Portraits of Matriarchy: Where Grandmothers Are Still in Charge
Naju Dorma and Lacuo Dorma, from the village of Luoshui, don traditional garb. According to Naju Dorma, some Han Chinese now dress like the Mosuo to trick tourists and make money by working as guides or selling clothes and jewelry. While many Mosuo appreciate the economic opportunities that tourism has brought to their region, they worry about the long-term effects of hotel strips and gift shops.
The Mosuo villages in the Chinese Himalayas are trying to hold on to their ancient, complex social structures that value female power and decision-making.
Life around Lugu Lake—high up in the Himalayas, straddling China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces—has been changing rapidly. Until relatively recently, the Mosuo, a Chinese ethnic minority of about 40,000 people, enjoyed hundreds of years of relative stability in a complex social structure that values female power and decision-making. Most famous among Mosuo traditions is the practice of the “walking marriage”: women may choose and change partners as they wish. Mosuo children stay with their mothers’ families for life, and men only visit their female partners by walking to their houses at night.
Because the head of a Mosuo household is always a women, responsible for all financial decisions and the passing of the family name and property, the Mosuo are often characterized as a matriarchal society. Reality is a little more complex. For example, women hold no official political power. Yet according to Chuan-Kang Shih, an expert on the Mosuo and an anthropology professor at the University of Florida, the Mosuo social system is underpinned by a fundamental belief that women are more capable than men, mentally and even physically.
My portraits focus on older Mosuo matriarchs, the dabu, who carry on despite outside pressures. Since China’s Cultural Revolution in the past century, when the Mosuo religion was forbidden and couples were forced to marry, this social system has faced challenges. Fewer Mosuo women are able to sustain a way of life traditionally centered on large, matrilineal clans sharing their household income.