 1985 to my visiting marriage partner's home. When I joined my husband's family, there was my mother-in-law, as well as the children left by my husband's sisters, two nieces and two nephews. Because I was married into the family, the person in charge was my mother-in-law. I also brought along my two children. In total there were nine people in the family. Over time, the situation steadily improved. Choosing a steady marriage does not mean that a new family must be formed. My older niece gave birth to her first child in 1988. We let her inherit the traditional Mosuo custom of visiting marriage and asked her to stay in the big family and be in charge. I joined the family. Given that the mother of my nieces got married into another family, I became the mother of the original family. I am the mother of all the children. I have the obligation to make every child feel a sense of belonging. So during the laboring period of my niece, I took care of her daughter (my granddaughter) by myself. So far, there are 23 people in our big family. A new Mosuo family is taking root again.*5

With the development of the time, the marital forms of Mosuo people tend to diversify. Nowadays, the members of Mosuo family could be matriarchal or patriarchal. Like the interviewee Zhima, a lot of Mosuo women are raising the children of their own brothers and sisters. For Mosuo men and women, the choice of marriage is not necessarily a must in life. As long as there are children at home, regardless of whose children they are, all adults should bear the responsibility of parenting. The same logic works for children when they grow up. As long as there are elders at home, they should all be treated with respect. The younger generation will take care of the elder until they pass away.

II Mosuo women in the 80-90s of the last century

After the reform and opening up started in China, the Chinese material living standard has been greatly improved and the material living conditions of Mosuo people are making steady progress. The culture of "visiting marriage" is quietly recovering. In the 80-90's of the last century, Mosuo people had more options in choosing marriage forms. After comparing various forms of marriage, they chose the marriage form that suits both the development of the time and their own development. At that time, people had steady partners in their "visiting marriage," but would not get "married" in a modern style. Marriage certificates were not issued. The relationship was only based on love. Mosuo young people have learnt a lot about marriage at their marriageable ages from the on-and-off marital life in the visiting marriages of those born in the 1950s and 1960s. They realize that the stability of the family is not only determined by the relationship of husband and wife, but also by the influence of cultural heritage and bloodline continuity. Therefore, they are more rational when forming a family. For example:

The form is much better. The state does not have mandatory requirements in making choices for the form of marriage. We naturally restored the traditional culture of visiting marriage. I didn't get married to my husband's family, because my mother was reluctant to let me leave, and our family conditions did not allow it either. I am the only girl in the family, and I have four uncles. The best way for me is to stay and take care of my family. It was the same for my husband's home. His mother was reluctant for him to start his own family. The core of Mosuo culture is the mother. The mother is home, the mother is the root and staying with the mother is to maintain the root of Mosuo people.*6

A lot of Mosuo people are closely attached to their family. From the perspective of protecting Mosuo culture, it is beneficial to maintain the form of visiting marriage. At the same time, we should also recognize that this form of "visiting marriage" is not the same as some media observers or scholars have interpreted as "visiting marriage of no restrictions" or "at will."

The Mosuo people have the custom of "keepsake exchange," through which the relationship is confirmed. Most keepsakes are hand-made scarves, colorful belts, necklaces, bracelets, etc. The couple confirm their marital relationship through the exchange of keepsakes, but they do not form a new family with the children still being raised in the woman's big family. Only paying visits to the woman's home at night, the man leaves in the early hours of the next day and returns to his matriarchal family. Such a form of marriage is named "visiting marriage" by numerous scholars.*7 The prominent feature of this kind of marriage is that both sides of the couple enter into the relationship based on love, sex and the need to bring up the offspring of the matriarchal family. It is more human since they are not constrained by factors such as money, family status, etc.*8

After the reform and opening up started in China, visiting marriage has been restored. In addition to the practice of keepsake exchange to confirm the relationship, Jing Guo Zhuang is a more ceremonious event to testify to the relationship.*9 In addition to the exchange of keepsakes between the two sides, the groom will choose an auspicious night and invite the prestigious elders in the village (usually the head of the village is the best choice) and several male elders or friends to the bride's grandmother's house to hold Jing Guo Zhuang by the fire pond. Although there is no certificate of marriage, Jing Guo Zhuang becomes the best testimony to the relationship.

