Sergei Dorma, 70, from the village Shankua:”When the Red Army came after 1959, they stole so many things from us. We were not allowed to practice our Daba religion anymore. They burned our monasteries and our prayer books. From 1975 on, the Chinese even forced us to give up our marriage customs; they called it ‘One Husband, One Wife’ campaign. We had to marry in the Chinese way and start to live together. That was against our custom of the walking marriage.” (Karolin Klüppel)

Life around Lugu Lake — high up in the Himalayas, straddling China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces — has been changing rapidly. Until quite recently, the Mosuo, a Chinese ethnic minority of about 40,000 people, enjoyed hundreds of years of relative stability in a complex matriarchal structure that values female power and decision-making.

Most famous among Mosuo traditions are the practice of a “walking marriage”: Women may choose and change partners as they wish, and because Mosuo children stay with their mothers’ families for life, men only visit their female partners by walking to their houses at night. Because the head of a Mosuo household is always a woman — she is responsible for all financial decisions and the passing of the family name and property — the Mosuo are often characterized as a matriarchal society.

Since the Cultural Revolution, when the exercise of their faith was forbidden and couples were forced to marry, this stability has been slowly crumbling. Today, Mosuo culture is misrepresented — often falsely portrayed as promiscuous — and exploited as a tourist attraction by the Chinese government.

While the financial benefits of the tourism industry may counteract some of the problems caused by increasing poverty, most Mosuo families do not live in the developed area around Lugu Lake, and due to rural flight, fewer of them are able to sustain a way of life traditionally centered around large, matrilineal clans sharing their household income.

My photographs focus on older Mosuo matriarchs, also called “Dabu,” who still remember a time when the community was shielded from outside influence. These women are proud guardians of Mosuo culture and tradition but also acutely aware that these are slowly being eroded. By capturing the quiet and dignified rhythm of their daily lives, I also record a culture that is in danger of vanishing.

Asa Pure, 67, looks out the window of her home. Below: Asa Pure was young when the Red Army came to her region in the late 1950s. Over the next few decades, Chinese communists tried to dismantle much of the Mosuo’s traditions, burning monasteries and prayer books and outlawing walking marriages. That practice continues in many homes, yet the Dabu consider the rise of communism to be the beginning of their culture’s end. (Karolin Klüppel)

Produce seen in the home of Asa Pure. (Karolin Klüppel)

Pema Lamu, 73, sits in her bedroom in the village of Zhashi. Like many Dabu, her body is weathered from years spent working in fields. While men help with heavier labor, women are responsible for farm work. (Karolin Klüppel)

Du Zhi Ma’s household, like most in the area, does not have running water. Each day, the family bathes in a plastic bin that they manually fill from a source in their garden. (Karolin Klüppel)

Du Zhi Ma lives in the village of Zhashi. She has been with her partner, Gan Ru, since she was 18. He spends a lot of time in her home, but he still officially lives with his mother. (Karolin Klüppel)

Du Zhi Ma, 61, holds a portrait taken 35 years ago. Now grown, two of her three children have left their village to pursue better work opportunities in the city of Lijiang. (Karolin Klüppel)

Sada Dorma, 77, from the village Yixi: “Some years ago, many tourists came to our village, Yixi, because we have a beautiful cave to visit. But two years ago, the Chinese government built an airport just above the cave, which is too dangerous to enter now, and that’s why the tourism stopped here.” (Karolin Klüppel)

Several pig jaws hanging over the front door. The Mosuo are known for their preserved pork, which is kept for more than 10 years. (Karolin Klüppel)

For generations, women like Asa Nuja, 69, have been the heads of their Mosuo households, responsible for passing down property and family names. Children are bound to their mothers, who can change partners as they wish. Men may visit their current spouses only at night — a tradition known as “walking marriages.” (Karolin Klüppel)

More images from this series can be seen on Karolin Klüppel’s web site. 

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