Love Without Boundaries

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Mosuo men call their partners ‘axia’ (intimate companion), and women call their lovers ‘azhu’

Traditional Mosuo Relationships

Text Jocelyn Lau
Photos Li Yuebo, Mosuo Feng Qin

They sound like customs that belong to a forgotten culture of an ancient community. The people do not traditionally marry, but engage uninhibitedly in consensual relationships with different and often multiple partners, as desired by each party, from the age of 13. The concept of love fidelity, in the sense that we might be accustomed to in modern-day society, does not exist. Little value is attached to the notion of possession or exclusivity, and even less to the idea of shared finances, property and responsibilities, as each partner normally remains socially and economically a part of his or her own maternal family. In addition, the concepts of ‘husband’ and ‘father’ are traditionally not a part of the Mosuo social structure. As such, children who are born of these relationships are fully accepted as members of their maternal family and brought up collectively by its members.

Mosuo family life (Image © Li Yuebo, Mosuo Feng Qin)

But these are traditions that still exist, albeit somewhat precariously and incongruously, in a rare polyandrous matrilineal Tibeto-Burman community, called the Mosuo. Having a population of about 40,000, the group lives mainly in the remote high-altitude wetland basin area in the southwestern Yongning region, and in the surrounding mountainous areas.

One of the most studied ethnicities in China, the Mosuo (pronounced ‘mwo swo’), also known by other names, including [Yongning] Na and Moso), officially belongs to the Naxi ethnic group. Believed to have originated in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), the traditions of large matrilineal households and visiting sexual unions – popularly referred to as the ‘walking’ or ‘visiting’ marriage – are based both on the view that women, by virtue of their reproductive role, provide the core and continuation of the Mosuo household, and on a strong sense of sexual individuality. Sexuality is not considered negotiable or exchangeable in Mosuo society, but remains a purely sentimental or amorous matter, implying no mutual constraints. Societal norms see the man visiting his partner in her bedroom when the other members of her household have retired for the day, often spending the night with her, but leaving to return to his maternal home early the next morning.

MOSUO RELATIONSHIPS

Sese – Mosuo love relationships – exist in two main forms: short and clandestine, as well as open and more established. The clandestine relationship is the more common of the two, and usually begins with the man taking the initiative to court his partner, often by suggesting that he visits her bedroom that night. Even without a pre-arranged date, a man might creep into the bedroom of his intended partner at night to request a union. Whatever the method used to secure companionship, the success of every relationship – long or short, a one-evening affair or a longer relationship – depends on the desire of the woman: nothing is forced.

Mosuo men are traditionally not obligated to any family structure (Image © Li Yuebo, Mosuo Feng Qin)

Being involved in a clandestine relationship does not implicitly exclude relationships with other partners. “Your xia (partner) is my xia; my xia is also your xia” is a common Na saying that reflects the fact that relationships are not meant to be exclusive to two persons at any one time, neither is continuity or commitment over any length of time taken for granted. Hence, it is quite acceptable for a clandestine relationship to take place for only one night, or over a longer period of time. By contrast, it is conventionally less common for two lovers to remain devoted to each other indefinitely.

The open relationship is relatively less common or desired. Partners whose mutual feelings have deepened may wish to formalise their relationship by way of the man being introduced to his partner’s mother, or by an exchange of gifts between the two partners. Having the status of an open partner allows the man to arrive a little earlier and a little less secretly than previously for his nighttime visits. In the morning, he still returns to his own home, though he now may do so a little later, and he may sometimes be invited to have a meal in the morning in the main room. Also, he no longer needs to avoid meeting the household members. 

While there is a tacit agreement between the two open partners to reserve sexual privilege for each other, there is no public censure against having clandestine partners at the same time. Being in an open relationship does not necessarily mean a long-term partnership any more than a clandestine relationship does, however. Individual desire remains the fundamental, decisive and imperative factor, and the relationship may end at any time.

Whatever form the relationship takes, lovers invariably remain socially and economically a part of their respective maternal households. There are no economic entitlements or obligations that bind them. The man has neither the obligation to provide for the children that may result from the liaisons, nor a say in matters concerning them. The children, in turn, are not responsible for taking care of their biological father.

For the Mosuo, individual wishes are the fundamental and decisive factor behind relationships (Image © Li Yuebo, Mosuo Feng Qin)

Contemporary Influences

Between the late 1950s and the early 1980s, the Chinese government used persuasion, coercion and, later, education to try to end sese relationships and to alter traditional family structures, by pressurising the Mosuo people to marry and to begin nuclear families, with men as the head of the household. Government propaganda told the Mosuo that their household structures were backward and immoral, and that sexual freedom must be ended to enable civilisation to take place. The matrimonial reform caused deep disruption in the Mosuo social fabric, causing matrilineal families to break up and young couples to be alienated from their traditional
support systems.

In the post-Cultural Revolution years, while sese relations have continued to exist alongside legal marriages, modern influences such as tourism, the media and migration have brought about significant changes within the community.

In some Mosuo villages, such as the Lugu Lake Provincial Tourism Area in Luo Shui County, the economy is heavily dependent on tourism, sometimes including incomes from prostitution. Educational materials in government schools reflect the lifestyle and expectations of the larger Chinese society; the television and other media expose the Mosuo members to the different lifestyles of communities in the rest of the world. Economic reforms and greater mobility throughout China mean that growing numbers of young people are leaving their hometown for better educational and economic opportunities. The question of whether an age-old custom will eventually be eroded by external pressures and changes, or achieve a delicate balance – as if in an open relationship with the world – between the old and the new, remains to be seen.

For more stories and photos, check out Asian Geographic Issue 120.

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