During the interview, when asked about the topics of marriage and love, Mosuo women praised men's handsome appearance, courage and capability, rarely mentioning what men had done for them or what men had bought to impress them. Their marriage has come about naturally from the moment they chose each other. It exists because the couple want to be together and it ends because they want to part. Mosuo women often say, "There is no Mosuo woman in history who was unhappy because of an unfortunate marriage. Marriage is only a part of life, and men's love is only a part of life."*10 The older generation of Mosuo women have such a mindset because they live in a big Mosuo family, never feeling lonely, where brothers and sisters can rely on each other and old people don't worry about not being taken care of. No conflicts between family members can block the relationship of shared blood.

III Mosuo women in the twenty-first Century

In the twenty-first century, with material life becoming more abundant, the Mosuo marital custom has taken on a stronger sense of ceremony. In particular, for those born in the 1990s, even though they choose a visiting marriage, neither side of the couple leaving his or her own family, the formality of confirming a relationship is becoming increasingly complicated. There is the keepsake exchange, "Jing Guo Zhuang" and then the absurd obsession with a grand banquet. Some couples even have been registered with marriage certificates. But still, will the marital relationship stand the test of time? It is a big question for all Mosuo people!

From the interview of the field study, it can be seen that most married Mosuo women born after 1990 believe that they can't do without the big Mosuo family.

Even though they settle down in the city, they still go back to the traditional marital mode of "meet at twilight and leave in the morning" once they are back in their hometown. In light of the mounting divorce rate, young Mosuo people are more in favor of visiting marriage in belief that the purer the marriage is, the more freedom it can offer. For example:

I held my wedding banquet in 2016. Like many modern girls we took wedding photos, went on a honeymoon trip and registered for a marriage certificate. From a legal perspective, there is no difference between our relationship and marriage. But in the real sense, my husband and I have a "visiting marriage" relationship. Usually, I still live in my mother's home and take care of my two children, who are literally raised by my family. I can't imagine I would ever leave my home and live in another person's home. You cannot find the warmth of the Mosuo family in a modern marriage.*11

While a lot of people suspected that the marital form of Mosuo people would collapse, the Mosuo culture was quietly adapting to different times. Its traditional marital culture has been inherited in different ways in different time periods. The only factor remaining constant is the inheritance of cultural roots and the continuation of matriarchal culture. Through the evolution of Mosuo marital custom in three different periods in the past century, we have learnt that the salient characteristic of Mosuo marital culture is freedom and the greatest respect for life is tolerance.


In different time periods, Mosuo women have been more or less influenced by the external environment when it comes to choices of marriage. However, Mosuo people have always managed to strike a balance between traditional and modern life. Mosuo culture has been mystified and its mystery lies in its constant change and rejuvenation. Therefore, neither the marital mode of Mosuo people was derived from a specific period of time, nor it will be replaced by a certain culture in a certain period. The Mosuo people still maintain the big Mosuo family and the special marriage form of matrilineal culture, which exactly reflects the vitality of the traditional education of Mosuo people. The core of the traditional education is respect for women and the recognition of cultural roots. The Mosuo culture will continue to evolve with the advance of the time. It is particularly important to have an understanding of the openness and development of Mosuo culture.

  • *1 Ah Wu means uncle, referring to to a male elder
  • *2 The data was collected from the notes of a field study on August 18, 2020 based on an oral narrative by Zasima
  • *3 Chen Liu. Research on the changes of marriage and family of Mosuo people in Yongning [M]. Ethnic Press, 2016:124
  • *4 The data was collected from the notes of a field study on August 15, 2020 based on an oral narrative by Zasima
  • *5 The data was collected from the notes of a field study on August 18, 2020 based on an oral narrative by Zhima
  • *6 The data was collected from the notes of a field study on September 3, 2020 based on an oral narrative by La Mu
  • *7 Visiting marriage: as the expression implies, this marital relationship is based on the way of "visiting", that is, the man and the woman who fall in love with each other do not form their own core family. During the day, both parties live in their respective mother's family. At night, the man visits the woman's home and leaves in the next morning. This is how their marriage is maintained by "visiting".
  • *8 He Shaoquan. Chinese Mosuo people [M]. Yunnan People's Publishing House, 2017:456-457
  • *9 Jing Guo Zhuang: a must-have ceremony before visiting marriage or marriage. Only after this ceremony can a marital relationship be recognized.
  • *10 The data was collected from the notes of a field study on August 20, 2020.
  • *11 The data was collected from the notes of a field study on September 3, 2020 based on an oral narrative by Ci Li.

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.