The land where women rule: discover the tribe in western China where women hold all the power

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A new book called The Kingdom Of Women shines a light on a matrilineal society in Western China that is entirely run by women. Stylist reports

Words: Flic Everett

We’ve had five solid decades of feminist waves that have led to numerous positive changes for women. Big ones, huge ones even. And yet in 2017 we’re still arguing for equal pay, marching for abortion rights and predominantly governed by men, (women hold a diminutive sixth of senior roles in the UK’s top companies). So, imagine a society where women are always the leaders. Where inheritance passes through the female line, where women make all the key decisions and get to choose their lovers without a hint of judgment or slut-shaming (keep reading – this concept is as good as it sounds). That place actually exists, and it’s on the misty shores of Western China’s Lugu Lake as new book The Kingdom Of Women by travel writer Choo Waihong explores.

Different life

The Mosuo are a tribe of 40,000 living in a matrilineal society, meaning that the ancestral descent is passed down through the maternal, rather than the usual paternal, bloodlines. The grandmother is the family head, the women in the family make the decisions, and any money the men earn – largely from labouring and farming – is given to the women to distribute and look after. Even more remarkably, perhaps, there are no husbands, just lovers chosen by the women, and any resulting children are raised under the protection of the women in the family. “Mosuo women have the rightful ownership of land, houses and the children born to them, while mothers enjoy high social status,” explains anthropologist Dr Christine Mathieu, who has studied the tribe for over 20 years. “Matrilineal means that money and property – and, for the Mosuo tribe, surname – is inherited through the maternal line, whereas in a matriarchal society the difference is that it’s just political power that is vested in women.” Martrilineal societies all vary in terms of exactly how they function, but in Mosuo the women elect the mayors of the town (who are sometimes male) so they also hold the political power too.

The Mosuo are not unique – other existing matrilineal societies that run on similar principles include the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, and Trobriand Islanders off the coast of Papua New Guinea. “In all of them, women tend to have more prestige and the gender roles are more balanced,” says Dr Mathieu. Though they’ve lived this way for thousands of years, The Kingdom Of Women details the recent years Waihong has spent living with the Mosuo.

“I grew up in a patriarchal Chinese community in Singapore,” Waihong recalls. “I became a corporate lawyer in an intensely male-dominated world, working 15-hour days to prove myself and I lost count of the times I was accused of ‘misspeaking’ at partners’ meetings, just by standing up for women. By 2006, as a baby boomer who’d been working for decades, I was burnt out and took early retirement to tour China.” She headed for remote Yunnan after reading about the elaborate, decorative Mountain Goddess festival in the area. “I’ve been a feminist all my life and it struck me as incredible that a matrilineal society still existed in the 21st century,” she says, recounting how a local Mosuo woman invited her to share their picnic. “The local people were very friendly, including two young kids who decided I was their godmother, I only stayed five days, but I thought I’ll go back and visit them some day. I found the culture fascinating.”

Making home

The following spring, after spending several months travelling, Waihong returned as promised to visit Ladzu – one of the little girls she’d met from her first visit – along with Ladzu’s uncle Zhaxi and her eight siblings. “They became my extended family,” says Waihong. “After a few days, he asked, ‘Would you like to have a house built here?’ I didn’t hesitate. I’d fallen for the beautiful location and the people.” A few months later, the house, with its traditional curved roof and wooden beams, was ‘raised’ or created by the entire village. Now, she spends half the year there, describing it in her book as “a dwelling place for my feminist soul”. Far from female friends questioning her decisions, several have been to stay, loving the area’s peace and beauty and being welcomed by the tribe who now call Waihong ‘half Mosuo’ and ‘Godmother’.

But how did a high-flying, highly educated woman find herself so welcome in this sequestered ancient culture? Recalling her first visits to the tribe, she says, “The matrilineal society isn’t immediately obvious – you have to really go inside their world to understand it.” So over the years, that’s what she did. “In this female-dominated bubble, no-one thinks it strange that I am a lone female, which was freeing.”

Love and (non) marriage

With no concept of ‘a husband’, women refer to ‘axia’ – their lovers, who may be the same man, or a series of different men – with zero stigma. When a Mosuo woman comes of age at 13, she’s given her own bedroom, the ‘flower chamber’, and as she ages, whatever goes on there is private. In a practice known as ‘walking marriage’, a man can visit overnight but the secret lover always returns to his mother’s house in the morning and all resulting children are raised by the female household. “They will address their relatives as ‘mother one’ or ‘mother two’,” says Waihong. “The children belong to the whole family.” Mosuo women happily use contraception and are limited to two children per household.

And while most modern, western women are still bound by traditional attitudes to beauty, Waihong explains, “It’s the Mosuo men who have to look good to attract women. They wear rings on all their fingers and dress flamboyantly, whereas the women are more understated. They don’t have to capture attention, because they get to choose. A man can also say, ‘Hey, what about it?’ and if she fancies him, she’ll say yes, but if she doesn’t, he’ll find someone else. It’s a very easygoing interaction.” And one that’s not fraught with the regret and shame foisted upon women by society in the west. But the Mosuo’s sexual conduct has been subject to outsider exploitation too – some tourists from nearby regions often view the Mosuo women as ‘easy’, and prostitutes in other parts of the region ape the Mosuo’s traditional costumes as such. Something to which the Mosuo simply don’t react.

