A Disappearing World: The Mosuo People and the Challenges of Cultural Preservation

When she was studying in middle school, Zhaxinam would meet tourists every time she took the bus home. They would ask her if she was a Mosuo, and the following questions were almost always the same –

Do you know who your father is? Do you know who your mother is?

On the banks of Lugu Lake in northwest Yunnan Province, my country, there lives a special ethnic group. They are the Mosuo people, with a population of about 20,000. Because of the “walking marriage” culture where lovers “come together at night and divorce in the morning”, “men do not marry, women do not marry”, and the lifestyle of a large matrilineal family, they became popular on the Internet and were also known as the “daughter country” and “daughter country”. The living fossil of the matrilineal clan”.

In recent years, “walking marriage”, as an important part of Mosuo culture, is no longer as grand as it used to be. With an increasing number of people going out, fewer and fewer young people choose “walking marriage”.

Under the great wheel of the times, the Mosuo people are actively or passively integrating into modern civilization.

What kind of “past and present lives” do the Mosuo people have? How will they cope with irreversible modernization under the tide of the times?

Living in a large family of dozens of people, when she was young, Zashinam “couldn’t tell which one was her biological mother.” This phenomenon is not an isolated case, many Mosuo children have had similar experiences.

In Mosuo language, the mother’s sisters are all called “Ama”, and the only difference between the first aunt and the second aunt is “big mother” and “little mother”. Coupled with the fact that elders have no selfish intentions towards the children, it becomes even more difficult to identify the biological mother.

“Every child will enjoy a lot of love from adults. For example, if my aunt has delicious food, she will not give it to her own children first, but share it equally with each child.”

Despite living a barren life in rural Yunnan in the 1980s with “basically no meat to eat,” Zhaxinam still spent her childhood in love.

When she was in elementary school, Zashinam’s task after school every day was to go to the fields to cut pig grass. She usually made appointments with a few friends to “play and work at the same time.” On weekends, the tasks assigned to them by their parents will increase. They have to find two or three times more hogweed to take home than usual. This is the time when Zahinam is most proud. She and her friends will take the opportunity to jump into the Lugu Lake to swim and play. .

There is a plant called sea cauliflower (also known as “water poplar”) that grows in the lake, and pigs like to eat its leaves. While swimming, Zhaxinam dived underwater to collect green leaves. “We just did this job while swimming and playing,” she said.
The lakeside is also associated with Ruheng Dorje’s beautiful memories.

Ruheng Dorji, 48, is the director of the Mosuo Museum and is happy to talk about his past life. His first impression of Lugu Lake was “beautiful” and “pure”. Ruheng Dorje remembers that there were tall trees growing on the natural beach beside Lugu Lake. He and his friends often hid under the trees and played while the old people gathered together to chat.

He also likes to run wildly all over the mountains and fields with his friends. The mountains and fields are natural playgrounds for children.

Compared to Tashi Nam, Ruheng Dorje’s life was even poorer when he was young. The family was short of supplies and had to share many items. Ruheng Dorje and his brothers and sisters always wore the few clothes they had. I didn’t wear underwear until I was a teenager. The rural people at that time “didn’t have the concept” at all.

Ruheng Dorje was very playful when he was a child, and the fabric on his butt was frayed, so his mother found another piece of fabric and sewed it up for him stitch by stitch. Life is tight, but “the home is very warm” and “the spirit is very rich.”

He also misses his grandma often. When I was a child, the chickens raised at home would lay eggs, and my grandma would pick them up and cook them for Ruheng Dorje to eat. The old man often carries small snacks such as dried apples and pears in his pocket, and he brings them to him when he meets.

These images seem to be engraved in Ruheng Dorje’s mind. As soon as he hears the corresponding keywords, memories come out automatically.

In a large Mosuo family, there is not only a family culture, but also a family name, which is “not a man’s surname, not a woman’s surname, but a surname shared by everyone.”

Marriage does not exist. Both parties still live in the original family. There is no entanglement of interests. There is no need to care about the family situation, betrothal gifts, or the approval of the elders. “It is a fully free love.”

