The Mosuo

The Mosuo are an ethnic group living in the province of Yunan near Tibet. My parents visited them on their last trip to China.

Mum described the matriarchal society. ‘The women are the bosses. They run the village, the families and businesses. When a Mosuo woman sees a man she likes, she can point to him and say, ‘Come here’ and they will go to her bedroom. To show that there she has a man in her room, the man’s hat is hung on a hook near the door. When the woman is tired of him, she can tell him to leave. He takes his hat with him and the hook hook by the door is empty again.’

I listened, astonished. ‘Mum, I don’t know if many men would mind that…’

Mum shrugged. ‘Well, if the woman gets pregnant, it is the responsibility of her brother to raise the child. That is the burden of the men, to look after the children of their sisters.’

You can read more about the Mosuo here.


  1. Dan says:

    I’m not entirely sure the Mosuo mating ritual is fundamentally different to what we have, except that ours is more subtle. We often think of men as the initiators in western cultures but actually women often initiate with cues that spur men to ‘overtly initiate’ on them. Highly extraverted men are fine initiating without such cues, realizing that they may have a high chance of being rebuffed, but not really caring.

    Different cultures have different ways, but I would personally find it horrifying to be sidelined or cut out of my child’s upbringing.

    I often use reversal tests to determine hidden discrimination – in this case not-so-hidden sexism. Here’s the translation:

    “The men are the bosses. They run the village, the families and businesses. When a Mosuo man sees a woman he likes, he can point to her and say, ‘Come here’ and they will go to his bedroom. To show that there he has a woman in his room, the woman’s hat is hung on a hook near the door. When the man is tired of her, he can tell her to leave. She takes her hat with her and the hook by the door is empty again.

    In the case of pregnancy, the man raises his child with his sister. That is the burden of the women, to look after the children of their brothers.”

    I think perhaps some international women’s rights movements may be horrified at such a notion?

  2. thian says:

    Oh my what an interesting society – I spent my whole morning reading about them on Wikipedia. But seriously is their practise really any different from what is commonly labelled as the one night stand? (Except for a wee bit of difference – the way Yan puts it – the man spends the night with the woman and goes back to his mom’s house in the morning – it sounds so dignified doesn’t it). And Dan that reversal test is such an eye-opener – the only qualm I have with it is the small but significant fact that man can’t fall pregnant. If women don’t have to worry about falling pregnant and raising children I’m sure we won’t be crying for women’s rights.

  3. Dan says:

    Interesting points Thian..

    Hmm..Does it come down to the fact that men can’t fall pregnant? I would think some of the discrimination discussed by women’s rights movements is felt before women fall pregnant, and for women who don’t even want kids. So I don’t think all discrimination is due to pregnancy, but I think potentially much of it may be.

    But just how significant is pregnancy in the potential discrimination? Or in the reversal test I gave?

    I recall that a number of controversial experiments were done on male pregnancy, one with a fetus aborted at four months in a male baboon. Interestingly, some women’s movements were upset claiming that a fundamental characteristic of women was being taken away from them. But it really is theoretically possible (as is using a cow’s womb for humans).

    Putting aside potential ethical objections (and really tasteless jokes), if a man could fall pregnant does that fundamentally change the nature of the reversal test? Or what if the woman in question didn’t fall pregnant but used a surrogate who carried the fetus to term instead?

    Its interesting because I think we (unconsciously) believe that a mother has a naturally greater right to the child than the father. Perhaps because she is the one getting pregnant. But I suspect this bias still holds even when a surrogate is involved and both parents have only been gene donors.

    OK. Now I’m just rambling… 🙂

  4. joanium says:

    I’m curious about how the Mosuo evolved. I can readily understand how male-dominated societies developed based on physical strength. What are the routes to a matriarchal society? Do the women band together to control the resources? Is there strength in numbers and cooperation, which can overcome physical strength? Was there a period in Mosuo history where women had to take over (e.g. due to war) and they just stayed in charge? Is there a moral right to power due to a religion?

    Dan, I think that the pregnancy issue goes like this. My friends Cobi and Anna gave me this info. The best strategy for a man (who cannot get pregnant) is to spread his genes amongst as many women as he can. To want to be an alpha male (or ‘dandelion male’, as we prefer to call it) is a genetic imperative.

    For women (who must get pregnant and breastfeed), their best strategy is to get impregnated with the nice genes of the dandelion male, then convince Ikea male (the homemaker) that it’s his kid so that he will look after it.

    The Mosuo women have the best of both worlds. They can choose the alpha male’s genes and society supplies them an Ikea male in the form of their brother.

    My opinion is that any kind of discrimination is bad (against males or against females, or tall people or fat people). However, it is human (animal) to discriminate. I can understand where it comes from. But how does a female dominated society develop?

  5. Dan G says:

    I think it is possible for such a society to develop if there is high female promiscuity with a moral tradition that outlaws the punishment of it. As you said, the best strategy for women is to get pregnant by an alpha and then have ikea males look after the child – but most males aren’t alpha and they retaliate by punishing explicitly or implicitly promisuous female behaviour. Those women with such a reputation carry a high risk to males of burdening them with kids that are not theirs, and so such women are avoided or, at worst, punished.

    (There are arguments that in evolutionary terms, this is *possibly* beneficial. There is evidence in bats, at least, that higher female promiscuity imparts a cost to the species as a whole, leading to a tradeoff of larger male sexual organs at the price of smaller brains. A case of too much competition leaving everyone worse off.).

    Anyway, in such a society, in response to such large uncertainty in paternity, the male’s best way of propagating his genes is to look after his sisters’ children instead. The only certainty of a child belonging to a family, with its corresponding resources, would be from the mothers, and so I think such a matriarchal society as the Mosuo’s may feasibly develop along these lines.

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