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Mosuo Matrilineal Society and Gendered Technological Practice

               Depictions and conceptions of matriarchal societies generally follow a similar narrative that casts matriarchy as utopian, isolated, and peaceful. But how do real societies which have been described as matriarchal function within a larger world system which is decidedly patriarchal, without being autonomous nation states? How does the eco-feminist view of women as in tune with nature and given to peaceful action mesh with a real “matriarchal” society? In my readings on the Mosuo I have come to realize that, for the most part, they does not function in an absolute matriarchal sense and might not have ever conformed to the “matriarchal” ideal which was grafted onto them by outside observers. However, using film and print media the Chinese state, as well as outside tourist groups and publications, have produced a “cultural” identity for the Mosuo which is synonymous with a gendered identity and which reinforces the vision of the Mosuo as “matriarchal,” when they are in fact better classified as “matrilineal,” and only some of them as such. Although outside feminists might like to characterize the Mosuo as a bastion of female power, and tourists might like to believe it is an exotic, untouched land full of women whose prime social function is to fulfill desire, the gendered perception of the Mosuo conforms rather depressingly to “properly gendered” constructions in Chinese and Western society. The collective perceived gender identity of the Mosuo, cast as matriarchal and matrilineal, affects technological practice in the form of tourist, state and ecological practices.


              One of the major appeals of the Mosuo to mainstream Chinese tourist culture is its perceived resistance to the technologies which are experienced by non-Mosuo Chinese people, especially the reproductive technology of the One-Child Policy and its construction of family and gender. The Mosuo are not required to comply with the One-Child Policy because they are a minority group, and they have been used by some social scientists to argue that adopting Mosuo characteristics into mainstream Chinese society would help to alleviate some of the gender disparities in birth rate and family planning technologies which have resulted in a significant imbalance between men and women in Chinese society. Alan Lu has argued that the Mosuo “matrilineal family construct surpasses the mainstream Chinese families in gender equality and the nurturance within the family and between the family and its community” (116). He goes on to say that adopting Mosuo familial practices and abolishing the One-Child Policy would create a more just society. In this way, the perception of Mosuo culture as peaceful and harmonious has influenced thinking on a particular state enforced reproductive technology.


               While I agree with Lu that for mainstream Chinese culture (and all patriarchal nation-states) to adopt some matrilineal practices for a more equitable society would be ideal, it must be acknowledged that Lu’s perception of Mosuo society is influenced by technologies of film and print media. In “From Nü Guo to Nü’er Guo: Negotiating Desire in the Land of the Mosuo,” Eileen Rose Walsh describes how Mosuo people in the village of “Luoshi daily engage with the commodification of their culture, and…must continually face and reshape constructions of Mosuo identity made by outsiders” (449). Walsh argues that the Mosuo are overtly sexualized by the outside gaze and that “The “culture” that tourists hope to consume is imagined through an ideational slippage in which notions of matriarchy and of women as ever-available objects of desire intermingle instead of clash” (450). The fact is that not all Mosuo practice the “walking-marriage” or “axia” relationships which are the facet of “matriarchy” that most outside descriptions focus on. Many households are actually patrilineal, and the division of labor can often be described as traditional in the Western sense. Some Mosuo guest houses are not even run by people who are ethnically Mosuo, and the perception of the Mosuo as  a society of free-love has contributed to a rise of a prostitution industry frequented by “Han men,” wishing to “be sexually titillated or fulfilled,” (467). Thus, the gendered identity of the Mosuo has impacted the technological practices of advertising and tourism, and these practices have in turn significantly changed Mosuo society.


