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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 September 2005, 23:40 GMT 00:40 UK
The Chinese region with women in charge
By Nick Mackie
BBC News, Lugu Lake, south-west China

Zaxi Zouma
Zaxi Zouma can now afford for her children to go to school
For centuries, the Mosuo women sang haunting ballads on Lugu Lake to arouse their lovers' passions.

Now they sing to satisfy the tourists, but 42-year-old Zaxi Zouma is not complaining.

Immaculate in her bright traditional head-dress and turquoise tunic, life for her today is a far cry from the 1990s, when she toiled the fields to earn a meagre wage.

Now, instead of farming and fishing for survival, she earns $300 per month in the peak season - meaning she can afford to educate her family.

"In the past, even if you wanted to go to school, there was no money, " she said. "But now, we have children who go to university and our living standards are improving."

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.

'Walking marriages'

Centuries ago, while the women ran the home, some men would become monks while others would trade along the Silk Road to India.

So the women began running society and did not marry, opting instead to look after maternal households that spanned four generations.

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.

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.
He Ji (right), with Bima Qizou

"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."

Today, money seems central to life in Lou Shui. Men in cowboy hats deliver vegetables to the tourist areas, while women sell apples from huge wicker baskets strung over their backs.

At street level, all of the impressive two and three-storey log tourist lodges are divided into shop units. Many sell souvenirs, fabrics or jewellery, and there are bars, an internet cafe and even a massage business.

Even the nightly festivities around the bonfire, where women traditionally choose their lovers, is now brassy theatre, where intrigued - mainly male - visitors are urged to join in the singing and dancing.

At $1 per head admission, such an event is a good earner.

Rapid change

After dark, in the narrow, muddy lanes, young Han women discreetly enquire if men want to be "comfortable".

Outsiders are now moving to Lugu Lake and investing in businesses - some welcomed by the locals, others not.

There are now mixed marriages in Lou Shui, while younger Mosuo people are going away to study - their return uncertain.

Cao Suan Fang's lodge
Cao Suan Fang's family now runs a 60-bedroom tourist lodge
Cao Suan Fang and her family now own a 60-bedroom tourist lodge, which surrounds their original house.

Her formal Mosuo title is Dabu - or head of household. She was chosen for the role 12 years ago because her mother had no interest in building the family business.

"She's only interested in Buddhism and praying. Therefore I had to take this on," Cao Suan Fang said affectionately.

Mindful of the fact that she has no sisters and only one daughter, she fears for the future of the Mosuo culture and the matriarchal family - especially if the girls leave the lakeside or marry outsiders.

"I'm worried. Because of the impact from other cultures, television programmes and the internet... there could well be change," she said.

Now that it is on the tourist trail, Lou Shui has changed beyond all recognition. And the rest of the 20,000-strong Mosuo people in this region want a share of the 21st Century too.

On the other side of Lugu Lake, in Sichuan province, you can already see the unrelenting march of change.

Every few kilometres, tourist lodges are going up - and to make sure that the tourism industry can grow, the bumpy, muddy roads are being improved.

Local labourers earning under $3 per day use rocks blasted from the mountains to make new roads and so connect poorer villages with the new economy.

Money is scarce today - but it is on its way, providing better homes, healthcare and education, all of which should bring a better standard of living.

But for many of those who stay around Lugu Lake, their future may be as performers like Zaxi Zouma - in a reality show about their lost culture.

Country profile: China
02 Jun 05 |  Country profiles


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