A Different Kind of Marriage

Life amongst the Mosuo people is not quite like anywhere else


One of the best results of learning about other cultures is how much we learn about ourselves. Things we think of as universal, that ‘everyone must be like this’, are revealed to be incredibly varied, and cause us to look more closely at our own cultures, to consider why we think like we do. I discovered this anew when I lived with the Mosuo.

The Mosuo are one of China’s ethnic minority groups. They have their own language and culture, distinct from Han Chinese. They live high in the Himalayas, straddling the border of Yunnan and Sichuan, close to the Tibetan border. Many Mosuo live in tiny mountainside villages, among the most remote and inaccessible areas in China. Some villages don’t even have electricity.

I knew before I visited the Mosuo that their culture was unique. They are one of the last remaining matriarchal cultures on the planet. Women are heads of the family and make all important decisions. All property and money is given to the matriarch of the family, who controls it on the family’s behalf, and passes it on to the next matriarch when she dies.

But what I learned after I went there blew my mind. For example, the concepts of love and marriage. I grew up in a culture where – like in the vast majority of cultures – there is an expectation that you find a mate that you spend the rest of your life with, and if the relationship falls apart, you have somehow ‘failed’. The Mosuo have no such concept. They practice “walking marriages”, where as long as a couple are happy together, they stay together, but if they are no longer happy, they break up and find someone else. They experience heartbreak and pain just like the rest of us, but they don’t suffer the added burden that they have somehow ‘failed’ because they didn’t manage to stay together. I’ve seen Mosuo couples who’ve been together for a few weeks, and couples that have been together for decades, but I’ve almost never seen a couple who are not happy to be together.

But this system has an impact on many other areas of their lives, also. For example, property: Mosuo couples never share property. The woman lives in her home, and all her money goes to her family; the man lives in his home, and all his money goes to his family. They spend their free time and nights together, but their work and responsibilities are to their own family. If they break up, there is no fighting over property.

They experience heartbreak and pain just like the rest of us, but they don’t suffer the added burden that they have somehow ‘failed’ because if they didn’t manage to stay together.

Perhaps the most mind-blowing aspect of Mosuo culture is that the father role is played by the uncle, rather than the biological father. If you’re a Mosuo man, and you get a woman pregnant, you have no responsibility for the child, and may have no role in that child’s life. But that doesn’t mean that you have no responsibility. You will take a father role for every child born in your own family – your sisters, your aunts, etc. In fact, all the men and women in a Mosuo family will share parenting roles, so nobody is raising children on their own.

Most people, when they hear this, find it weird. “Of course the biological father is the father! How can he not be?” But this system actually proves to be practical. Unlike almost every other culture on the planet, if a Mosuo couple breaks up, there is zero trauma for the child. No fighting over custody. No sense of losing a parent. No feeling of being pushed to take sides. Regardless of what happens between biological parents, the child’s life remains stable.

We must, of course, be wary of thinking, “That’s great, why don’t we do that, too?” Because the main reason it works for the Mosuo is that they live in large extended families, with several generations living together. Most Mosuo, both men and women, will never leave home. They will spend their entire lives with their family. This means that if a woman has a baby, she has a large support system helping her to do everything. In our cultures, where most adults live on their own, this simply isn’t practical. A woman who has a baby in the nuclear family system will likely be on her own, if the father does not help.

For me, this was one of the most revelatory experiences of my life. I not only learned a great deal about the Mosuo, but also about myself. To this day, I feel a strong tie with them, and return often. More than that, in 2005 I got together a group of Mosuo leaders to establish a non-profit organization, to help them with some of their greatest needs (education, health care, cultural preservation, etc.). Those who are interested to learn more about this fascinating culture are encouraged to visit our website at mosuoproject.org.