But can they be so enlightened that jealousy never rears its head? “Jealousy occurs, as does heartbreak,” says Dr Mathieu. “But among the Mosuo, public displays of jealousy are likely to bring shame on the sufferer.” Plus, it is highly impolite to discuss sexual matters, which also forces people to keep their disappointments to themselves. “Jilted lovers of both sexes, however, may go and sing their heartbreak in the mountains, out of earshot,” she adds.

While the Mosuo are committed to women’s rights, not everything is as accepting. When it comes to behaviour outside the heteronormative, they simply don’t acknowledge it. “Being gay is not discussed,” says Waihong. “I asked the question once and they just laughed, like, ‘How could it be? Men and women like each other!’”

Aside from the reluctance to acknowledge homosexuality (which seems archaic for such a progressive society), there are other factors at odds with what the Mosuo believe. They often have male mayors, even though women are meant to ‘rule’ the land. And, historically, their origins came as a route for nobility to ensure peasant men didn’t infiltrate noble society. The Mosuo were traditionally ruled by nobility, who declared that sons inherited their father’s social status and daughters would inherit their mother’s. The flaw being that noblemen could marry ‘peasant’ girls, but if noblewomen did the same, her sons wouldn’t be noble. That’s problematic, when your ideological roots are based in class oppression.

The man question

Being part of such a unique community was unlike anything Waihong had experienced – and watching how the women and men all worked together, respectfully, with the women holding the power, was key. “Men are fully involved in children’s lives, but traditionally, the concept of fatherhood doesn’t really exist,” she reveals. Waihong met a grandmother whose five grown-up children she initially suspected were from different axias – which can come with a stigma in other societies. “Each of her children bore only a slight resemblance to each other, if at all, suggesting to me that she might have had different axias during her various pregnancies. I did not probe the question openly with her but I pieced together the story. She had a total of four axias in her life, with the first of whom she bore two girls, the second a son, the third another girl, and finally the fourth. Her story of multiple axias would certainly raise the hackles of a red-blooded Chinese man who would have grown up with the standard patriarchal narrative that only men are polygamous, the women being natural monogamists. As such, a man is entitled to have as many wives and concubines as he likes. The issue of a woman’s entitlement to do the same with someone other than her husband does not even merit a mention.”

Waihong insists that Mosuo men are not competitive either. “Everyone is like, ‘OK, you must listen to Grandma.’ Everyone understands their place, because it’s the way things have always been, and it works.” Do teenagers ever rebel? “No – the respecting of elders is too deeply imbued. A lot of them now move to the cities to find work but they still feel very comfortable going home. I think this proves that when women have more power, we do have a more equal society – because I’ve seen it work in Mosuo, compared to how things are in Singapore, especially in work.”

But by far the biggest difference in culture is the Mosuo women’s enormous confidence. “The first thing you notice is that every woman, every child, is confident,” says Waihong. “They know they have a space in the world. They’re the first to crack a joke, they lead the meetings. It’s a world away from how things were in my career.” She recalls a ‘girls’ night out’ in a nearby town with Mosuo women “The women flirted, bought beer for the men, and cracked jokes before the guys even got a chance. That’s definitely something to take with you on a night out.”

In a world where women are still shouting to be heard, could Mosuo be the new feminist idyll? “All cultures are the product of various factors: wealth, work, residences and political decisions,” adds Dr Mathieu. “The Mosuo favoured matrilineality because it stabilised social relations: it was conducive to peaceful families because removing marriage meant removing a whole source of potential conflict” – something to reflect upon in our own society.

Even in patriarchal China (who traditionally see non-married women as ‘leftover’) marriage rates are declining, with a drop of 9.1% since 2013. “I don’t believe in permanent marriage now and I’m very comfortable being single,” says Waihong. “I don’t feel any less important as I age, because to the Mosuo, older women are the most important. Living with and thinking like the Mosuo has changed my life.”

The Kingdom Of Women (£17.99, IB Tauris) is out 30 March

Where women rule

Female-centric bolt-holes for escaping the patriarchy

Mawlynnong, India

This jaw-dropping village in north-eastern India – with its sweeping vistas and dramatic waterfalls – is home to the matrilineal Khasi. Here, it is the youngest girl in the family who inherits wealth and property, and children take their mother’s last name.

Alapine Village, Alabama

A gathering of eco-homes for women on an Alabaman mountain, residents can be part-time or seasonal and are aged between 50 and 80. The community is 20 years old and welcomes women who tend towards an alternative, spiritual lifestyle.

Limón, Costa Rica

Just 13, 000 of the matrilineal Bribri people live on a reserve here, divided into separate clans of extended families, whose bloodlines are determined by the women. Only women may inherit land, and prepare the sacred cacao plant used in religious rituals.

South Bougainville

This island, west of Papua New Guinea, hosts the Nagovisi whose society is divided into matrilineal clans. The women work the land and make the decisions. There is no formal marriage – but if a man even helps a woman do something small like tending her garden, they’re considered married.

Umoja, Kenya

Founded in 1990, Umoja is an all-female village in northern Kenya. Originally set up by 15 women as a refuge for survivors of rape, today it’s a safe haven for those escaping child marriage, FGM and domestic violence. Tourism is an important source of income.

West Sumatra, Indonesia

Visit the Minangkabau – the world’s largest known matrilineal society. All property is inherited by the daughters, and mothers are venerated. Like the Mosuo, women have their own chambers, while men live in their mothers’ house.

Photography: Getty Images, Choo Waihong