Lugu Lake: Preservation and Exploitation

Senior Thesis by Jesse Millett, August 1, 2007
Asian Studies, University of Colorado, Boulder


There are two major types of tourism: scenic tourism and cultural tourism. Lugu Lake is lucky enough to have both, but this may not exactly be the blessing immediately perceived. Tourism in general has brought revenue to the state for centuries. It is just another way for people to spend money. Every year countless dollars are raked in solely due to travel and tourism. It's not just the government that is gaining from this wealth though, but also the locals who take advantage of the massive spending and abundance of jobs. Drivers, tour guides, shop owners, entertainers, hotel personnel and restaurant staff are just a few of the people that profit from tourism. The spenders too are being rewarded. A wealth of beautiful sites and new information are being stored in their cameras and memories. After weeks or months of sitting in the office, a combination of relaxation and exercise help to maintain or regain their health.

Tourism does have its flaws though, and it's not just on one group of people, but on the people as a whole. If tourism becomes careless, it could harm the very aspects of Mosuo life that were initially of interest, such as the environment and the culture. If a destination begins to have too many tourists, it could begin to damage the environment through littering, solid waste, air pollution, etc. In a similar manner, tourism could affect the culture which people were so interested in seeing in the first place. If too many tourists begin to observe a certain culture, that culture will naturally and inevitably begin to assimilate towards the foreign culture, losing the very precious aspects of such a culture that people were drawn to. If tourism is conducted properly, though, the people will not only benefit, but the culture and environment will also be protected.

The Mosuo are a unique people with an extremely unique culture and a beautiful surrounding environment. Tourism is inevitably going to continue to grow around Lugu Lake, so it must be developed properly. I have visited the Lugu Lake area twice in two years and, while examining the effects of tourism, have seen things develop quite rapidly. My fieldwork is based on two one-month stays in 2004 and 2006. While conducting my fieldwork, I have lived in three Mosuo villages, Luoshui, Lige, and Labei representing, respectively, villages effected by mass tourism, effected by minor amounts of tourism and not effected by tourism at all. I have made a comparison of these villages, along with many others I have visited during my fieldwork, and have analyzed their differences as well as the differences which occurred over the two years in between my visits. With careful analysis and scholarly research I have began to explore possible tourism improvements and social and economical enhancements in this region.

In this paper I conclude that tourism, if practiced properly, can fully benefit the Mosuo and tourists alike. Mainly tourists must be educated more thoroughly and accurately about the Mosuo's way of life. Once this is executed, stereotypes of the Mosuo will be abolished and the real Mosuo will begin to be appreciated. The more tourists appreciate the Mosuo, the more the Mosuo appreciate themselves and strive to preserve that what makes them unique. Upon observation of Labei, a Mosuo town completely untouched by tourism, I discovered that the Mosuo were losing aspects of their culture that tourism around Lugu Lake was helping to preserve. Therefore tourism can help preserve Mosuo culture, but it must be redirected and priorities rearranged. Efforts must be taken to help preserve the non-material aspects of Mosuo culture, like their language, religion, path of ancestry, and marriage system, rather than material aspects like clothing, dancing and the perception of loose women.

Mosuo Culture

Culture is passed down from generation to generation, and reflects the complete makeup of a people's way of life. It is an ever-changing facet, gaining and losing aspects due to development and assimilation. In many cases, this change is inevitable and even profitable for the people as it could promote a better way of life. In any case it is very important to preserve those cultures which differ from that of the mass culture because there are many aspects that we can learn from. On top of this, some cultures hold anthropological goldmines and preserving or at least documenting them can tell a lot of information about our own history. In 1949 China realized the importance of its many shaoshu minzu (commonly translated as "minority nationalities") and began to classify them, eventually coming up with 55 groups, excluding the Han majority. The main purpose for this classification was to attempt to create a more unified state, accepting that the ethnic minorities were not Han, but they were still Chinese (Harrell 1995, 22-26). On top of this the classification system was a way of suppressing the minority groups into different levels, putting the Han at the top. This was according to Marxist theory that the minority groups were just farther behind on the path of evolution and categorized them as primitive, slave, or feudal (Walsh 2001, 96-97). Though the minorities were originally pressured to assimilate in the 1960s, the classification system has eventually enabled ethic minorities to become more recognized and desirable and therefore, even if indirectly, has assisted in preserving their cultures.

