By far the most remarkable tale of the Mosuo tribe is their story of love. Walking marriage is the most talked of, most bandied about narrative to come out of the Mosuo way of life. Anthropologists and sociologists focus on the phenomenon, writers pen volumes on the subject and documentary filmmakers produce countless episodes on the theme. It is also the most misunderstood concept to come out of the Kingdom of Women.
Mosuo walking marriage is no marriage at all, if we understand marriage to be a relationship between a husband and a wife, with the pair forming the core building block of a permanent nuclear family. Mosuo society has no notion of marriage and equally no conception of a ‘husband’ or a ‘wife’ within the family. The ‘walking’ or ‘visiting’ part of the phrase merely refers to the act of a man walking to or visiting a woman’s place for a night of pleasure. It is unique and so different from marriage in patriarchal terms that it is impossible to make any direct comparison between the two. It took me years before I got my head around its meaning and manifestations.
The original word from the Mosuo language, refers to the ‘visit’ as sese (pronounced as ‘say-say’). Stripped of its romanticism, sese in its raw form is what a woman and a man do together in private.
During my first stay in a Mosuo bed-and-breakfast inn, I was pleased to be invited to an after-dinner chat with the family by the hearth. Holding court in the family room was the grandmother. With her were her two grown-up daughters, one in her 40s and the other in her 30s. The grandmother introduced me to her two teenage grandchildren, born of the elder daughter, and a year-old toddler, born to the younger daughter. As we sipped tea, a middle-aged man arrived on his motorbike and joined us for tea. He exchanged pleasantries with the grandmother but did not bother with the teenagers or the baby. Just then, the younger daughter stood up to leave the room with the man, directing an instruction to her teenage niece.
‘Look after the little one, will you?’
The teenager nodded. Her aunt walked out of the room, followed by the man, and I could hear their footsteps traipsing up the wooden stairs outside, likely on their way to her room. It dawned on me that the man must have been her axia (lover), and they were in a walking-marriage relationship.
I raised an eyebrow to myself, pleased that I had come so close to witnessing an episode of sese in real time. It was rare to catch something so private that even family members are usually kept from the secret, at least in the early stages of one’s walking marriage. When a woman decides to take a new lover, her casual one-night stand or fledgling liaison is always conducted in full secret. The place of assignation is always the woman’s home, never the man’s. Obviously I could never bear witness to any of this, but I understand that an axia spends the night in the woman’s own ‘flower chamber’ at home, a room given to her when she comes of age. In a typical Mosuo home the flower chamber of each of the daughters is located on the second floor in a different wing by the courtyard, away from the grandmother’s room. It is each woman’s private space where she can do as she pleases, including conducting her assignations in secret.
Indulging in nana sese is commonplace among the Mosuos. Everyone, woman or man, does it, especially when they are young. The male axia comes and goes openly, though still only at night, in an arrangement the Mosuos view as an ‘open’ or ‘conspicuous’ visit, gepie sese in their language. Once out in the open, there is no need to keep the relationship secret any more. Middle-aged people are usually content to settle down with just one long-term axia in the gepie sese type of bonding over the long term. I know a kindly gentle gardener in his 60s whom we all call Apu, or grandfather, who has been in a gepie sese relationship with his life-long axia. The notable thing about his walking marriage is that he continues to live in his own matrilineal homestead with his sister and her children, but on most days he is to be found in his axia’s own matrilineal home just a stone’s throw away. While Apu has had only one axia over the last four decades, he is happy to commute between his bi-locale residences.
The unique thing about the love life of the Mosuo is the total absence of marriage. Mosuos simply do not get married. Women and men do not pair up as husband and wife, whether socially or legally. Even when they stay together for a lifetime, they are not ‘married’ as the rest of the world understands the term. Theirs is a society with neither husbands nor wives.
As far as I am aware, nowhere else in the world is there a society that exists without marriage. In the world of the Mosuo, a woman and a man never form a nuclear family with the aim of creating a separate unit consisting of themselves and their children. In their parallel universe, the ‘nuclear’ family is a separate unit consisting of the grandmother and her children and all her matrilineal descendants. Axias, who may be husbands or wives in our universe, need not apply for membership in this family.
