Modernization and the the Mosuo: An interview with Choo Waihong


Nicholas Gordon interviews Choo Waihong, author of The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains.


In Kingdom of Women, you talk about leaving your career and finding the Mosuo. What drove you to wake up one day and decide to write a book about them?


A friend suggested it. When she came to visit, she said this culture was so interesting. It was obviously interesting to me, but I never through of writing a book about it. But when she mentioned it, I thought it was actually quite a good idea. It was only then that I started making notes, becoming more serious about my observations, and trying to put it together logically as a book.


The book positions the Mosuo as one of the only, if not the only, matrilineal culture in China. What brought you to that region of China in the first place? And what does it mean in practice for the Mosuo to be one of the only surviving matrilineal cultures in the world?


I was traveling China, and I stumbled across the idea of a woman-centric community. Although there’s a lot of Chinese literature on this group, very few English writers write about it. That’s what drew me there, and I went back again and again.

I would say that over half the families are still organized in the old matrilineal way. What this means is that families are not organized the way we know it: man and woman, a new family. Women instead stay in the same house where their mother and grandmother stay. That means only female bloodline-related persons view each other as family. That is such a dramatic change from our idea of a family. Every person who is related to the mother’s bloodline, the grandmother’s bloodline are the real relatives. They don’t see the “relatives” of the male partner of a woman as anywhere close to this big group of female-related relatives.

When the Mosuo say “oh my sister” or “oh my aunt”, you have to figure out who it is because, in our world, they would not be relatives. It’s a huge connected world that we have no clue about.


What about the men? What is the male role in Mosuo society?


They have to do all the heavy work around the farm. They will help plow the fields, build new extensions to the home, and do all the carrying. They know that this is their role. The women rely on them as important additions to the family because of their muscle.

I think the women, being at the top of the heap, indulge the men. So long as they do the heavy work, the men can go and play the rest of the time. The women don’t care. The women will make sure the food is on the table for every meal, and make sure the harvest is kept properly. The men get a lot more free time than the women.


Outside of family and relationships, what is the rest of Mosuo society like? What economic activities do they do? What is the community based around?


Subsistence farming. That’s it. It was a very poor economy. Before 1956, when there was land redistribution, it was feudal. So there was a lord, and everyone else was a serf. They didn’t even have their own land until 1956, and then you just had a little family plot, enough to grow for yourself and your animals.

To augment that, the men formed part of the caravans bringing tea to other parts of Southern China, to India, to Tibet, and then taking back to China whatever goods Tibet or India had to offer. They were part of the muscle of the whole caravan trade, and they were paid in bartered goods for the family.


I assume the feudal lord was not part of the matrilineal Mosuo society.


It’s interesting. After Yunnan was conquered by Kublai Khan, he placed his people in charge of the whole province. In this area, he appointed a local family to act as the lord. By introducing the Mongolian culture to this elite, he allowed the man to say “actually, you should get married, and you can have multiple wives.” The overlord had three to four wives over the years, and had this patriarchal set-up mandated by the government of the day.

But the rest of the Mosuo continued their matrilineal ways. It didn’t affect what the local people wanted to continue doing.


What about life for the Mosuo post-land reform?


It meant that they were finally owners of their own land. The older generation that knows about land redistribution are today still very committed to the Communist Party of China. Every new year, when they have to put posters on the walls of their humble homes, they will go the market and look for a Mao Zedong poster with the few generations of Chinese leaders. There’s always a new poster of the Chinese leadership to this day. To them, land redistribution is something they are still thankful for today.


What does Chinese society think about the Mosuo, if they think about them much at all? What stereotypes do they have of this community?


The Chinese discovered the Mosuo and their different way of living about two decades ago. One very famous Mosuo woman called Yang Erche Namu started writing about her life. Her first book was called “Leaving the Kingdom of Daughters”. She was a performer, and then she met a foreigner. She left with him to Europe, and so she had a life outside with her boyfriend. It was quite salacious, but readable, and so many Chinese found out about the Mosuo and their way of life through her books. She went on to write a few others about this “free love and sex thing.”

The rest of China is very curious, especially about the “Walking marriages”: free love without the constraint of marriage. In the early years of tourism, people came to look for sex, or at least see if they could get sex, because they read about it. Not that it was officially sanctioned, but I think in the early years some of the professional tour operators introduced sex tours to the area.


