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The Mosuo are a small ethnic group living in China, near Tibet, mostly in the Himalayas. The Mosuo culture is one lacking in modernity. It is mostly agrarian, with many products handmade by family members. The Mosuo have a barter economy where preserved pork is a more common form of currency than is money, and annual incomes sit in the $150 to $200 range per family. Electricity, while increasingly available, is still rare. And even rarer?

Marriage.

Despite a cultural history which stretches back to antiquity, the Mosuo people never developed the institution of marriage common throughout the rest of the world.  Their society is matriarchal, with children remaining in their family home for their entire lives, leading to a home life full of extended family — grandmothers, uncles, cousins, and siblings all under the same roof.  Notably absent are the fathers, which is part and parcel of the Mosuo’s unique sexual mores. Men and women alike are free to have as many partners as they wish, with some caveats. First, the woman must invite the man to visit her in her house. Second, the man only visits at night, after dark, and leaves the next morning.  And finally, the relationship is typically not spoken of publicly — while relatives and others likely know who is sleeping with whom, it is the proverbial rumor mill which spreads this news.

While these rules and a tradition of sexual openness suggest that the Mosuo are the standard-bearers of polyamory, this turns out to be untrue. Monogamy, while not required by rule, has developed by custom. While relationships never turn into what we consider “marriage,” Mosuo women typically maintain only one relationship at a time.  It is considered embarrassing for a woman to not know who the father of her children are, and while fathers do not live with their children nor have a significant role in the child’s life, the fathers do celebrate their children’s births and coming of age (which occurs at 13). Anthropologists who have observed the Mosuo have termed this peculiar relationship as a “walking marriage,” one which mixes a casual intermittence with a life-long bond.

Bonus fact: In most of China, sons are preferred to daughters, as the former are considered more useful and valuable to the family.  (This, combined with a Chinese edict that only permits couples to have one or, at times, two children, has resulted in the abandonment of thousands of baby girls.) The Mosuo are an exception here, in part because all children remain in the matriarchal home for life.  But for some reason, the Mosuo prefer a gender balance in their homes, leading to an odd (but, relatively speaking, harmless) tradition, where families will swap babies in order to maintain the desired ratio of boys to girls.

Related: “A Society without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China” by Cai Hua, a story of the Mosuo.  (“Na” is a term they use among themselves as a name for their people.)  Four and a half stars on four reviews.

Originally published

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