Where women are family leaders and flexible marriages with few rules are the norm

The Mosuo people of southwest China are among the few surviving matrilineal societies, with ‘walking marriage’ at its core

Mosuo are a small ethnic group living in Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces in China, close to the border with Tibet.  (Photo by Jacques Langevin/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

In the village of Walabi on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in southwestern China, the houses are built in a quadrangle with a flag on the rooftop at one end. This marks the grandmother’s room, where the head of the household lives and presides over an extended family in which kinship is traced exclusively through the maternal line of descent.

The Mosuo people, who have lived here for more than a thousand years, are among the world’s few surviving matrilineal societies where children belong only to their mother’s family and property is passed down the maternal line.

“There are 97 households in our village, with more than 460 people, and all but five or six of them are matrilineal,” says Yang Chenglong as we sit in his courtyard in the centre of the village following a lunch of barbecued pork and vegetables.

The Mosuo people number about 50,000 and most live in villages such as Walabi, where the economy is based on agriculture. Lake Lugu, about 45km away, is a busy tourist attraction but Yang says few outsiders visit his village.


Yang (38), whose Mosuo name is A Qi Ni Ma Ci Er, grew up in his grandmother’s household, where his mother was one of six daughters. By the time he was born, there were 14 people in the family, and as he got older, it grew bigger.

“My mother has two children, my brother and me. And my third, fourth, fifth and sixth aunts each had three children. We had a lot of aunts in the family, so that meant there were a lot of mothers and children.”

At the centre of the Mosuo system of family organisation is the “walking marriage”, an open arrangement based entirely on the mutual consent of the two people involved. Under the system, a woman will invite a man to spend the night at home with her but he will return to his own household in the morning.

“If the two families live close to each other, the young man will come over after dinner in the evening, and he will sit by the fire with her family or go directly to the young woman’s room. Early the next morning, before breakfast, the young man will leave. If the families are far apart, the young man will stay with the young woman for a while,” says Cao Jianping, a retired primary schoolteacher who heads an organisation devoted to promoting Mosuo culture.

“My uncle’s marriage partner lived far from his home, about 12km, and he rode back and forth on horseback every day. When the farm was busy, my uncle would go to live at the house of his walking marriage partner for a while.”

Any children born from a walking marriage will grow up in their mother’s household while the father continues to live with the family he was born into. The children’s welfare is the responsibility of their mother’s household, where their uncle will often be the main breadwinner.

“Generally speaking, the mother is in charge of the family’s finances, and the uncle makes money to support the family,” says Cao.

“The uncle has great responsibilities: he has to take care of his sister and sister’s children as well as his own children who live in other families, his walking marriage family. If the circumstances of his walking marriage family are good, the uncle will only contribute a little for courtesy. If the family is in difficulties, the uncle has to help them.”

There are no rules in a walking marriage about how long a relationship should last or whether it should be exclusive. Because the couple usually don’t live together, they meet only when both of them choose to.

“This should be controlled by their feelings, not by one person. If the relationship between the two parties is good, they’ll be in contact frequently,” says Cao. “And whether the woman or the man will have a relationship with other people at the same time is also determined by their feelings.

“In the past, separating was very easy because there was no marriage certificate. If one party did not want to continue, the man or the woman made it clear, and the man naturally did not come to the woman’s house again. Of course, there are individual cases where the man disappears suddenly because of something he did.”

In the 1970s, the Communist Party launched a campaign to encourage the Mosuo to abandon their large, matrilineal households in favour of the conventional nuclear family. For the first time couples were required to get married officially by registering their unions with the state.

The campaign had an impact at the start, and some bigger households broke up as couples moved in together. But although most now obtain a marriage licence, they carry on living in separate households as before.

“We are still in a form of walking marriage, and the property still belongs to our own families. If I’m a girl, my property still belongs to my mother’s family,” says Cao.

“The two parties still belong to their own family and their belongings in terms of the ownership of their properties are very clear. Therefore, if the Mosuo people have a bad relationship and they want to get separated, there are no troublesome property disputes and no disputes over child support.”

You may think that our family structure is backward, but we Mosuo people think that our family structure is actually more flexible and free

—  Yang Chenglong

People here are free to adopt any form of family organisation that works for them, and large matrilineal families have always coexisted with smaller ones. A survey Cao conducted of one village last year found that about 70 per cent of people there chose a walking marriage.