The Mosuo were left out of this classification and were instead classified under the Naxi nationality in 1956. This connection was not a coincidence though and has been like this for centuries. The pairing is possibly rooted from the Mongol invasion in 1253 when Kublai Khan captured the Lijiang territory which included the Mosuo territory previously under rule of the Naxi kings (Yang and Mathieu 2003, 267). Khan included this territory in the Yuan dynasty, leaving hereditary native chiefs behind to rule over the Mosuo and Naxi.
The classification of the Mosuo and Naxi as one minority was not just ascribed to ancient dynasty histories, but more significantly in the ideology and methods of the newly formed Chinese government. When the Mosuo were classified with the Naxi the Peoples Republic of China was just several years into its rule and there was intense pressure placed on ethnologists to emphasize class relations and de-emphasize ethnic distinctions. It was Communist rhetoric that nations were made up of people with a common territory, language, economy and national culture. With so much diversity in China it would have weakened the government to classify every small nationality. Classifying fewer nationalities promoted unity within the entire nation. On top of this, it was very important for the newly formed Communist government to create a society of separate classes, where the "primitive" minorities would be forced to begin assimilating into the Han society (McKhann, 1995).

In recent history this has been a subject of much discussion and argument and the Mosuo themselves scorn the classification. Christine Mathieu has published an extensive argument on why the Mosuo should be considered a separate nationality in A History and Anthropological Study of the Ancient Kingdoms of the Sino-Tibetan Borderland - Naxi and Mosuo, 2003. She argues that the two groups differ on nomenclature, language, religion mythology, dress, kinship, and matrilineality (8-14). To avoid confrontation the Chinese government came up with a compromise in 1988, giving the people of Yongning County the distinguished title of Mosuo Ren, Naxizu de Yu Zhi (Mosuo People, a Branch of the Naxi Nationality). This is quite ridiculous, making it seem like the Mosuo were not a people prior to the compromise. However, it is very unlikely that the Chinese government will budge on this issue, for if they did, it would open up the door to many other groups of people who were left out of the classification system. Today though, mostly due to the large influx of tourism, the Mosuo would rarely be confused with the Naxi, and the Mosuo have received much more than autonomy. As a result the Mosuo have put the concern of classification behind them and are much more concerned with economic development (Mathieu 2003, 5-7).

The Mosuo are usually thought to just be located along the edges of Lugu Lake, but in fact they spread far into the mountains and their numbers are somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000. Their territory is separated from the Naxi by the Yangtze River, known as the Golden Sands River (Jinshajiang in Chinese) in this area. It spreads east across the Yongning plain, past Lugu Lake, and into the Sichuan Territories of Zuosuo and Qiansuo. Yongning, meaning eternal peace in the Mosuo language, is seen as the political and economical capital of the Mosuo. In fact, the Mosuo people in Sichuan consider themselves Mongols and have hence been categorized in the Mongol nationality, though their culture matches the Mosuo on the other side of the province border almost exactly. They classified themselves as Mongols as a result of the Mongol influence and take over of southwestern China during the Yuan Dynasty.

