Yen Issue 43: A kingdom for women

It’s one of the world’s last matriarchal societies, but tourism looks set to destroy this truly unique culture.

Lugu Lake, a large crystalline lake nestled in the north-west plateau on the border of Chinese provinces Sichuan and Yunnan, is home to a unique culture. It has survived thousand of years, through war, political upheaval and the cultural revolution but a booming tourism industry is threatening the locals’ way of life and their autonomy.

One of the only matriarchal cultures in the world, the ethnic Mosuo minority, inhabit this region. Property, business and the responsibility to provide for the family and preserve the culture is passed through the female lineage. The Mosuo practice a form of marriage called ‘walking marriage’, which means the men don’t live with their wives but visit them in their homes at night and leave in the morning. Men in this culture live with their sisters and mothers and are supported by them for most of their lives – although this tradition is slowly changing as the tourist dollars come in and the men are starting to do their share.

The women have a status that is not shared by many women in China but their traditional responsibilities means they don’t receive the same opportunities as their male counterparts to, for example, seek education or work outside the village they grew up in. Women here come of age at 13 when they are given their own room in which to practice ‘walking marriage’  and are expected to start working to support the family.

“Here the woman symbolises life, like fire, but the men just symbolise death. So the women here can’t kill chickens or fish or anything, the man has to do it” says Walt Hung, the owner of the hotel we called home in Lige, one of the towns in the area. Women also can’t touch the dead, all funeral arrangements, including cleaning the body and preparing it for cremation, are done by the men.

A family of pigs, a litter of pups, a group of ducklings and a feisty bull were a ubiquitous presence in Lige– as were the kids who wandered around getting fed by everyone and playing in the dirt. The whole community brings up the children and every woman is an ‘Ai Yi’ (Auntie).

In the local dialect the name of the lake translates as ‘Mother Lake’. The locals use it for transport and a source of food. They eat the weed that blooms white flowers on the surface of the water. The small grey snakes who call it home are apparently delicious as well. Fisherman lay their nets in the reeds to catch fish. And women lie on the shore, drying clothes and waiting to take tourists in their canoes to the lake’s small islands for a modest sum.

The area is 200 kilometres and a seven hour drive from the major tourist centre of Lijiang. However, an airport is nearing completion – much to the chagrin of some locals.

I came here for the first time a few years ago. At the time a cable car was being constructed in the next village and the Government had given the people of Lige 30 days to move their homes, hotels and small shops 80 metres back off the lake onto their farmland.

There was a lot of speculation that the Government wanted the foreshore to build their own hotels, that the Government was cheating the people and that they were exploiting the culture of the Mosuo for large investment returns. They even changed the area’s tagline from “Women’s Kingdom” to “Girl’s Kingdom” perhaps to give the area a more titillating pull.

The Village Chief, Ya Erche Namo, can see the good and bad side of the move. “The good side of the development is the basic utilities have improved, like water and power and there’s more income,” she says. “The bad side is the culture is changing, and becoming more like Han Chinese. All the old houses are gone. It’s been only a few years since the redevelopment so we can’t see the big changes yet but there has been change.”

Erche has recently been elected and is the first woman to be elected Chief in the history of the area. Men usually fill the position because they were seen to be in a better position to liaise with the government as they were often more educated. However, many villagers weren’t happy with the past chiefs. They saw them as lazy and the feeling was that they weren’t doing anything in the interest of the village.

People voted for change and a lot now rides on Erche’s performance. “I think more and more women will be elected. But I am the first one so it depends on my performance. If I am good there will be more but if I’m bad we will probably go back to the old system,” she says.

Hung, a Taiwanese-born Canadian, came to the town almost a decade ago for a two-day holiday but ended up staying here, opening a hotel, marrying and having a child. His hotel, which once had prime position on the lake, has been rebuilt around the family home. The hotel is much bigger now and is bringing in a lot more revenue but he is mourning the loss of his paradise. He even said he will leave as soon as the first plane lands at the new airport.

