Photo Essay: China’s Matriachal Kingdom

Posted February 12, 2013 by Nellie Huang in Photo Essay

A look at the last matriarchal kingdom in the world

By Tracy Zhang | Originally published in  WildJunket Magazine Issue 5 (Winter 2012)


ne night after I turned 13, I rowed across the lake to her house. It was 2am when I knocked on her window. But she didn’t let me in. I went back every night for seven more years before she finally did.”

On the bumpy mountain roads to Lugu Lake, our driver and local guide, Jing Ke, tells us stories from his childhood, beginning with his own love story. At 8,800 feet (2,700 meters) above sea level, Lugu Lake – on the border of China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces – wins the hearts of many with its deep blue water and fresh mountain air. But visitors come for more than the natural scenery.

For thousands of years, Lugu Lake has been home to the Mosuo tribe, believed to be one of the world’s last matriarchal societies. In their world, women make the major household decisions. They control finances, receive the right to property, and have full custody of their children. Generations live together, with the grandmother as the head of the household.

The Mosuos never marry either; instead, they practice a tradition known as “walking marriage.”

The Mosuos never marry either; instead, they practice a tradition known as “walking marriage.” They enter adulthood at 13 years old. From then on, women can take as many lovers as they wish over the course of their lives. Just as Jing Ke describes, male companions visit the women’s homes at night, in secrecy, and return to their own homes in the early morning. Any resulting children are raised solely by the woman’s family. Although he is in his 30s, Jing Ke, like most people in his tribe, has never met his father.

“Do you have any kids?” My travel companion blurts out upon learning the concept of “walking marriage.”

“Probably.” Jing Ke shrugs nonchalantly, for there is no stigma among Mosuos in not knowing one’s own father.

As our van climbs further up the mountain, Jinke explains that Mosuo lovers take no vows to stay together through sickness and health, nor through the good times and the bad. They simply maintain the relationship when they’re happy, and break it when they’re not. And although some Mosuos stay monogamous for life, I am told that this is the exception, not the rule.

When we ask to hear the ending of Jinke’s childhood love story, he remains silent. Instead, he goes on to describe his other girlfriends past and present. But later, in a private conversation, I ask if he’s happy with his current love life.

“It is the way of the Mosuos.” He smiles.

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