               In fact, researchers have found that Mosuo identity is in some cases quite linked with relationships to tourism. Xiaobo Xiong et al. found in their “Preliminary study on effects of tourism on Mosuo matriarchal culture,” that “people favour Axia relations when they earn more from tourism. It appears that, when the Mosuo are deeply involved in tourism activities, they consider the Axia marriage is the core of their traditional culture and that their unique culture is the most important reason for increasing tourism, which provides them with jobs and income.” Outside of tourism, relationships with the Chinese state have influenced gendered Mosuo identities especially in environmental issues. Deforestation in the area where most of the Mosuo live has been a significantly problem since the Cultural Revolution. This deforestation “severely harmed the interests of the villagers,” (Zhongua 175) and in the years since, afforestation has been primarily spearheaded by women: “In the afforestation, 80% are women…when fighting a fire, it is easier to mobilize the women than the men” (171). The study on forest management by He Zhonghua concludes that “the matrilineal system” is the key to positive technological practice in “the management of the forest” and to make proper “use of the scientific and effective kernels of development” (175).


                   Ultimately, I believe the lesson to be learned from the impact of Mosuo culture on technological practice is that state, tourist, and environmental practice technologies could be improved by greater awareness of the performative nature of gendered representation. In her model of the political and economic function of traditional matriarchies, “Matriarchies as societies of Peace: Re-thinking Matriarchy,” Heide Goettner-Abendroth describes a decidedly eco-feminist view of the Mosuo as an “egalitarian” model on “the path toward a just and peaceful world-society” (52).  While she insists that this is not a fiction, it is important that acknowledgement of the influence of outside gazes make it possible for matrilineal structures to influence technological practice in the world at large, rather than techno-patriarchal modalities influencing matrilineal practice.


Works Cited

Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. “Matriarchies as Societies of Peace: Re-thinking Matriarchy.” Off

Our Backs 38 (2008): 49-52.


Lu, Alan. “China’s One-Child Policy and the Matrilineal Alternative.” Dialogues@RU 6 (2007): 106-18. Dialogues@RU-Volume 6-Summer 2007. 4 Sept. 2007. Rutgers University. 6 Mar. 2009 <>.


Walsh, Eileen Rose. “From Nü Guo to Nü’er Guo: Negotiating Desire in the Land of the Mosuo.”

Modern China 31 (2005): 448-86.


Xiong, Xiaobo, Ding Ding, Hongbing Deng, and Suping Zhang. “Preliminary study on effects of tourism on Mosuo matriarchal culture.” International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology 15 (2008): 42-47.


Zhonghua, He. “Forest Management in Mosuo Matrilineal Society, Yunnan, China.” Gender

Relations in Forest Societies in Asia: Patriarchy at Odds. New Delhi: Sage, 2003. 147-75.


One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    March 16, 2009


    This paper, like your last, is concerned with the inevitably bi-directional interactions of gender and technology. Last month, you looked @ the surgical reconstruction of virginity; this time, you are focusing on the (purportedly) matriarchal culture of the Mosuo. What’s interesting in this project is your showing that—although matriarchal practices have brought media attention to the Mosuo–the media has also, in turn, influenced (not to mention misrepresented!) those activities.

    I would be interested here (as I was in your last paper) in having you step back a little bit—before demonstrating the back-and-forthing taking place between the Mosuo and those who represent them to the larger world—to look a little @ the phenomenon of the “utopia, isolated, peaceful” system that is y/our fantasy of a “matriarchy.” What feeds such a fantasy, and why do we construct-or-seek it out? (These questions are akin to those I asked you last month, regarding virginity: Why is it so valued? For what is it a symbol? What abstract values does its material reality reinforce? Why is so much made of it?)

    More specifically, and pointedly, why do you think that it would be “ideal” for “mainstream Chinese culture to adopt some matrilineal practices”? What is gained if patriarchy is replaced by matriarchy (one hierarchy by another), patrilineage by matrilineage (one accounting system by another)?

    I’m puzzled, too, by your conclusion that the lesson to be learned here is that “state, tourist, and environmental practice technologies could be improved by greater awareness of the performative nature of gendered representation.” What I thought you’d shown, rather, is (what you explicitly deny in your final sentence) that such technologies had themselves influenced matrilineal practice.

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