“When I came here and found this place, the people were so naïve and it was like heaven,” he says. “I can see the human nature changing.”

Hung says that people are much more concerned with money and materialism now. “I have heard them argue about money and customers,” he says. “I run a business now. It’s not like before. Before, I was looking for a place to stay. A nice place with nice people – now it’s all changed. It’s not what I planned when I came here.”

Erche agrees. “The mentality of the local people has changed a lot. They’re building better houses and are improving their living standards. And they’re learning a lot of habits from outsiders.”

The habits Erche refers to, even though she wouldn’t go into what they were, may be an increase in the use of drugs. Hung says that many people are using opium now.

“In this village, more things have changed, the men have more responsibility than before, that’s a good thing, but the bad thing is, now they have money and they don’t know how to use it – so they do drugs, opium, even the old people. It’s a big problem in this village. And there is more money so they don’t care,” Hung explains. Also, a brothel / karaoke bar has opened up in the neighbouring town of Luoshui. Luoshui is the biggest town on the lake and sees most of the tourist dollars.

In Lige, where the villagers once had their homes on the foreshore, there is now a stone path, trees that look horribly out of place, small signs in the shape of flowers that warn people to not smoke or litter or otherwise ruin the ‘scenic spot’, lights are hidden in fake rocks and in trees. It’s tacky – a speciality of Chinese tourism. A small dock for the wooden canoes the locals use to get around, and take tourists to the lake’s small islands, was built in the middle, but nobody uses it. A downsized area for farming (which the locals had to fight to keep) and a stagnant manmade wetland that is breeding flies and mosquitos because it hasn’t had proper drainage installed, lie between the pebbled foreshore and the newly reconstructed hotels and homes.

The village is much bigger now; a paved road has replaced the dirt road that ran through town and the number of hotels has significantly increased. Shops peddling touristy trinkets are starting to spring up. Many locals have moved because of the increase in tourism and the profound change in the culture of the town it has brought.

The speculation is now over the Government taking control of local operations, such as the canoe tours and the traditional Mosuo dance show, as well as the transformation of the now peaceful lake into a water park with speedboats, paragliding and water-skiing.

“They’re going to run everything,” Hung says. “They’re going to run [the dance show], they’re going to run the boats, gradually. I know someone from the Government who said they are going to run the boats because if they are going to invest the money here they want the return back, which is a bad thing. They’re going to take the old traditions away and make it commercial. I don’t think they will share anything with the local people.”

The whole area is still lovely despite its transformation and there’s a reason it’s such a popular destination. There are a couple of towns nearby the tourists are yet to penetrate but no doubt it will slowly spread around the lake.

My travel partner and I explored the mountain that towers above Lige and other nearby towns as locals travelled across the water in wooden canoes to get from village to village below. And a walk to Nisai and Xiao Luoshui where tourism was mostly absent gave us a glimpse of the real Lugu Lake.

The hospitality of the Mosuo people is unmatched by any other place I have travelled in China. On a walk to the Sichuan border, which lies not far outside the town Xiao Luoshui, an elderly woman beckoned us to follow her. She held a small curved knife in one hand and motioned the other hand to her mouth. She had just been working in her field planting vegetables. She led us to her home, which had a large pile of corn cobs, husks and stalks drying in the courtyard for animal feed. A cat sat on top of it basking in the sun.

The woman went out the back to her orchard and brought us two pears and two apples to eat. We ate the apples and complemented her on how delicious they were. She was like a loving grandmother making sure we were fed and healthy. She offered us water and as our hands were full with fruit she grabbed a hand full of sunflower seeds and put them in my jean pocket. I told her that we had enough and thanked her for the fruit and seeds.

We walked home leisurely, eating the seeds out of our pockets and munching on the remainder of the fruit.

The people here would like tourism to extend to their towns from Luoshui and Lige to bring in money, the trouble is it requires a sacrifice of their culture and traditions to the altar of the gaudy, all-powerful beast that is Chinese tourism.