Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Last of the Matriarchal Society

In June 2007 I visited a near-extinct minority tribe in in the north-western part of Yunnan. They are called the Mosuo People and stay around the Lugu Lake. They can not get the formal government status of a Tribe because they have less than 30,000 population in total. Apparently this tribe has come to be known by the outside world only about fifty years back, and has a matriarchal structure in their society. What does this mean?

Well, the mother heads the family to start with. The Chinese literature describes them as the "female kingdom". Secondly, their traditional marriage style is unique. The boy comes to the girl's house in the night after dark to mate with her and leaves before sunrise. After the lady conceives and gives birth to a child, the child adopts a family name that follows the mother. The identity of the biological father will be formally made known to the child when he/she grows up and gets initiated in a formal ceremony at the age of 11.

Among the Mosuo People, the mother makes all the decisions for the family. The child's maternal uncle will be the "father image" for the child. If the child has a maternal aunt, then she will play the role of a second mother for the child. In the meanwhile, the child's biological father will stay in his own home and will play the role of the "father image" for his own niece/nephew.

The Mosuo People have their own primitive religion and worships gods associated with the natural forces such as the Wind, the Fire, the Earth etc. Some of them worships Tibetan Buddhism in addition, as they find no conflict between the two.

With the opening up of these people to city life and modern schooling, their culture is being fast eroded. When interviewed, they admit that they are facing a turning point in their cultural history. Their children face problems with school registration when they are asked for their parents' identities. From the Chinese government's point of view the current generation of Mosuo People are allowed the option of following conventional marriage rites and procedures like everybody else.

No one knows how long more will the cultural identity of the Mosuo People will last before they merge culturally and completely with the Han Chinese.

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