Mosuo womanHere is a really thought-provoking radio documentary, about the Mosuo people who live on the shores of Lake Lugu, in China, referred to as “the Kingdom of Daughters” because of its matrifocal and matrilineal culture.

Men and women can choose their partners freely. Couples do not marry, or live together, even after children are born: they remain with their (grandmother-led) families. A woman chooses her own lovers at frequent dances, and invites the chosen one back to her private room at home. He may spend the night, but is not allowed to stay longer, even for breakfast. When children are born, uncles are the male role models, not fathers. Women are told when they are old enough to be interested which boys they are related to (to avoid their accidentally “walking with” their own brothers). Women are not judged on their sexual chastity or otherwise, indeed they are expected to have several lovers. Women are free from the fear of domestic violence, divorce and abandonment. They are free from the fear of rape and sexual violence, and they are given respect.

They must work harder than men, since they take care of family business as well as running the household. But then women work harder than men in practically every culture the world over, so that’s nothing new. And at least they get the benefit – as one man put it: “Our women are so tough that they can do anything. It is only natural that power and status should belong to them.”

The history of the culture is intriguing: feudal overlords back in the mists of time sought to oppress the people by obliging them to trace their families through the maternal line – to stop them from contending for power or stirring up rebellion or otherwise causing trouble.

And what they ended up with all sounds pretty great. But is it a case of oppression turned on its head, creating instead a culture of liberation? Well, not exactly. No.

Like any very traditional culture there is little freedom, as each person’s role in life is determined by culture and tradition rather than by their own choices. Women get a much better deal than in patriarchal cultures (i.e. practically everywhere else), and men seem to get a pretty easy life, too. But it isn’t, quite, freedom.

And, worse, what good there is in this culture looks set to disappear fast as mainstream Chinese culture invades in the shape of tourist income.

Tourists bring plenty of money, so that families can be sure of having enough to eat and of being able to send their children to school. But at what cost? Prostitution has started just outside the Mosuo’s boundaries. Tourism, especially in China, brings gambling. The authenticity of the culture is being eroded as women, who traditionally sang for the joy of seducing a lover, now sing for the tourists’ pleasure. Couples are deciding to ape patriarchy and live together in nuclear family units, rather than staying in their maternal extended families. It’s Hobson’s choice – take the money and lose your culture; or maintain your culture and risk poverty.

I’m not one to bang on about the inherent sanctity of ancient and exotic cultural practices. Indeed, if they are harmful or impinge on people’s freedom, as most practices held up as “cultural” are or do, I prefer that they come to an end, or at least that they become truly optional. And Mosuo culture does impinge on some people’s freedom, because there isn’t full and free self-determination. So in theory I should not be sad that this very traditional culture may soon be lost. However, I am.

Because, while Mosuo culture may not be the feminist utopia of my dreams, it beats patriarchy into a cocked hat, and patriarchy is what is going to come in its place. I’m willing to bet that in twenty of thirty years’ time, some of those same Mosuo women who grumble now – about not having the freedom to go off to the big city, or about being compelled to take over the family business because they are only daughters – will realise that mainstream (patriarchal) culture isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that the freedom and respect they enjoy now was worth hanging on to. But, pessimist that I am, I’m willing to bet that they will not realise this until it is too late.