Walking Marriages

Zou hun: “Walking Marriage” in the Mosuo Tribe

[Untitled]Walking Marriages - Anthropology & the Human Condition

A man, a woman and their children form a monogamous, legalized sexual union that makes up the ideal composition of the traditional nuclear family. However, what happens when this entire convention is overturned? What happens, when there is no system of marriage, no paternal obligation to children, and women are free to begin and end sexual relationships with whichever man they choose?

Welcome to Lugu Lake.
Situated between Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, it is known as the “Kingdom of Daughters” (ABC Australia), and is home to the matrilineal and matrilocal Mosuo tribe, in which property is passed from mothers to daughters. Due to their unique custom of walking marriages, or zou hun, the Mosuo people are an exceptional interest of study. Walking marriages, as practiced by the Mosuo, occurs when a man and a woman enter into a sexual relationship. The man climbs into the woman’s private bedroom through the window at night, and climbs out through the same window before dawn breaks the next morning (Furio). Most walking marriages within the Mosuo tribe are long-term and monogamous, although they don’t necessarily have to be(Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association). Any children born out of walking marriages are taken care of by the mother’s family, with no stigma attached to not knowing the identity of the father. This practice is also entrenched in the Mosuo language, where there is no word for “father” or “husband”. Today, tourists flock to Lugu Lake to see this special culture (Shaitly).

For me, there are two issues that are particularly interesting about the Mosuo tribe’s history and current status—language as an agent of cultural beliefs,and cultural degradation and exploitation through the advent of tourism in the area.

Firstly, culture is an iterative process whereby the structure of words, grammar, styles and signifiers influences the cultural agent, in this case the Mosuo subjects or individuals, who draw on the linguistic structure to relate to others, influence action and interpret meanings. When “father” and “husband” is missing in language, it shows how there are no such relations as we know it, no actions to effect such relations, and thus these relations, whose meanings do not exist in its language, also do not exist in their culture. We can best study this phenomenon in the Mosuo tribe by assuming the role of a linguistic anthropologist, and observe how language can profoundly affect how social life is acted out.

Secondly, as tourists become more interested in the Mosuo culture (particularly their practice of walking marriages), coupled by new roads and other infrastructure built to facilitate tourism in the area, the Mosuo tribe today face the problem of cultural exploitation. This is particularly disturbing with the rise of sex workers in the area around Lugu Lake. Tourists, particularly male Chinese tourists, are under the misconception that Mosuo women are “loose”, and offer free sex because of their practice of walking marriage. To capitalize on this misconception, the capital village of Mosuo is now overrun with prostitutes--“Mosuo” women from Southeast Asian countries dressed in the traditional Mosuo garb (Shaitly). This can be viewed as a case of ethnocentrism of tourists, who judge the Mosuo by their own cultural standards and misunderstanding them. From another anthropological lens, we can also say that it is a good example of how social relationships and cultural practices have become commodified in light of cultural tourism.
In conclusion, I believe that the walking marriage system of the matrilineal Mosuo tribe presents to us a unique form of human cultural development that should be studied, preserved and cherished. This is especially true as we move towards a common global culture, where peoples across cities and cultures tend to have converging social values and beliefs. Nonetheless, those of us living in mainstream systems should count ourselves lucky, because for those who do not adhere, like the Mosuo, usually find themselves and their cultural systems (that must be so intimate, cherished and saliently part of their identity) commodified, misunderstood and misjudged by outsiders for the sake of the burgeoning tourism industry.

Works Cited
  1. Furio. Mosuo, the last (almost) matriarchal tribe. 12 May 2012. October 2012 <http://www.saporedicina.com/english/mosuo-the-last-almost-matriarchal-tribe/>.
  2. Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association. Myths & Misperceptions . 2006. October 2012 <http://www.mosuoproject.org/myths.htm>.
  3. Mosuo Women-China. ABC Australia . Journeyman Pictures. 1995.
  4. Shaitly, Shahesta. Is China's Mosuo tribe the world's last matriarchy? 19 December 2010. November 2012 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/dec/19/china-mosuo-tribe-matriarchy>

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