There is a saying that says, “Love belongs to you, and family ties belong to everyone.” Walking marriage is your own business, and no one will care about who you like.

Ruheng Dorje missed the freedom of his early years. He was in a remote and quiet place, where people worked at sunrise and rested at sunset. People in the villages valued etiquette and etiquette, and everyone showed a simple and friendly side.
Looking back now, it was really a “paradise feeling”.

I don’t know at what moment, the beauty in the natural ecology and the carefree days of childhood are gone forever. Lugu Lake is no longer what it used to be. With the development of tourism, big trees by the lake have been cut down, wooden houses have been converted into cement houses, and natural beaches have been built into plank roads. Looking around, there are traces of industry all around. Ruheng Dorje has never been able to accept such ” Contrast”.

Many times, when walking in familiar places and seeing new names growing on the streets, Ruheng Dorje felt that he was a stranger. He felt lonely and had a sense of strangeness facing the land where he had been born and raised. “The whole environment has completely changed.”

Zhaxinam also clearly felt the “contrast”. She recalled that when she was a child in her hometown, she saw few tourists. Occasionally, foreigners come with travel bags on their backs, and everyone looks at them curiously, “When we saw them at that time, we thought it was strange. There are people with such skin?”

When she was a little older, more and more outsiders gathered by the Lugu Lake, and B&Bs and inns came into being. Those who needed to use horses to carry wood from the mountains to build their houses gradually became interested in cement tiles. Young people in every big family are more interested in splitting off and forming their own small family.

“The development of scenic spots is getting better and better, and everyone wants to part with it, because with homesteads and accounts, they can rent out their yards and collect rent.” Zhaxinam explained.

In Lugu Lake, working methods have also undergone great changes. Works such as chopping wood and plowing that previously required manual labor, oxen and horses, have been replaced by efficient machines. This means that the male in the family is “no longer wanted.”

Zhaxinam said that the brothers and uncles who are idle are enjoying an abundant material life day by day, but their spiritual life has not been improved. At a loss what to do, they found reasons to be lazy and indulgent, and immersed themselves in smoking, drinking, and playing cards all day long.

Once, she asked her uncle, “Why do you like drinking so much?” The other person sighed, “What can I do without drinking?”

This is the epitome of the male members of every extended family, and this is where conflicts arise.

Men no longer work hard, but women still have no less burdens. “They do more three meals a day, including home hygiene and all yard work.”

Originally, the finances in each large family were managed by one person. When they made money, they earned it together and when they spent it, they spent it together. All decisions were based on common needs, similar to a “form of communism.” Zhaxinam remembers that her aunt used to be in charge of the money in her family. Later, her parents chose to go out to do business, and they gradually separated from the large family of 20 or 30 people and started their own business.

The impact of tourism is also dismantling some of the inherent culture of the Mosuo people, such as walking marriage. Regarding this topic, Ruheng Dorje has more desire to express himself. According to him, more than 3,000 years ago, the Mosuo people were far away in Qinghai, Gansu, and the Yellow River Basin. In order to avoid war, they had to start a long migration.

During the migration process, the Mosuo people had to deal with problems such as weather changes and wild beast attacks. In order to ensure the better reproduction of the race, they created large matrilineal families in walking marriages.

The essence of walking marriage is that at night, a man can meet the woman of his choice and return to his family during the day.

“In this way, my mother, uncle, and relatives in the matrilineal blood system will always live together, everyone will be reunited, and all property will be shared. It will also be convenient to care for each other and the elderly.”

In summary, the formation of the Mosuo matrilineal family is bound to the walking marriage model. When this large family began to split into different small families, the walking marriage model was also abandoned to varying degrees.

Zhaxinam’s marriage did not follow the walking marriage model of the Mosuo people. She and her husband met through the Internet. “At that time, the WeChat shake (function) had just come out, and it was amazing. He was in Sichuan and I was in Yunnan. ( That’s it) we rocked it.”