In the context of love without the restraint of marriage, it is understandably easy for each Mosuo person to feel free to seek out as many or as few lovers as she or he wishes. A Mosuo has a menu of choices on how to lead her or his love life. A person is free to choose to have an axia furtively, openly, adopted into the family, or as a couple, with or without a marriage certificate. Additionally, such choice is not necessarily a once-in-a-lifetime option. The choice is open, any time, many times, serially, contemporaneously, at any stage of one’s life, to be exercised at will, and the permutations of the choices can be limitless. No one is criticized for whichever variation of sese she or he chooses. ‘I practise walking marriage,’ the grandmother of a friend whom I met for the first time said simply and openly when I asked her about her family.
What comes across as a total surprise is that the freedom to choose is available to both women and men. Equally. This is surprising when we are looking in from the outside patriarchal world but the Mosuo would have it no other way. After all, this is the Kingdom of Women.
I know a grandmother with five grown-up children whose sese history is fairly typical of the stories I have collected on Mosuo women. Each of her children bore only a slight resemblance to each other, if at all, suggesting to me that she might have had different axias during her various pregnancies. I did not probe the question openly with her but she gave me a clue when I told her that I was the godmother to Gumi’s daughter in Baju village.
‘Then we are related to each other,’ she said, without offering any more information. Later I pieced together the story of this Mosuo grandmother. She had a total of four axias in her life, with the first of whom she bore two girls, the second a son, the third another girl, and finally the fourth my putative godbrother.
Her story of multiple axias would certainly raise the hackles of a red-blooded Chinese man who would have grown up with the standard patriarchal narrative that only men are polygamous, the women being natural monogamists. As such, a man is entitled to have as many wives and concubines as he likes. The issue of a woman’s entitlement to do the same with someone other than her husband does not even merit a mention.
Anyone who has visited the Forbidden City, home to generations of Chinese emperors in Beijing, will have walked through the women’s wing of the ancient palace that in its heyday housed hundreds of imperial concubines waiting to be picked at a day’s notice to share the emperor’s bed. My own father shared the same sentiment as the emperors of old China. A successful entrepreneur, he had the means and opportunity to set up multiple homes with different mistresses in every port where he did business, while we lived at home with my mother, his first wife. And his is not the only example I can think of in recalling the many real-life stories of how Chinese men act on what they see as male prerogative.
It was entirely different for Chinese women. I remember my own grandmother telling me how a married woman in feudal times would face a terrible fate if she were ever found in bed with another man. Her crime would have been thought so vile and offensive to her husband’s authority over her that she would bring the wrath of the neighbourhood upon her. The villagers would force her and her adulterous lover into a bamboo pig cage each and throw them into the river to test their innocence.
When I look at the overall scheme of things, I do not see the Mosuos ranking their love lives very high up in the scale of family life. While they recognize human sexuality for what it is, that it is natural for a woman and a man to have sex together, and celebrate it by giving complete freedom to people to indulge in it, they never elevate it into the be-all and end-all of human existence. Sexual love may be crucial for the survival of their tribe but it is not the glue that links a family together. Love, for the Mosuo, may be more than one, but it is private and most certainly comes way below family.
The centre of their lives is the matrilineal family and everything else, including sese, is subsumed under its core. At best, sese is an appendage to the matrilineal family, and that is the place it holds in Mosuo society. I am aware that this may seem untenably strange for a society that preaches free love, but that is the only way I can reconcile all the ramifications thrown up by the complications involved in sese life.
Personally I have come round to accepting that walking marriage makes logical sense in putting human sexuality in its correct place in our lives. I think sex is a human condition with a thousand variations in its expression that cannot, and should not, be confined within the narrow space allotted to it in most societies. I cannot buy into the fallacy that sex has to be limited to one partner over a lifetime. I certainly reject the straightjacket imposed by the prescription that a wife and husband must obey a lifelong pledge to each other of sexual fidelity and exclusivity.
To me, the Mosuos have got it right in extolling sex as a happy, natural requisite and placing it in the right place as an addendum to family life. Still, most people in China and perhaps the rest of mankind, I fear, may disagree with me, and probably think that the Mosuos live very much on the wild and unacceptably sinful side of life. It may be asking too much of them to take the blinkers off and see their uni-world view as but one variation of human society and appreciate the possibility of diversity offered by the Mosuo way of sese life.
This is an edited extract of The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains by Choo Waihong, publishing later this month and available to order here.
Choo Waihong was a corporate lawyer with top law firms in Singapore and California before she took early retirement in 2006 and began writing travel pieces for publications such as China Daily. She lived for six years with the Mosuo tribe and now spends half the year with them in Yunnan, China.
Read an extensive interview with Choo Waihong about her time among the Mosuo on the Asia House website. She will appear on Radio 4 Woman’s Hour on March 27th.