It’s 5am, and outside the sky is slipping from the darkness of night into a deep morning blue. A rooster crows underscoring this slow change and signalling the start of a new day.
I sit up slowly in bed, taking a moment to stretch out my body after a restless nights sleep on a paper thin mattress. My room is dark and only a few scattered rays of light are breaking through the cracks in the cardboard that covers my bedroom window. The rest of the house is quiet and it seems that only the rooster and I are awake at this hour. I fumble around in the dim light until I find my clothes and get dressed. I make my way to the door, and as I step out onto the balcony I am greeted with one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen.
The village of Lijiazui sits at an elevation of approximately 2,500 meters. It is secluded deep in the Himalayan foothills surrounded by mountains. This morning, clouds hang lazily around the middle, leaving the bases and crests exposed. The sun has not yet broken through and to the east the hills are backlit in a soft orange glow. It is July, but the summer here is cool and pleasant. It rains often, but this is a blessing for the mostly agricultural society.
Lijiazui has remained untouched by the rapid industrialization of China. There are no modern amenities here. Cooking is done over an open flame, hot water available only after it is boiled, and the toilets are no more than holes in the ground. There is no cellular coverage, and it wasn't until last year that the home in which I’m staying had electricity. The source of the electricity is a small water turbine which my host installed after rerouting a stream that flows outside his family home. The flow of the water is not strong enough, however, to power more than the few lightbulbs which are crudely strung around the house, or the television set, at the same time; and this, only when it rains.
The house is located in the centre of town. My host is well known in the village because he is one of only two guest-house owners here. Few tourists make it this far into the mountain range, so the bulk of his income still comes from farming. The preferred crop is corn and the average earnings from a good season amount to a meagre 3000RMB approximately $480 USD. With this he supports a wife, 3 sons, and his mother in law. It may be incorrect to phrase it this way, since the Mosuo are referred to as one of the last matriarchal societies on earth. This means that it is really the women who are running the families, and to a larger extent the communities, but my host is is not so traditional.
The Mosuo trace their lineage through the female side of the family. Once a woman has come of age, which is typically observed between the ages of 12 and 14, she can choose a partner as she wishes. While this may seem similar to modern western standards remember that the Mosuo have been doing this for hundreds of years. Women may have as many or as few relationships as they choose over the course of their lives, but normally they have only one partner at a time. The Mosuo practice what is known as a walking marriage. The woman will make her interest known, and the man may choose to visit the woman at a specified time, usually late in the evening, to begin their courtship. Relationships are never spoken of during the courtship phase and sex remains a taboo topic in Mosuo homes. Children born through one of these relationships are the responsibility of the mother and her family. It is only during a pregnancy that the father may start to appear more regularly at the family house and make himself known to the family members. Traditionally he will never take up residence in the woman's home as he has responsibilities to his own mother, sisters, and their children. The fatherly role is taken up by all members of the family, grandfathers and uncles included.
From my perch on the balcony of the house I hear noises coming from the pig pen around the corner. The obvious porcine variety but also canine. I walk down the stairs toward the outhouse and receive my first introduction to the family dog which I later affectionately call “Bubbles”.
Bubbles has been chained up near the pig pen for the past few years. The half crazed dog is no longer trusted by my host after escaping from his tether some time ago and devoured a dozen of the family chickens. A dozen may be an overstatement, because he was only able to eat three and was caught while attempting to bury the remaining carcasses. In the years since his rampage he has developed a moody disposition and barks aggressively at anyone who approaches him, and seeing as how he is chained next to the washroom, his barks and growls will be something I hear often during my stay.
The Mosuo have a legend pertaining to dogs. It is said that at one point long ago dogs would live to the age of sixty, and men only to the age of thirteen. The Mosuo felt that their lives were too short and proposed a trade. In return for the exchange the dogs would receive homage from the humans. Since then dogs have played an important role in the coming of age ceremony of the Mosuo, during which the adolescents of the family will pray before them as part of the ritual. As such, Bubbles, despite his half crazed nature, was kept by the family and merely given a stronger restraint.
I continue what is to become my morning routine and make my way to the pond in the back yard. After washing up I head over to the village stupa which is only about 15 meters away. I figure this will provide a good vantage point from which to observe the village as it comes to life. It doesn’t take long before I’m joined by a few of the older members of the village who are also early risers. They have come to the stupa to make their kora’s* around the monument, reciting their prayers as they walk.
The people of Lijiazui practice a combination of Tibetan Buddhism and Daba, the latter being a form of animalism. As for Buddhism, they follow Gelugpa, or the Yellow Hat sect of the Dalai Lama. The influences can be seen in many aspects of their daily life. In all Mosuo homes there is a shrine behind the main fireplace, at the foot of which daily offerings are made. Buddhist holidays are observed, Lamas are called in for any number of occasions from births to sicknesses and deaths. Prayer wheels can be seen in the hands of many elderly members of the village who are not otherwise occupied with farming duties. The Mosuo also worship a mother goddess, which plays into their traditions of female leadership. Lugu lake, the traditional home of the Mosuo is also revered as a holy entity as is the mountain overlooking it.
Over the two weeks I spent in the Mosuo community of Lijiazui I learned that life can be much simpler than we make it out to be. I observed that family, and the responsibility one takes for it, lie at the core of what the Mosuo there valued. I saw in them a pride for their traditions, a warmth towards outsiders, and an admirable work ethic. The structure of their families and the relationship, or lack thereof, that children have with their fathers made me wonder if in some way children might be better off with a much looser definition of “father” and more varied male role models in their lives.
*The word kora is Tibetan for the circumambulation of an object or landmark that pilgrims and worshippers make when they visit holy places.