Exploring The Enigmatic Tradition Of Walking Marriage In The Mosuo Culture
The Mosuo tribe’s most captivating narrative revolves around their unique approach to love, known as walking marriage. This tradition garners widespread attention from anthropologists, sociologists, writers, and documentary filmmakers alike, who delve into its intricacies and implications.
Despite its popularity, however, walking marriage remains one of the most misconstrued aspects of the Mosuo culture, generating a multitude of interpretations and discussions within the Kingdom of Women.
The concept of Mosuo “walking marriage” diverges significantly from traditional notions of marriage, where a husband and wife form the core of a permanent nuclear family. In Mosuo society, there is no formal institution of marriage, and the roles of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ do not exist within the family structure.
Instead, the term “walking” or “visiting” implies a man visiting a woman for a night of pleasure. This practice is so distinct from patriarchal marriage that direct comparisons between the two are futile. It took me considerable time to fully grasp its significance and intricacies.
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Understanding “Sese” In Mosuo Culture
In the Mosuo language, the term “sese” (pronounced as ‘say-say’) describes the intimate act shared between a man and a woman in private, stripped of any romantic connotations.
During my initial stay at a Mosuo bed-and-breakfast inn, I had the opportunity to engage in an after-dinner conversation with the family by the hearth. The family was led by the grandmother, accompanied by her two adult daughters, one in her 40s and the other in her 30s. Additionally, there were two teenage grandchildren from the elder daughter and a one-year-old toddler from the younger daughter.
As we enjoyed our tea, a middle-aged man arrived on a motorbike and joined us. While he exchanged pleasantries with the grandmother, he didn’t engage with the teenagers or the baby. Shortly thereafter, the younger daughter rose from her seat and left the room with the man, giving a directive to her teenage niece as she did so.
“Could you please take care of the little one?”
The teenager acknowledged with a nod. Soon after, her aunt left the room, accompanied by the man. Their footsteps echoed as they ascended the wooden stairs outside, presumably heading towards her room. It became evident to me that the man was likely her “axia” (lover), and they were engaged in a walking-marriage arrangement.
Observing Mosuo Walking Marriage Practices
I silently expressed my intrigue, satisfied at the prospect of witnessing a real-time instance of “Sese.” Occurrences like these were rare, as individuals often kept even family members unaware of such private affairs, especially during the initial stages of a walking marriage.
When a woman decides to engage with a new lover, whether it is a casual one-night stand or the beginning of a budding relationship, she always conducts it in utmost secrecy. The rendezvous always takes place at the woman’s home, never the man’s.
The “Axia,” or lover, typically spends the night in the woman’s designated “flower chamber” at her home. When she reaches maturity, she is bestowed with this room. In a typical Mosuo household, they situate each daughter’s flower chamber on the second floor in a separate wing by the courtyard, away from the grandmother’s quarters. It serves as the woman’s personal space where she can engage in private activities, including her secret liaisons.
Mosuo Cultural Norms And Relationships
Engaging in nana sese is a common practice within Mosuo culture, where individuals, regardless of gender, partake in it, especially during their youth. The male partners, known as axia, openly visit and leave, typically during the night, in what the Mosuos term as a “conspicuous” or “open” visit, referred to as genie sese.
Once these visits are out in the open, there’s no need for secrecy. As individuals reach middle age, many opt for a long-term bond with a single axia, known as a genie sese, settling down into a more stable arrangement. An example is Apu, a gentle gardener in his sixties, who has maintained a walking marriage with his lifelong axia. Despite living in his matrilineal homestead with his sister and her children, Apu spends most of his days in his Axia’s nearby matrilineal home. Despite having only one axia for the past forty years, Apu finds contentment in commuting between his two residences.
In Mosuo culture, a distinctive aspect of romantic relationships is the complete absence of traditional marriage. There is no concept of individuals becoming husbands and wives, either socially or legally. Even if Mosuo individuals spend their lives together, they do not enter into what others would recognize as marriage. Their society operates without the institution of marriage, devoid of the roles of husbands and wives as understood in other cultures.
The Unique Family Structure Of The Mosuo
Within Mosuo society, there exists a remarkable absence of traditional marriage, a phenomenon unparalleled elsewhere. Unlike in other cultures, where couples aim to form nuclear families comprising themselves and their children, Mosuo women and men never establish such units.
Instead, in their distinct social framework, the “nuclear” family comprises the grandmother, her children, and all her matrilineal descendants, functioning as a separate entity. In this setup, individuals identified as axias, who might be considered husbands or wives in conventional societies, are not considered for membership in this family structure within Mosuo culture.
In a setting where love is unconstrained by the bounds of marriage, each Mosuo individual enjoys the freedom to pursue as many or as few romantic partners as they desire. They have a range of options for structuring their love lives. One can clandestinely or openly engage with an axia, integrate them into the family, or form a couple, with or without formalizing the union through marriage.