In 1997, 22-year-old Ruheng Dorje had already made some achievements in the local area. He was the captain of the horse riding team, the leader of the rowing team, the host of the bonfire party, and was also responsible for tourism industry-related work in the village. After his career improved slightly, Ruheng Dorje was no longer satisfied with the ordinary output of labor and wanted to really do something “valuable”.

In the early years, he worked in an ethnic tourist area in Dalian, performing traditional dances of the Mosuo people. After work, he would also visit local museums. The inspiration for the Mosuo Museum came from what he saw during this time.

Another key factor is his grandmother. Ruheng Dorje’s grandmother is a textile expert. Some of the utensils have been used in her hands for many years, and gradually developed a layer of patina, which “looks very spiritual at first sight.” But after grandma passed away, wooden ladles, wooden toys, stones and other objects were “thrown everywhere, exposed to the wind and sun in the corner, like dead bodies.”

Ruheng Dorje felt sad. He wanted to pick up these old things and package them together with the Mosuo people’s culture. As a result, a museum related to the Mosuo people was born.

Ruheng Dorje’s brother was not optimistic about his approach and repeatedly advised him to change his mind. “Build a hotel or rent this land to others, and you will be living well in a few years,” the brother said.

“Rent of five to six hundred thousand yuan a year” is indeed a great temptation. A few years ago, a little daughter was added to the family, and Ruheng Dorje had a heavier burden. Coincidentally, during the epidemic, his eldest brother and sister were hospitalized due to illness, and the museum’s operation was once unsustainable.

Ruheng Dorje seriously considered what to do next. Fortunately, with the help of friends, the “hole” was filled again.

After experiencing several twists and turns and surviving in danger, he finally confirmed his inner thoughts, “A person can’t just do it for money in life… We finally built such a place and then destroyed it, then I may feel guilty for the rest of my life.” , will all be sad.”

Even though he was not favored, Ruheng Dorje still regarded the construction of the Mosuo Museum as an important direction in his life. In the early preparations, he went to some villages to conduct research, took pictures while walking with the machine, and saved the phenomena he heard and saw into video data.

For him, who has lived by the lake since childhood, the process of running has led him to explore a lot of information that he didn’t know much about before.

Ruheng Duoji found that the living environment, economy, and education of the Mosuo people in different regions are very different. Some Mosuo people’s ancestors were affected by external factors during their cultural inheritance, and some things were gradually changed.

By visiting the Mosuo ethnic group, he “gained a deep understanding of his own culture.” Ruheng Dorje put the core and most valuable things on display in the museum, hoping to preserve the soul of Mosuo culture.

In 2019, the Mosuo Museum was recognized as a branch of the Yunnan Provincial Museum, “recognized by this kind of museum in the province.” Later, with their assistance, the Yunnan Provincial Museum “made a Mosuo family marriage exhibition,” which won the national It won the title of “Boutique Exhibition” and was able to tour the country. This is by far the most fulfilling moment in Ruheng Dorje’s eyes.

He can accept that under the tide of the times, Mosuo culture is declining due to the impact of modern civilization. “There are more and more foreign cultures… When the mainstream culture falls like a mountain, you have no way not to adapt to it. This is a big problem.” the trend of.”
But you can’t do nothing.

In the context of the times, Ruheng Dorje believes that what he can do is to try his best to present “excellent things”. “At least one day in the future, our ethnic group will know how our ancestors lived. This is also its purpose.” A little bit of value.”

He wants to better preserve the overall picture of Mosuo culture so that more people can understand it, and also hopes to clarify the misunderstanding of the Mosuo people by the outside world.

Some books mentioned that the Mosuo people are “living fossils of the matrilineal clan”, and on social platforms, many people label the Mosuo people as “females with strong power and high status”. In Ruheng Dorje’s view, this is not It’s not accurate, it’s even a rumor.

“The matriarchal system is completely different from our customs.”

“In the concept of our Mosuo people, there are three types of people, one is men, one is women, and one is wise – our priest Daba (the transliteration of “wise man” in Tibetan). That is, men have the nature of men. Yes, women have their own talents… There is no distinction between male and female rights in marriage and family in Mosuo, men and women are equal and the same.”