The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China's Hidden Mountains, Choo Waihong (IB Tauris, February 2017)
The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains,
Choo Waihong (IB Tauris, February 2017)

You’ve talked both in your book and in talks you’ve given about modernization and the threat it poses to the Mosuo way of life. How has it been affected? In what ways are worse off and, perhaps, are they better off?


Change has come about very dramatically and rapidly, even just in the years I’ve been there. It’s my tenth year since I first went there, and as I’ve observed over these short ten years, more and more younger Mosuo are abandoning the old ways, getting married and setting up this new idea of a family. They will try to get their parents to redistribute their land so that they can each have a little tinier parcel where they set up on their own to live as a new couple. More younger Mosuo are adopting the traditional patriarchal way of forming families now, which means, whether they understand it or not, walking away from the old idea of a family. In the old Mosuo way, kids don’t belong to the couple, they belong to the mothers and grandmothers.

I have a few friends that are getting married, and I ask them “Why are you getting married? Mosuo don’t get married.” They say “well, it’s fun”, “we like the idea” or “it’s something new.” They just like the idea. At the wedding, they can get lots of hong bao and they’ve told me recently how much a wedding can get them: tens of thousands! It’s big money, and they think “we can start a family properly”.

I don’t think it’s conscious, but they don’t realize cumulatively it is rocking the very basic building block of their old society. If this continues at this pace, they might all be living a totally different way of life in ten, twenty years.


Is this a problem faced by other ethnic minorities in China? Are the Mosuo better or worse off than other groups?


It is obvious that they are worse off for the preservation of their culture and practices. But they are much better off economically because tourism brings in money. Now, besides subsistence farming by the older folk, everybody is involved in the tourist trade in one form or another. There’s big money being invested to further develop tourism in the area. Today they live like the lower-middle class in China, or at least working class, and they have constant income in terms of cash. Not so long ago it was a barter economy. So now everybody is better off; children have multiple pairs of shoes instead of just one.

But as with all ethnic minorities in any part of the world, not just China, when they meet with the modern world, modern ideas, and modern demands to conform, I think their culture changes. It’s just sad for me personally that this precious woman-centric idea of a community is changing.


What do you think is the “best case scenario” for Mosuo culture, given everything that’s happened thus far?


I’ll first tell you what’s happening at present, then what I wish was happening more.

There are some Mosuos among the community who see the same threat to their culture and earnestly want to preserve as much of Mosuo society as possible. There is a cultural preservation society of educated Mosuo, but many of whom are not living on Mosuo land: they are educated and have jobs in cities like Lijiang and Kunming. They get together and play around with ideas on how to preserve Mosuo culture. They try to publish books and poems written by Mosuo writers, and each year they will organized the Mountain Goddess Festival.

But I think what is missing is that they don’t come back and try to inculcate this idea of preserving Mosuo culture in the schools and among the young. There’s only one or two people I know who are doing it. But not enough. There’s this old man—I talk about him as being a “cultural custodian”—who alone goes to the school to teach Mosuo kids to sing and dance in the Mosuo language. He was funded by a Shanghai NGO, but some official money or some money from the society should be put to this practice.

They should also spend money in trying to get a written form of the Mosuo language so that it is preserved, or at least go around recording people so that they have a place where they can preserve the language. The Naxi [a different ethnic group] are trying to teach young children to speak their cultural language. But that’s hard when you don’t have people speaking it anymore. This might be the Mosuo outcome if they don’t preserve the language in either recorded or written form.

Then they could have gotten official recognition of their minority status, so they can get government funding to do things. For the longest time, they didn’t have the political connections to get the money. But now, there is a tourism cash cow and a lot more corporate money. The Mosuo’s festival used to be dying, and I had to sponsor it for a few years. This year, the Mosuo’s festival was a big three-day event, with 150,000 RMB in donations from two big companies. My little contribution was just 20,000RMB. Now, money is not a problem, but the money is always connected with what they can earn from tourism.

Anyway, it’s an interesting juncture they’ve come to, and the challenge is how many of their own kind want to preserve it in more creative ways.

Nicholas Gordon has an MPhil from Oxford in International Relations and a BA from Harvard. He is a writer, editor and occasional radio host based in Hong Kong.