The Mosuo (who also call themselves the Na) are a population of roughly 40,000 who live near the Tibetan border and have remained an agrarian society through China’s industrial revolution. The Mosuo culture is most frequently described as a matriarchal culture; in fact, the Mosuo themselves frequently use this description, to attract tourism and interest in their culture. However, the Mosuo society could be more accurately described as “matrilineal”, which still doesn’t reflect the full truth.
The fact is, the Mosuo culture defies categorization within traditional definitions. It is true that they have aspects of matriarchal culture, in that women are the head of the house, all property is passed through the female line, and women tend to make the business decisions. But political power tends to be in the hands of males, which disqualifies them as a true matriarchy.
Most famous among Mosuo traditions are the practice of a “walking marriage”: Women may choose and change partners as they wish, and because Mosuo children stay with their mothers’ families for life, men only visit their female partners by walking to their houses at night. When a man visits a woman, he hangs his hat on the hook. That way, everybody knows that this woman has a male visitor. And nobody else knocks on the door. If a woman falls in love, then she receives only the specific man and the man comes only to that woman.
In the Mosuo practice, there are no lifelong commitments and relationships are based solely on mutual affection, not family alliances, finances, inheritance, or even parental responsibilities. Outsiders often envision this setup as a nonstop orgy of promiscuity, but by and large, walking marriage is closer to what people would call serial monogamy. Relationships tend to be lasting, sometimes lifelong, but if a couple loses interest in each other, they can simply split up, without cultural, financial, or parental obligations keeping them together in an unfulfilling relationship. Outsiders also assume children often don’t know who their biological fathers are, but there’s still a stigma to women not knowing who got them pregnant. Fathers are generally involved in their children’s lives, but not as day-to-day parental figures, and are less important than aunts and uncles.
The Museo traditions separate the issues of emotions and the material world with its economic requests, so the only factor which influences the choice for a partner is love and affection. The material status of the mother is never shared with the partner so love is shared and acquired in true equality. A very wealthy man cannot gain a woman’s affections with his wealth, because it belongs to the man’s family.
While the Mosuo people are still following the matriarchal patterns and the concept of ‘walking marriage’, tourism has brought the latest onslaught to their culture. People from many different outside cultures are now visiting the Mosuo and the recent influence of television, newspapers, and the internet is taking their toll on their secluded society. As the distinct culture is now packaged into a tourist commodity and rewritten by developers, cultural rights become increasingly ignored in this power relationship that silences the owners of Mosuo culture.
In conclusion, as in most situations, The Mosuo society is deeply complex and multi-faceted. It was said that the “matriarchal” system of the Mosuo was enforced to keep them in servitude to the ruling Mosuo class. Yet, practically speaking, this system has led to significant cultural differences from which many other cultures could learn. Mosuo families have an incredible internal cohesiveness and stability; and certainly, Mosuo women do not (within their culture) face many of the struggles and barriers that women in many other cultures do.