One of the most important characteristics of the Mosuo, especially from an anthropological perspective, is that they still hold a completely matrilineal society. Matrilineality is a system of lineage where a people follow their descent through their mother's line. The Mosuo are interesting because they not only follow a matrilineal system but also contain aspects of a matriarchy. For this reason many anthropologists have trouble categorizing them. "There exists no such thing as a matriarchal society, that what goes by matriarchy is in fact matriliny…Matriarchy indeed implies the opposite of patriarchy, a social and political system where women have privileges and power at the expense of men, and this is not something that maternal inheritance automatically guarantees" (Yang and Mathieu 2003, 265). The Mosuo are not a complete matriarchal system because most political power lies in the hands of the men. This is most likely due to the fact that customarily men's responsibility lies in the outside world as tradesmen or Buddhist monks. This gives the men a more worldly perspective and makes them most fit for political roles dealing with outsiders. Women, on the other hand, contain most of the social and economic power within the villages. The mother of the household makes the financial decisions and property ownership is passed down from mother to daughter.

The marriage system, or lack of one, is the most unique part of Mosuo culture. It is the only living society in the world that has such a practice. The Mosuo people have no legal marriage bond. Instead, they have what in Chinese is called zuohun, which literally translates as "walking marriage"; however, it can also be referred to as "visiting marriage." In the Mosuo language it is called azhu sese, or "a friend who comes and goes." When a Mosuo girl has matured, at around 13 years of age, the village considers her a woman who is fit to receive visitors. This does not mean that she will receive lovers right away, and in actuality, most women don't start relationships until they are in their late teens or early twenties. Once a woman has found someone of interest, she will, in one way or another, signal her lover to come visit her late that night. This signal can come in many ways, but it is usually quite obvious. Sometimes it is a form of competitive singing (duige in Chinese), where the man and woman take turns singing back and forth, teasing each other with each verse. Other times, it is the giving of gifts such as belts or offerings of food. One form that has spread to the outside world is a simple handshake where the woman secretly scratches the man's hand with her middle finger. While staying in a guesthouse in a small town on Lugu Lake, one Australian tourist instructed me that this is handshake is even used in his home country.

Once the lover, xiaobo in intimate terms or azhu in more public matters (Yan 1982, 81), has been invited, he will sneak up to the woman's bedroom late at night, where they will stay warm by the small fire in her room and get to know each other better. The man will spend the night there, but will leave early in the morning, preferably before the sun rises but absolutely before anyone else in the house is awake. It is a disgrace if he is seen, for discussing sexual matters within the household is unthinkable. The man then returns to his mother's house for the day, only to return to his lover's the next night.

These relationships will last as long as the couple wants, and sometimes will last for life, as long as love is still persistent. When the relationship begins to fade away, the man will just stop visiting, or the woman will place his things outside her door as a signal for him to never visit again. The relationship is never spoken of again and there is never any "breakup" or quarrel. Feelings of jealousy and resentment may exist, but it is Mosuo custom to subdue any negative emotions, not expressing any of them except maybe to a close, same sex relative.

If a child is born through one of these relationships, the father holds no obligation to the child. The mother and the mother's family raise the child. In fact, raising a child is the entire family's responsibility, where everybody takes equal share in the child's upbringing. It is not uncommon to see the child's aunt breastfeeding him. The neighbors, too, help out in the raising of a child, but the father rarely has any role in its upbringing except for maybe buying him gifts and candy. The father's responsibility lies within his mother's home and his sister's children. Because of the lack of a father role, there is a large misconception that the Mosuo language has no word for father. Actually there are two words, abo and ada, but usually the father is just referred to as awa, or uncle. Also, the word for mother and aunt are very similar and the mother is often referred to as an aunt (ami). There have been some cases where children have been brought up, not knowing who their actual mother and father are. It wasn't until contact with the outside world when they understood how strange and different this was (Yeh 2003, 75).

It is possible to categorize two types of zuohun. There are very private ones, which may not last very long, and there are long, stable relationships, which are usually well known throughout the community. In the latter, the man might hang around and socialize with the woman's family, being cautious not to mention anything about his relationship, though it is assumed. This sort of relationship might take place after a child is born, as it is quite common for a relationship to stabilize after the birth of a child.

