During my week in a remote village in Yongning, Ana, our host, took my friend, Yuan and I, to meet her elderly neighbours. We asked to hear about their childhood and younger years in the village, and the lifestyle they experienced as part of the Mosuo community. On one of the days, Ana took us to meet one of her relatives, a 76 year old woman.
“I was the youngest in my own big family. My happiest period was my childhood. As my elder sisters and brothers did all the work, I did not do much at home. I used to often ride the horse to the market at the cross road in Yongning, shop with my friends, have a bath in the hot spring and participate in wrestling matches. In that time, women could even wrestle with men.
I came to live here with my partner’s family, during the period that the government encouraged one wife and husband. My small family separated from the big family around 1974. My husband’s family gave some farmlands and we built a house, with the help of two families. This was the hardest period of my life as I had to raise my children on my own. During that period, the country lacked food so it was difficult years. My husband was not good at farm work but he could do some small business. He passed away twenty years ago.
I have six children – three sons and three daughters. My eldest daughter passed away. Her son is now 28 years old and lives in the city. He may not come back to the village. My second daughter, who lives with me, also has a son. Her partner has a small store in the village. My youngest daughter works in a hostel near Lugu lake. Of my three sons, two live with me and one with his girlfriend’s family. My middle son is a carpenter. My youngest son works at home. He has a son but based on Mosuo tradition, lives with his mother. Since we have no one working in the government departments, we have to find other ways to earn money.
I used to manage all the money for my family before. Now, each child keeps the money they make. If there is a need in the family, they will contribute. For example, my youngest son sold the family’s farmland near Lugu lake and saved the money in his bank account. When the family was in need, he withdrew the money and gave it to the family. It is transparent and honest. The brothers and sisters have a good relationship so there is no problem. The best way of living is the big family life. It is much easier, living with siblings. Everybody in the family can help raise the children especially when they are little.
Life is hard for women here but we are much better psychologically, compared to women of other ethnic groups. We have more power and can make decisions within the family. Regarding public affairs, the leader of the village calls for a meeting. Each family will send one person to attend the meeting, depending on who is available to attend it. There is no strict rule on who attends. My youngest son usually attends these meetings because he can express himself well.”
Acknowledgement: Much gratitude and love to Nancy, aka Yanan, for translating the interviews from Yuan and my visit to Yongning in September 2013. Thanks to Yuan and Ana, for arranging the trip and hosting, as well as carrying out the interviews.
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.
Seven years ago, this month, I spent a week in a remote village in Yongning, China. With me, was an anthropologist friend, Yuan, who specialized in minority ethnic groups. Our purpose for this visit was to better understand the Mosuo culture as the community was said to be following matrilineal practices and was at times, referred to as China’s last matriarchal society. We wanted to talk to some elders in Mosuo villages, away from the touristic hotspot of Luoshui, to understand how family life was structured when the elders were children so that it would shed some light for us as to what matrilineal practices were still continued. We were hosted by a Mosuo family and our host, Ana, took us around the village for chats with some of the elderly residents.
During one of these walks, we visited NA*, an 87 year old Lama. When we entered through the doorway, we saw N* seated in the courtyard de-seeding the family’s pumpkin harvest. I noticed that dried pumpkin seeds was usually what was offered with tea in the homes we visited. After Ana introduced Yuan and I, she explained that we were interested in hearing his life story.
N* agreed to talk to us and asked us to be seated indoors, while he cleaned up and joined us. Once we were seated by the hearth, N* narrated his life story.
“I started training to be a Lama since I turned 11 years old. In my younger days, it was a usual practice for each family to have 1 or 2 children study to become Lamas. My elder brother also studied it. Becoming a Lama would reduce one’s time of service with the rich Chief of the village’s family and Lamas are respected more than the normal villagers.
Initially, I went to the temple in the next village and trained with a Senior Lama for a year. I lived in the Senior’s home and helped served the Buddhas through cleaning, preparing food and sacrifice. Other trainees usually had to do some housework for the Senior Lama. I returned to my own village after that as the village belonged to a high level temple so that I could continue my learning. I studied under the Chief of the village and temple and helped raise pigs for his family for 3-4 years. It was a duty of my family to have one or two family members serve the Chief’s family. The Chief’s family approved my learning to become a Lama. Since a Lama of high position in Sichuan province asked the Chief for a person to serve him, I was sent as a gift to the Tulku (someone similar to the Dalai Lama, but without the high ranking) to serve the Tulku for four years. After serving the Tulku, I asked to continue my studying in Lhasa, Tibet. The Tulku approved it. My village Chief’s family asked me to serve another Tulku in Lhasa, who was one of the sons of their family and my same age, who had gone to Lhasa earlier. I was not keen to continue my life of serving someone but I had no choice but to accept it. I was 20 years old when I walked to Lhasa, studied there for 9 years, and I walked back home. I served the Buddhas in Lhasa by cleaning the temple, preparing sacrifices etc. The Tulku and I had a different learning path. My study was much simpler than that of the Tulku.
After returning home from Lhasa, I was able to live with my own family, though all Lamas lived in the temple in Lhasa. In my family, there was my grandmother and her six children. My grandmother’s brothers had passed away. After my return from Lhasa, my mother asked to be separated from the large family and she and two of her sisters left to start another household. I moved with them. Two of my mother’s sisters and her brother stayed on with my grandmother. In my family, the members ask for my opinion first. Also, when having meals, I am given food first.
