Meet the Musuo

musuo1Although us progressive university women may love thinking otherwise, men still make a disproportional amount of the ‘important rulings’ in our society – how it’s run, but also in our day-to-day attitudes. The conception still stands that men are the ‘head of the house’ or that responsibility for ‘big decisions’ concerning power, money or even relationships rests in their hands. But this patriarchal model is not prevalent everywhere - there are matriarchal societies that have existed and are still present to this day. You may be familiar with the ancient Greek mythology of the Amazons, a tribe of fearless, strong warrior women who laid down their weapons to no man. They sought out men for one reason only: to reproduce. In order to preserve their female-only kingdom, male offspring were killed. Now, this is a matriarchal society to the extreme and evident from the extinction of the great Amazon Empire, if it indeed existed, shunning all men was, funnily enough, not a viable way of living. But to the male population, do not take this fact as an invitation to an ego boost. There is a very much matriarchal society that has survived the centuries and still exists to this day.

High up in the south west mountains of China lives what is locally known as the ‘Kingdom of Women’, or the Musuo people, a culture of around 40,000 in which women are in charge and the titles ‘husband’ and ‘father’ are redundant and unknown. Yes, here the women control household financial decisions, have the rightful ownership of land and houses, as well as full and unquestionable rights to the children born to them. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, Musuo families have an incredibly stable and cohesive internal structure and the women do not find themselves facing many of the struggles and barriers women of many other cultures do.

But what the Musuo are most famous for is their practice of ‘Zuo Hun’ or ‘walking marriages’. You see, marriage and commitment to one person is not strongly advocated in Musuo communities. Females make the ceremonious step from girl to woman around the age of 13 and after this are given their own bedroom within the family home. Here, they have the privacy to take a lover, having as few or as many lovers as they wish throughout their lifetime. Men in the community spend their days doing the necessary jobs of fishing and animal rearing and visit the women’s homes at night, if invited and often in secret. Any children born are raised by the woman’s family and will often have no idea who their biological father is. But although the women have the freedom to be somewhat promiscuous, more often than not, they will choose to keep the same lover for their whole lifetime. If the father has a desire to be part of his offspring’s upbringing, he must state his intention to do so and bring gifts to the woman’s family. This may give him status within that family but this does not make him part of that family.

The reason Musuo families have such strong framework is because their ‘homes’ are just one large extended family, including many generations of grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, cousins etc all living under the same roof . Here, they reside under the command of the clan-mother ‘Dabu’, or matriarch, who is the chief decision-maker of household finances as well as the various roles and responsibilities of each member.

Now, you may think this would drive you nuts. But the result is actually a family and community structure that is extremely stable and harmonious. Relationships and commitment to another person is free and based solely on love, divorce is a non-issue and thus arguments over child custody or assets is a non-event; family property forever remains in that family (as lineage is traced through the female line, not the male line that is the tradition in most cultures); and if a parent was to die, a large extended family exists to take over the care of that child. All responsibilities under one house are evenly distributed between members and there are little factors that can contribute to the destruction of their family structure. In fact, some scholars consider the Musuo way of life free of six problems we face in current modern society:

1. The problematic social status of women and men 2. The situation of the elderly, often left alone or ill-treated in other cultures 3. Family conflicts and domestic violence 4. Crime, such as sexual harassment, theft, murder and arson 5. Separation of family members and humans in general from each other and the threat of war 6. Environmental problems; the Musuo, in accordance with their Lamaism beliefs and also due to their seclusion from the rest of the industrial world, conduct their lives simply and in a way that harmonises with their natural surroundings.

The Musuo’s remote location has enabled their unusual culture to survive so long but the Western stigma associated with their walking marriages is slowly tainting their existence. The Chinese government is keen to market and profit from the Musuo, luring in male tourists with the false notion that Musuo women are happy to ‘sleep around’. But mostly, the Musuo still live and breathe their ancient matriarchal culture – a rare occurrence in the modern world – and thus should be recognised, treasured and respected worldwide.


Monica Fortunaso


GNSAD - November 2013

GNSAD - November 2013

The Night Wisher