Yunnan, China – The Musuo live on the banks of the pristine Lake Lugu, high in the mountains on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces in southwestern China.
In this traditional matriarchal culture, children live in their mother’s home for their whole life. Grandmothers are heads of Musuo households. Family name and inheritance is passed through the female line and most manual labour is carried out by women. Men are, however, responsible for hunting and fishing.
“Walking marriage” is a unique aspect of Musuo culture. In this practice, women can have as many or as few lovers as they choose. If a man is chosen as a partner, usually at a “fire dance” – where villagers gather to socialise – he will visit the woman at her family home at night and must return to his mother’s home before sunrise. If a child is conceived, it will be raised by the mother and her family.
Due to their customs, the home of the Musuo, who number only around 40,000, has come to be known as the Kingdom of Women. Their reputation for “free love”, along with the breathtaking landscape of their homeland draws increasing numbers of tourists, who travel by bus from Lijiang, in Yunnan Province, seven hours away.
Tourism has already made a huge impact on Musuo life, but they welcome the new wealth the tourists have brought to their villages. Until recently, Musuo survived on subsistence agriculture and hunting. Today, the villagers own iPads and sports utility vehicles. Much of their income is derived from entrance fees paid by tourist groups to attend fire dances.
It remains to be seen how much of the Musuo way of life can be preserved in the face of increasing curiosity and influence from the outside world, but practicing their traditions for visitors is one way they are fighting to keep their culture alive.