I did some religious work for the villagers and went to the temple, if there was a religious event. I received some income or food for the religious work that I did for the villagers. I usually kept the income. If my family needed help, I would give some money to support them.
While serving the villagers, I could not refuse anyone requesting help. While I did not have to do any heavy farm work, I helped to take care of young children at home or do some housework at home. I also helped villagers when they were sick, or they had a wedding or funeral, or when a baby was born. I help to give names to the babies.
Once I chose this way of life, there was only one way for me to go. Whether I like it or not, I have to keep continuing on this path.”
Photo credit: Yuan Li
Acknowledgement: Much gratitude to Yanan Yang for translating the interview recordings of our visit from Mandarin to English, that helped me piece together NA*’s story. A big thank you to Yuan for organizing the visit and carrying out the interviews. And, a lot of gratitude and thanks to Ana, for hosting us and linking us with the elders in the village and translating from Mosuo to Mandarin what they spoke.
When Yuan first made her presentation on minority ethnic groups in China during the cultural week at the Asia Pacific Leadership Programme at East West Center in Hawai’i, the moment she mentioned that the Mosuo had no word in their vocabulary for father, I was intrigued.
So, when we were asked to do an independent mini study travel, while in Yunnan province, two of my friends and I chose to visit Lugu Hu, where the Mosuo community lived.
With Michelle and I not being able to speak Mandarin and Mami able to manage the bare minimum, it was an interesting travel to the lake area.
We found ourselves doing very touristic things as people assumed that is what we would be interested in.
We tried the local café to see if that would yield more insight into the community, than the tourist narrative but language was a major barrier.
Eventually, we ran into some luck when the taxi driver we hired to take us to a Buddhist temple was quite chatty and he invited us over to his house that evening for some tea with his mother.
He described the Mosuo home design, in which the mother had the central structure – the place of power, and each child had a space built in the courtyard. According to tradition, the children were supposed to live with their mothers. There was no such concept as marriage, though there was a terminology which loosely translated meant walking marriage, where a male or female met someone they liked during the festivals etc. Any resulting child would stay with the mother and be raised by her family. So there were words for uncle and brother, only not for father.
While my curiosity had been piqued, I felt that we lost a lot since we were hardly able to communicate with anyone in the village. Also, I felt that a lot of the narrative that was being shared with us was a touristic version intended to attract the visitor to the region.
Therefore, I asked my friend Yuan, who had obviously not joined us on our study tour to China and instead had chosen to go to DC and NY during that time, whether we could go on an exploratory visit of our own into a more rural area of the Mosuo community. She agreed and we decided that it would be good to set an objective for the visit rather than simply an exploratory visit. I was to be responsible for writing the human interest stories and Yuan, the photography. With this agreement, the next year, I returned to Yunnan province looking forward to understanding the community better.
During this visit, not only did I have Yuan, a native Mandarin speaker with a postdoctoral specialization in minority ethnic Chinese communities with me, she had also linked up through her academic network to someone from the Mosuo community, who lived further north to Lugu Hu, and who offered to host us at her home for a week or so.
We arrived at her home in the evening after a long bus drive from Lijiang and I don’t quite remember my first impressions. I only remember that when I woke up in the morning, I was greeted outside my room to the beautiful view of the mountain.
Over a breakfast of yak butter tea and mantou, Anna spoke about her family and her siblings. It was only her parents who now lived in their family home and she and her siblings had moved to town and cities as required for their jobs and livelihoods. She mentioned that was the case with most of the families in the village, where only the older generation were mostly left in the village.
We also learnt that her brother’s family would be visiting that week as the Moon festival was during the week we were there. I learnt as I visited with various neighbours of Anna that family lives in the Mosuo community were now similar to the rest of China. What was a tourist narrative in Lugu Hu was not the day-to-day reality of the people, who for decades now have been in legally, binding monogamous marriages and where the family unit comprises of the husband, wife and child and as in any other patriarchal society, the father is the head of the household.
I remember we went for walks around the village, admiring the beautiful views, visiting family friends of Anna and with Anna as our Mosuo translator listening to them speak of their families and lives. Yuan and I planned to write out the stories that touched us, but somehow this got derailed at the beginning as we found that three way translations didn’t work and it was decided that Yuan would at the end translate what was being discussed to me. It never did happen though we meant to do it at some point after we returned home. I have the audio recordings of our talks and I never felt it right that I have it translated by any other Mandarin speaker as this was a joint undertaking by Yuan and I.
Perhaps it doesn’t really matter – our originally aim of a joint initiative of human interest stories accompanied by Yuan’s photography didn’t materialize. The connections I made with the family we stayed with, despite the language barrier, and the people we met was enough to understand their way of living, to understand the common thread of family concerns they had. If I cannot write a human interest story on the specific elderly people we interviewed, I can at least remember that Anna’s mother treated us as her daughters and that she opened up her home to us with a warm hospitality. I can remember that we celebrated the Moon festival, a time for family reunions with Anna’s family where they included us as part of the family without question.
For all the delicious home-cooked meals that Anna and her mother made us during our stay, Yuan and I decided to cook dinner one day for them. I attempted to cook a curry with hardly any spices and I don’t think it went well with our hosts but they remade it to a tasty dish blending it with rice noodles for lunch the next day.
On our last day, Anna’s mother took Yuan and me to the Yongning temple, the temple she connected with the most, so that we could pray there before we left.
I hope I can revisit Lugu Hu in Yunnan province again and visit Anna’s family with Yuan once more for the Moon festival.