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Preserving matrilineal traditions

WENGJICI Erqing and Ruheng CirenDuoji grew up in households where grandmothers had absolute authority. Raised by their mothers and their uncles, neither knew his father well.

In southwest China, this rare matrilineal family system has been followed by the Mosuo people for more than 2,000 years and this tradition is what both men seek to protect.

In real life, however, both chose to compromise their ancient customs to make their modern lives easier. Both are businessmen in Yunnan Province, running guesthouses and jointly operating an exhibition of Mosuo life.

Erqing, 38, not only sees his wife and his two daughters almost every day but also takes them out occasionally. Duoji married his Mosuo girlfriend and acquired an official marriage certificate.

Almost 15 years after outsiders and tourists began to visit the previously secluded tribe in remote areas of southwestern China, the younger generation like Erqing and Duoji have begun to waver between history and modernity. They struggle to hold fast to their identity and their rare matriarchal traditions.

There are around 40,000 ethnic Mosuo minority people living in wood-frame houses scattered around the 60-square-kilometer Lugu Lake separating Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.

While most of China's ethnic groups have a strong patrilineal tradition, the Mosuo have preserved their matriarchal system and the tradition of "walking marriage."

After puberty, a Mosuo girl is free to receive men. But they can only visit at night and must return to their own homes in the morning. Any children born from these relationships are raised by the mother's family. The father will raise his sisters' children.

If either member of the couple tires of the relationship, he or she moves on to a new partner.

Fading custom

Although "walking marriage" - meaning to walk back and forth - remains strong in Mosuo territory, the number of adherents has been declining.

Take Luoshui Village, Ninglang Yi Autonomous County of Lijiang, Yunnan Province. Only 60 percent of the people now have walking marriages, compared with 70 percent in 1996. Of the remaining 40 percent, half cohabit and half formally marry.

"Poverty is the main driving force. As young people migrate to cities for jobs, cohabitation and marriage cut their living costs. It's strange but true that in villages where people are richer, the tradition is often relatively better preserved," says Erqing.

Duoji says it was difficult to maintain village traditions in town. "My wife now works in Lijiang and we plan to have a child. Without a marriage certificate, our relationship would be illegal there. It might also cause lots of hassle in our future child-raising," he says. Education and other benefits for a child require a legal birth certificate.

Living at an elevation of 3,000 meters, the Mosuo have historically lived off the land. But the influx of tourists has given them a chance to see what's going on in the outside world and created a welcome new source of income.

A popular business is tourism, especially running guesthouses. The Yunnan Provincial Tourism Bureau reports the Lugu Lake area, the major area of the Mosuo, hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Erqing and Duoji each own a guesthouse in Luoshui Village. They jointly run an exhibition on Mosuo culture. Each earns more than 100,000 yuan (US$14,640) a year.

"As people here get rich, tradition begins to clash with modern civilization. Lifestyles change. 'Walking marriage' still dominates, but other traditions are ignored," says Erqing.

"When we were kids, young people riding horses had to dismount and stand by to wait for senior citizens to walk by first. Now young people whiz past on bikes or in cars. They don't bother to stop," he says.

Another waning custom, Duoji says, is the fireside get-together. "When I was small, people gathered around fireplaces for entertainment. Children had to stand up to salute arriving elders, offer them seats and serve them food. These days you won't see that any more," Duoji recalls.

Like anything in the world, Mosuo culture evolves slowly but constantly. As tourists swarm in their habitats to see their exotic lifestyle, the Mosuo wonder how their matrilineal culture will survive.

True Mosuo

For Erqing and Duoji, inspiration came from their small exhibition space that opened in 2001.

It displays 800 items, mostly old photos on the subsistence life, and articles used in daily life and work. It cost around 500,000 yuan to build but it is very lucrative.

They plan to expand the exhibition into China's first private Mosuo Culture Museum. The project, financed by loans and savings, will cost 900,000 yuan.

"I think the unique qualities of the Mosuo people may well enable the tribe to survive and prosper. But that should be based upon the integrity and authenticity of our culture," says Erqing. "That's why we want to build the museum to tell the world about the true Mosuo."

Over the years, the two noticed through visitors at their guesthouses that some tour guides had purposely distorted local customs to spice up their business.

"When talking about the Mosuo, the first thing in people's minds is always 'walking marriage.' Tourists seem to think that is what our culture is all about," says Duoji.

"Some mistook 'walking marriage' for a type of promiscuity and a few even came here to seek a one-night stand," Erqing complains.

"Our relationship is not like a game. It's based on love and not bound by laws, religion or money," he says. "As children are raised by a bigger family, the parents feel less stressed. Quarrels between husband and wife and rivalry between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law are thus averted."

For example, Erqing and his axia, the Mosuo word for wife, have known each other since childhood. Although custom allowed men to visit women after the man reached puberty, usually at age 13, Erqing didn't walk into her room until he was 26.

The visiting relationship is not casual. There are formal ceremonies, too. When a couple falls in love, the man needs to ask a matchmaker to send gifts, including candy, to his sweetheart's home. In return, the young woman's mother will give the man linen trousers that her daughter has made and send the man's gift of candies to her neighbors.

"And we are forbidden to discuss sex and 'walking marriage' openly, especially in the company of our grandmother or siblings," says Duoji.

"Most of the Mosuo people fall in love only once or twice. Men would no longer want to walk back and forth if they had children. They would settle down," Erqing says.


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