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Sisters do it for themselves
BY Zhu Baoxia (China Daily) Updated:2004-11-30 15:40
Sisters do it for themselves
Local people at the Luoshui Village have opened inns and hotels to accommadate tourists.
Sisters do it for themselves
The Lugu Lake nestles among the green of the mountains like a hidden sapphire.
Sisters do it for themselves
A local Mosuo woman with the fiery-red headband, a practical adornment for sheltering from the sun's rays as well as looking colourful.

  Lugu Lake, a body of water deep in the mountains between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in Southwest China, is known for its peculiar natural scenery and the unique, mysterious culture of the Mosuo people.

  The place has become something of a legend because of the matriarchal system that it still upholds even today.

  This is the only place in China that still abides by this system. Women are the top leaders of the community's extensive families, and all family members are descendants of the same woman.

  There are no husbands and fathers here - lovers meet at night but live separately with their own mother's families by day.

  I stepped into this mysterious land in October, and managed close contact with the Mosuo people and their culture.

  Picture of simple joy

  There is only one way to get to Lugu Lake - drive.

  The lake is only about 270 kilometres away from the city Lijiang, but it takes some six hours to get there because of five mountains that have to be crossed, the tallest of which is about 4,000 metres above sea level.

  The road is mostly fine, but some sections are rougher than others.

  The road snakes around the mountains like a thin ribbon. Here and there, we passed through some small towns and villages, where the inhabitants still dress as they have always done, according to their ethnic styles, as they tend their sheep and cattle.

  The six-hour drive eventually brought us to the lake, in Luoshui Village.

  Here, the sky is clear and blue, reflected in the lake, which nestles among the green of the mountains like a hidden sapphire.

  The serenity has not escaped tourists, who come to be paddled across the water or led on horseback by villagers decked out in their festive costumes.

  The fiery-red headbands of the girls stand out, a practical adornment for sheltering from the sun's rays as well as looking colourful. It was already 4 o'clock in the afternoon.

  The sun was already slowly going down behind the mountains, the setting sun adding red to the blue of the water.

  We joined the other tourists to catch a boat out on the lake to watch the full glory of the sunset. These traditional boats, called "pig trough" canoes because of how they look, have been used since time immemorial.

  In fact they are so old they have a legend about them.

  It is said that the grassland in the area was once completely flooded, and a woman feeding her pigs rescued her children by putting them in one of the troughs she used.

  Her children, a daughter and a son, survived.

  They were the ancestors of the Mosuo people and pig-trough canoes became the major means of transport on the lake.

  With the development of tourism, local residents around the lake have now embraced modernity, enjoying many of the electric appliances that make their lives comfortable.

  But they still eschew motor-driven boats because of the risk of pollution, local villagers told us.

  Their words ring true - when you get to the middle of the lake, you can see about 10 metres down.

  Each canoe holds about 10 people. Two men row, a woman steers.

  "Have you seen the position of women? Men have to obey woman," said Dan Dong, our tour guide.

  Home visit

  And now for what we were really there for - to visit local families and find out more about this matriarchal system they swear is the best for them.

  Tourism has changed the community dramatically, with many people developing their homes into small hotels. One thing that has not changed is the zu wu, or grandmother's room.

  This is the sitting room, where the whole family gather around the fireplace each night to discuss family events and arrange the next day's work.

  Our hostess is 23-year-old Ake Naka. She invited us to visit her own zu wu.

  Before you enter, you must bow slightly in courtesy "to show our respect to our ancestors," said Naka.

  In the middle of the room, there is a square fireplace, with an iron rack for standing the kettle.

  On the desk in the front of the fire are the memorial tablets of the ancestors.

  "The fire must not die out for it represents the fortune of the family," she said. This fire, she claimed, had been lit for several generations.

  Naka said the fire was once used for cooking all the food, but modern times mean the family now has its own kitchen and they use it now simply for boiling water.

  There is a seating rule in Mosuo culture. The women, with the grandmother at the head, sit on the right of the fire, while the men, led by the eldest uncle, sit on the left.

  In front of the fire two wooden pillars represent the women on the right, the men on the left.

  When the children reach 13 years old, their families hold a cheng ding ceremony under one of the pillars according to their gender, to celebrate that they have become adults.

  The ceremony indicates that from then on, they are mature enough to choose their lovers and start "visiting marriages," or having sex.

  After cheng ding, girls will have their own separate bedrooms in the so-called "flower building."

  The boys still live in zu wu with the grand family because in many cases they will not spend their nights at home, but with their lovers.

  The men must return to their own houses around dawn.

  This method of love-making is the most unique characteristic of the Mosuo culture.

  They are based on the feelings of the lovers, and once they fall out of love, bid farewell peacefully and find another suitable partner, said Naka.

  When a couple first fall in love, the boy visits the girl's family to obtain tacit approval from the grandmother before he can start sleeping with her.

  But Mosuo people choose their partners very carefully. They claim it is not as casual as outsiders assume. Our guide Naka, for example, has not yet slept with anyone and says she wants to wait until she finds the right one.

  A young couple are not supposed to bed a third person at one time - so love affairs should really end before new ones begin. This is necessary to maintain the good name of the family they belong to, and prevent sullying the names of their brothers and sisters.

  And they stick to it, because they know they have to bear the whole family in mind, not just themselves, said Naka.

  The Mosuos believe that since this so-called "visiting marriage" system does not need registry, there is never any dispute over property, and the act is really a signal of their love.

  Some people do choose to register their marriages.

  Because the couples involved do not live together, the uncles of the mother's family play the role of father and help bring the children up.

  All the women in the mothers' family help take care of the child.

  Sometimes the child has difficulties knowing which is the real mother.

  If a woman does not have a child of her own, the whole family will support her when she gets old.

  Some people worry about ethics and blood relationships among the younger generation when they start sleeping around themselves.

  But when each child is a month old, a grand party is held to celebrate who is the natural father.

  Mothers of all families will attend the gathering and are told the truth.

  The "visiting marriage" system could lead one to think the Mosuo people are very casual about sex.

  In fact, sex is very rarely talked about in public, especially in the presence of people of a different gender.

  And if tourists flirt, tempers could rise. As China has opened up, the Mosuo people have had more and more contact with outsiders.

  They are as eager to know about life beyond the mountains as the tourists are to know about their own lives.

  Some of the younger generation have left their traditional homes to try out the life outside, but many have returned after trying it for a few years.

  "The longer we stay outside, the more we cherish our Mosuo culture including the sleeping arrangements. We have no disputes over property or quarrels over love affairs, there is more happiness here and life is much simpler and easier," said Dan Dong, a 29-year-old Mosuo tourist guide who returned to Lijiang after eight years' studying and working in Guangzhou and Shenzhen in South China's Guangdong Province.

  Naka's elder sister is another example.

  She worked in Shenzhen for eight years, and then decided to go back to Lugu Lake.

  Now, she is the "executive manager" of the extensive family because of her talent and experiences.

  She has a stable sleeping partner as a result of the "visiting marriages" and she already has a 4-year-old son.

  They have also allowed a few outsiders in - people who have fallen in love with the mountains and now settled here.

  The home visit over, we felt we had leaned a lot about the place and the people of Lugu Lake.

  We were blessed with a high moon that night, which turned the lake into a mirror.

  The campfire crackled in the grand village hall, and young Mosuo girls and boys in festive costumes sang and danced with the tourists.

  Language differences did not seem to matter that night, and I could not help thinking that I too should return some day.  

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