Ruheng Dorje believes that “matriarchal culture exists” among the Mosuo people, but it cannot be called a matriarchal society. Generally speaking, Mosuo people are “people-oriented and pay attention to humanity.”

In recent years, the unique walking marriage model of the Mosuo people has attracted many outsiders.

When she was studying in middle school, Zhaxinam would meet tourists every time she took the bus home. They would ask her if she was a Mosuo, and the following questions were almost always the same –

Do you know who your father is? Do you know who your mother is?

More people come here out of curiosity, “They want to see if this place can really find a girl casually…” Zashinam said that sometimes, in order to please the guests, the driver will also ask for a girl based on what the other person wants. Talking about the answers you want to hear leads to “the real voice being buried.”
Misunderstandings also arise from within.

When Lugu Lake was promoting to the outside world, it once gave itself the title of “daughter country”, which made Ruheng Dorji very dissatisfied. “These words may attract some guests, but this is not the core culture of Lugu Lake.”

In Ruheng Dorje’s view, the most worthy of publicity for the Mosuo people is their large, happy family. He also disagrees with the names given to some scenic spots, including Lover’s Beach and Wedding Walking Bridge. “In Mosuo culture, these are shy cultures and are not allowed to be spoken out in public.”

Zhaxinam once read about the so-called “shy culture” in a book. She is not sure whether this expression is accurate, but “it is indeed like this” in the families around her and in her own family. The elders never discuss it with them. The walking marriage culture among ethnic groups “seems like ‘love’ and ’emotion’ are too embarrassed to be spoken out.”

In her hometown, she had never seen any lovers being intimate in the street. At most, they walked side by side or held arms, and “there was no flirting.”

In the first twenty years of his life, Zashinam went out to study and work. In recent years, he returned to his hometown and opened a B&B. Customers often ask her when chatting with her, why don’t you get married in a walking distance?

“I said, this thing is not something you can just walk away if you want…it has certain conditions, and it has to be very close to the village or neighboring villages.” Only by having a basis for easy movement can the walking marriage model be achieved.

“If you don’t move around, and there is no form of moving around, I don’t think it’s called a walking marriage.” She took her cousin as an example. Every night, her cousin went to live with her cousin’s sister-in-law, and during the day she went back to work at her aunt’s house in Zashinam. This is very difficult. A standard walking marriage.

Zhaxinam was born in 1988. Fewer people of her age, or younger people born in the 1990s, choose walking marriages. “After you go out to work, you don’t know where your destiny is.” Moreover, accept it. It is difficult for young people with more education to find someone of the same gender as themselves in the village.
With more people traveling abroad, cultural inheritance will naturally face difficulties.

The children know less about their own culture and don’t even know much about the Mosuo language. The children of Zashinam can only understand simple Mosuo vocabulary. She feels that this has a lot to do with the lack of learning atmosphere. After leaving the original Mosuo family, it is difficult to have a pure communication environment.

When Zhaxinam was raising her children, she rarely used Mosuo. “Mandarin is more friendly and more vivid, and it is easy to express one thing or thing well. Mosuo is more difficult because it has fewer words.” “When wanting to communicate feelings with her children, Zhaxinam often found that there were no suitable words for her to express them.
Slowly, Mosuoyu withdrew from her small family.

Facing the Mosuo culture, Ruheng Dorje has a stubborn attitude. He already has his own small family, and his wife works as a civil servant in Lijiang. However, in order to let his children better understand and inherit the national culture, he insists on letting his children grow up in a big family and often takes them to museums. Mosuo language is the mother tongue of children.

“This is the most basic thing for people born in this ethnic group. If the mother tongue is no longer available and one’s own culture cannot be understood, then it is meaningless.”

Ruheng Dorje understands that everyone lives in a different era and has a different destiny. He hopes that his children will understand where they come from and “where their roots are” by understanding their own culture.
As for where they will go in the future, “it depends on their personal fate.”

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