Moreover, individuals can revisit this choice multiple times throughout their lives, either sequentially or simultaneously, without facing judgment. The permutations of these choices are virtually limitless. Society accepts individuals without criticism, regardless of the particular form of sese they opt for. When inquiring about her family, a friend’s grandmother simply and openly stated, “I practice walking marriage.”
Gender Equality In Romantic Freedom Among The Mosuo
In the Mosuo culture, it is a surprising yet fundamental aspect that both women and men have equal freedom to choose their romantic partners. This equality may seem astonishing from the perspective of patriarchal societies, but it is the norm in Mosuo’s Kingdom of Women, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Anecdotal evidence from a grandmother with five grown children illustrates this egalitarian approach to romantic relationships. Each of her offspring bore little resemblance to one another, hinting at the likelihood of different axias during her pregnancies. Although she didn’t directly discuss the matter, she provided a clue when discussing her relationship with Gumi’s daughter in Baju village.
“Then we are related,” she responded cryptically, declining to elaborate further. Subsequently, I gradually reconstructed the narrative of this Mosuo grandmother. Over the course of her life, she had a total of four axias. With her first axia, she gave birth to two daughters, followed by a son with her second, another daughter with her third, and finally, her fourth Axia fathered my presumed godbrother.
Challenging Patriarchal Norms: Women’s Polygamous Relationships Among The Mosuo
The tale of multiple Axias in a Mosuo woman’s life would undoubtedly discomfort traditional Chinese men, who have steeped themselves in the patriarchal belief that only men are naturally polygamous, while women are expected to adhere to monogamy.
According to this narrative, society grants a man the entitlement to have numerous wives and concubines without question. It entirely disregards the idea of a woman having the same prerogative, especially outside of her marriage, within this patriarchal framework.
Those who have toured the Forbidden City, the historic residence of countless Chinese emperors in Beijing, would have traversed the women’s quarters of the ancient palace. During its prime, this section accommodated numerous imperial concubines who awaited selection to join the emperor’s bed at a moment’s notice. My own father echoed the sentiments of the emperors of old China.
As a prosperous entrepreneur, he possessed both the means and opportunity to establish multiple households with various mistresses in every port where he conducted business, all while maintaining our family home with my mother, his first wife. This anecdote is just one among many real-life examples showcasing how Chinese men often act upon what they perceive as their male prerogative.
The Harsh Consequences Of Adultery For Chinese Women
Chinese women faced drastically different consequences when it came to infidelity. I recall my grandmother recounting how, during feudal times, a married woman caught in bed with another man would face dire consequences. The community would deem her actions a grave offense against her husband’s authority, inviting their wrath upon her.
Villagers would subject her and her illicit lover to a brutal test of innocence by confining them in a bamboo pig cage and casting them into the river. In the broader context, the Mosuos don’t prioritize their romantic relationships highly within the framework of family life. While they acknowledge the natural aspect of human sexuality and grant individuals complete freedom to engage in it, they don’t elevate sexual love to the pinnacle of human existence.
Although the tribe’s survival relies on it, they do not view it as the primary bonding force within families. Love, according to Mosuo beliefs, may take various forms, but it remains a private matter and certainly doesn’t overshadow the significance of family ties.
The Primacy Of The Matrilineal Family In Mosuo Society
The focal point of Mosuo life is the matrilineal family, with all other aspects, including romantic relationships, being secondary to its core. At most, the Mosuo society considers sese an extension of the matrilineal family, reflecting its position within their culture.
While this may appear perplexingly peculiar for a society advocating free love, it’s the only way to reconcile the complexities inherent in sese life. Personally, I’ve come to embrace the notion that walking marriage offers a logical approach to understanding the role of human sexuality in our lives. I believe that sexuality constitutes a fundamental aspect of human existence, with a myriad of expressions that most societies typically impose restrictions upon but which should not be limited.
I reject the notion that sex must be confined to a single partner for a lifetime. Further, I firmly reject the notion that a husband and wife must adhere to a lifelong commitment to sexual fidelity and exclusivity.
The Mosuo Approach To Sexuality
Despite my conviction that the Mosuos rightly celebrate sex as a natural and joyful aspect of life, integrating it as an adjunct to family existence, I recognize that many individuals in China, and perhaps worldwide, would disagree with this perspective. They may view the Mosuo lifestyle as excessively unconventional and morally questionable.
It might be unrealistic to expect them to broaden their perspective and acknowledge the Mosuo way of sese life as merely one among many variations of human society, appreciating the diversity it offers.
This is an edited extract of The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love, and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains by Choo Waihong, published later this month and available to order.
Before embarking on a career as a writer, Choo Waihong practiced corporate law with prestigious firms in Singapore and California. In 2006, she decided to take early retirement and transitioned into writing, contributing travel articles to publications like China Daily. She spent six years living among the Mosuo tribe and now splits her time between them in Yunnan, China, spending half the year with the community.
Choo Waihong was interviewed extensively about her experiences living among the Mosuo, and the interview is available on the Asia House website. She is scheduled to appear on Radio 4 Woman’s Hour on March 27th to discuss her time with the Mosuo further.