Monday, September 19, 2005

No In-Laws, and a Place To Hang Your Hat

Fascinating article at BBC News about a traditional culture in China that is anything but "traditional" in terms of its social structure:
Tourists come to Lugu Lake for the beauty and tranquillity. The still azure waters are surrounded by densely forested mountains, and the homes are made of natural timber with colourful Tibetan-style window shutters and balconies.

But that is not the only reason the tourists come. Visitors also beat a path to the region because of their fascination with the unique social structure of the Mosuo people, which is very different from that of China's other 54 ethnic groups.

"Mosuo women have the responsibility for all family affairs," explained 42-year-old Ruhen Zashi Chili, in the lakeside hamlet of Lou Shui.

"And most importantly, women determine the family line and only women have the right to inherit."

Traditionally, sons live with their mothers, while their fathers have little to do with the child's welfare.

In fact, in the Mosuo language, the word "father" does not even exist, and neither does the concept of in-laws.
It's unclear what factors are responsible for the Mosuo's unusual social arrangements - the article mentions the lure of the Silk Road, which led many Mosuo men far away from home. But what developed among the Mosuo is so different from traditional Han society that I'm reminded how so much of what we sometimes take for granted as being "traditional" or "natural" forms of social structures are just one of the many ways that human beings have devised to live with each other.

For instance, according to this article, marriages in their more traditional forms did not exist among the Mosuo:
Love affairs were encouraged - but only "walking marriages" took place, in which men could visit at night so long as they returned to their mother's home before breakfast.
In a "walking marriage," the man enters the woman's home by the back door of the house, or if necessary, climbs in through the window. The man then hangs his hat outside the window to inform others that he's inside.
Mosuo relationships are uncomplicated. There are no formalities binding a couple together. If complacency sets in, they just stop seeing each other.

In a 'walking marriage', you have to enter the girl's home by the back door or climb up through the window... We then hang our hat outside the window to tell others that there's a man inside.

"The advantage of our walking marriage is that we don't have the in-law problem to deal with. But the Han Chinese have this problem," said 17-year-old Bima Qizou, who described Mosuo relationships as "pure love".

"Our love is direct! If we love each other, we tell each other directly. We don't consider family background, social position and economic standing."
With the influx of tourists, Han Chinese and the inevitable intrusion of the 21st century, it's uncertain how much, if any, of the Mosuo's traditions will survive. For the immediate future, their economic security may depend on their draw as a tourist destination - selling handicrafts and souvenirs and performing traditional songs, ballads once sung by the women to attract a lover. Now, as the article puts it, the future for the Mosuo of Lugu Lake may be "as a reality show about their lost culture."

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