Even among Mosuo people who live outside the villages, the walking marriage system is often seen as the best option. Cao speaks about a young couple who are married and who both worked in the same hotel away from their home villages.

“There is no concept of joint property,” says Cao. “They each used their own wage to support their own family. This young couple felt very natural doing things this way and so did their mothers. The girl’s mother didn’t expect her son-in-law to give her any of the money he earned, while the boy’s mother didn’t expect her daughter-in-law should give her any money.”

When Yang was growing up, his eldest aunt left the family to head the household of her walking marriage partner, which had no female members. When his grandmother died, his fourth-eldest aunt was chosen as the new head of the family because her sisters considered her temperamentally the most suitable for the role.

When the household grew to more than 60 members, some parts of the family split off to form new households but all remained within the matrilineal structure. Yang believes that the flexibility the Mosuo tradition permits is part of the reason the system continues to flourish.

“You may think that our family structure is backward, but we Mosuo people think that our family structure is actually more flexible and free. It can be changed according to the needs of family development. Whether or not to separate your family or to live with your siblings is based on your own family’s needs.”

“We Mosuo people follow the old myths and stories our elders taught us. These teachings do not teach us what we can’t do, but only teach us to have harmony and unity in our families. On this basis, our family structure can be diverse, as long as it is beneficial to the development of our family.”

Yang studied agriculture, forestry and economic management before returning to Walabi to work on the farm and to run the family handicrafts workshop. His mother makes handwoven scarves, shawls and other garments from cotton and wool which they sell online and through a shop in Lijiang, a city about four hours’ drive away.

Like most Mosuo people, Yang feels free to adopt any form of family structure but his preference is for the walking marriage.

“If you are in a walking marriage, your life will not change much. Otherwise, when you get married, there are a lot of changes, the simplest being that you have to move to a new place to live and you have to adapt to all kinds of differences,” he says.

“Different family models need to have different marriage patterns to match them. And we Mosuo people use our moral standards to constrain ourselves, which is a kind of Mosuo culture, a more flexible way of marriage in our Mosuo community, and we cannot simply evaluate the marriage model of our Mosuo people from the perspective of urban life. The environment in which we live is different, and the approach we take is different.”

Women don’t feel inferior, they have a sense of their place in the family, women are not discriminated against and men and women are equal

Although the Mosuo family structure is matrilineal, it is not necessarily matriarchal, and both Yang and Cao say it is a misperception by outsiders that women are viewed as superior to men. The two genders are seen as equal, something that was an anomaly throughout much of the history of China, where women were viewed as commodities for centuries.

Even after the communist revolution, which officially embraced gender equality, women took second place in Chinese society and all members of the current politburo are men. Cao believes that, for women, the walking marriage system offers a number of advantages.

“I think the biggest thing is that women don’t feel inferior, they have a sense of their place in the family,” she says. “Women are not discriminated against, and men and women are equal. When women grow up, they have emotional autonomy in terms of choosing their own relationship. Women still own their property and they have the right to inherit property. I think with these points, women’s rights and interests can definitely be protected, and women will feel very happy.”

The authorities have long since abandoned efforts to change how the Mosuo people live, and they now encourage expressions of their distinctive culture. Cao promotes wider understanding of Mosuo culture throughout China and overseas and she believes the community is increasingly confident in talking about its traditions.

“In the past we were relatively closed, and we didn’t care what the outside world thought about us,” she says. “We lived our lives on our own terms. But then tourism came, people from outside came, and everyone felt that the Mosuo culture was very mysterious but they did not understand it. So we hope that everyone can know the real Mosuo culture and not distort it. We Mosuo people don’t think it’s shameful to have a walking marriage.”

Yang regularly hosts ethnographic researchers from Yunnan University who come to Walabi to study the life of the Mosuo people. He has turned part of his property into a gallery with displays illustrating various elements of the community’s history, culture and traditions.

“As Mosuo people, we feel that one of the better things about our traditional habits is that our traditional customs are very easy-going, and we can adapt to different environments,” he says.

“I think our way of life is better. At the very least, our community is one where there are no elderly people alone and no orphans, and it is a community where brothers and sisters can live together in harmony.”