Inside a fading Chinese culture ruled by women

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.

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

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