Seven years ago, this month, I spent a week in a remote village in Yongning, China. What made me want to go to this remote part of China was the presentation on the Mosuo community, that my anthropologist friend, Yuan, had made. Yuan presented the Mosuo, as having a matrilineal society where children stayed with their mothers and there was no word for father or husband in their language. I wanted to understand better this community, which was fast losing its identity in the homogeneity promoted through the patriarchal structure of the rest of the country. I convinced Yuan to undertake a collaborative project, where I would write the human interest stories and she would interview people as well as take some of her renowned photography. So in September 2013, Yuan and I visited this remote village, away from the touristic hotspot of Luoshui, and stayed with Ana and her family. Ana took us around the village for chats with some of the elderly residents.
On our first morning in the village, Ana suggested we visit an elderly 91 year old neighbour. The sky was overcast with clouds as we made our way to their compound. After the introductions were made, and the little stove was lighted up to heat the water for tea, Ana spoke to the 91 year old in Mosuo language.
“I was born in the year of the mouse. I have three sons and two daughters. My first partner was a horseman, who worked for the rich Chief’s family in the village. Usually, one man from each family had to live in the Chief’s house and work there and one woman had to go help when they needed. I lived in my own house but had to go to the Chief’s family home to help when there was a big celebration. My family was very poor then and almost had nothing but we still had to pay taxes to the rich Chief’s family. Now, it is the happiest time as there are no taxes any more and there are several subsidies to help us raise pigs and other livestock.
My first partner had to travel a lot outside of the village for work so he was hardly there to help me. He passed away young, 5-6 years into our marriage. My eldest son and daughter were born in my first marriage. My three other children were born later.
I raised my family alone, without any help from extended family members. It was very hard to raise the five children alone, especially during the period when there was lack of food due to the country experiencing natural disasters.
I inherited the house from my mother. It was a simple house. My second partner helped to rebuild the house. I helped my partner build the house, carrying one child on my back. We did not have enough timber then to build the roof. We could see the starry sky, when sleeping inside the house. When the new government brought about a one husband-one wife policy and encouraged the husband to help the wife, my second partner came to live with me. This was after our children had grown up. Previously, the man had to help his own family, which was his mother and sisters. My second partner lived with me for 5 years, when I was around 50 years old, before he became sick and passed away.
I am proud that all of my five children have a good education, which is not common in the village. My eldest son was a chief policeman before he retired. My son and his family live in Lijiang.
My second son also had an important role in the local army. He lives with his family in a small town nearby. My eldest daughter was the village doctor. She passed away young. She had three children, who I raised. Two of my grandchildren graduated from university and work outside the village. My granddaughter lives with me. I have three great-grandchildren.
My youngest daughter graduated from middle school and she has a small business in another town nearby. She also has three children, all of whom completed university and all three work in good jobs.
My youngest son refused to go to middle school and is a farmer. He lives with me in the village. He is the only child who is in a traditional Mosuo marriage. A Mosuo marriage is simpler than the normal marriage. Only one big family with the same blood ties live together and raise children together. Every family member supports each other. The normal marriage is more complicated as two different families join to become one. The relationship with mother in law or other in laws is so complicated. One thing is better now than before. A man is allowed to help his partner in many ways, for example, raising a child, building a house etc. Before if a man did that, the man’s family might not allow him or other villagers might laugh at him. I am a little worried that the third generation may not have Mosuo marriages any more, since they have partners from the Han ethnic group. It is very difficult to find a partner from Mosuo ethnic group if they work outside the village.
I sent my children outside the village because there are more opportunities and a better life outside. It is too hard to live in the village. All my children, who live outside, have a good family and life. I do not need to worry about them. I could go and live with my children but the family name will be ended, if no one lives in the village. Only my son and granddaughter, who are staying in the village, have a hard life compared to children living outside.
My youngest son and granddaughter take care of the farmland and animals. We grow rice, some corns and other plants and have 2 horses, 2 buffalos and 18 pigs. I manage all the income that we generate in the village. My children living outside the village manage their own income.
Usually men are not as diligent and thrifty as women, so women manage family income. If there is a wedding or funeral, it is usually women who decide how much money or what kind of gifts will be sent to the related family. The men will go to that family to help with the wedding or funeral arrangements. If the village needs to build a road or a ditch, the villagers will have a public meeting first to decide which family can help which part. The men engage in the public affairs, especially in village renovations and development. Also, men usually decide how many buffalos to buy or sell and manage them.
In my spare time, I like to go to every family in the village and visit them. Now I cannot walk to visit them. Soon, I will pass the control of the income and household management to my granddaughter in the near future, rather than my youngest son. I think women are usually good at managing finance at home and not men.”
Note: It was a bit of a difficult process initially, as Ana had to translate what was said in Mosuo language into Mandarin for Yuan and Yuan had to translate it into English for me. We soon realized that this was not going to work, especially if we did not want to waste the elders’ time so we agreed that the English translation would have to wait till we were back at Ana’s home. However, for different reasons, that translation never did happen during my stay in Yongning. I recently was going through the photos I took during the visit and felt it was a pity that the stories of the elders we spoke to would go undocumented. I reached out to Nancy aka Yanan and asked if she could help me by translating the recordings for me. Nancy, a very generous and kind friend, has been translating the interviews for me this month. I have tried to piece together the interviews in a story format.