On my second visit to Lugu Lake I conducted many interviews with Mosuo people and domestic and foreign tourists alike. I asked a series of questions, but one of the main questions I had was what they thought was the most important aspect of Mosuo culture and why. Their answer gave me an idea of where their impressions had come from and why they had chosen to be at Lugu Lake. In respect for these people I have kept their identities somewhat anonymous.

In guesthouse in the small village of Lige at the north end of Lugu Lake, I asked the owner, Sijie, which aspects of Mosuo culture she thought were most important. She responded that zuohun was undoubtedly the most important because it is this uniqueness that makes the Mosuo special, and this is what most the tourists are drawn to as well. As a guesthouse owner it is obvious that she values the zuohun not only for its cultural importance, but also because it is why many of the tourists come to Lugu Lake. Sijie also said that almost as important as zuohun is the big family structure (dajiating in Chinese). Her answer shows that she understands the uniqueness of this structure and how important her family is to her. An ideal Mosuo family, one that every head of the household (called dabu in Mosuo) hopes and strives for, is one large family, maternally related by blood, and all living in the same household. In one house, there might be three or four generations including grandmothers and their brothers, mothers and their brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. There is no husband, no wife, and no father. On the occasion that a marriage does occur, it's usually because a woman falls in love with someone from another Mosuo village or even someone from a different nationality. This is strongly looked down upon because it is not only breaking the custom of zuohun, it is also breaking up the family. The lack of marriage means that wealth is evenly owned among the family and decisions are made in a democratic way regarding how to use it. If a family member breaks away from the family, they are expected to take care of themselves, although the family might send them on their way with a hospitable amount of traditional gifts.

Ideally everyone in the household is of the same blood. Since there are no marriages, and rarely do spouses ever move in with the family, there is a definite distinction in power order. The mother is the most important and the most powerful person in the family. Though, financial matters and property ownerships are mostly democratic, the head women of the house have the final say. They are also responsible if any bad happens. In a marriage system the spouse has to struggle with discrepancies with the in-laws. Many times married couples would rather move in to separate residences and start a new family. The Mosuo system simplifies these struggles. This system has created a powerful family structure that has sustained for thousands of years.

It is crucial for a family to have daughters, because without them the bloodline will be broken, something they call in Chinese duan gen, or "broken root." If a woman only gives birth to sons or has trouble giving birth at all, it is relatively conventional for the family to adopt a daughter from somebody who already has enough, preferably a close relative. The adopted child is then raised as one of their own and is considered a part of the bloodline (Yeh 2003, 73). In 1979, the Chinese government implemented a Planned Birth Policy, where having only one child was encouraged and in urban areas even enforced. In this policy, the ethnic minorities were allowed to have more children because of their diminishing population. The Mosuo people were allowed to have three children, but even this was a limitation to their previous large families. After this policy took effect, the practice of child adoption and exchange increased.

Sometimes an exchange is even made, substituting a son for a daughter. Yang Erche Namu, a famous Mosuo singer, claims she was swapped because she was the third daughter in a family with no sons and her mother was fed up with her relentless crying. She was soon returned, and her older sister was swapped instead (Yang and Mathieu 2003, 26-29).

The traditional Mosuo home is in the shape of a 'U' with the open-end acting as a front gate. The middle of the U-shaped house is an open-air courtyard where you might see the family's animals walking around. The sides of the house are two stories high with the bottom floor being used for the kitchen, storage, guest rooms, and the men's communal rooms. The top floor is for the individual women's rooms, which are called in Mosuo babahuago, or "flower rooms." These are where the women will receive their lovers and these rooms are usually very comfortable. In more mountainous regions, such as Labei, on the banks of the Yangtze River, the houses are three stories where the entire bottom floor (more like a basement) is for the livestock, including pigs, cattle, chickens, horses and donkeys.

The most important room in the house, though, is called in Mosuo the rimi, or the mother's home. This room traditionally has no windows, but only a small doorway. This is where the old men and women sleep, as well as children under thirteen. Sometimes the kitchen is even inside the rimi, but the most central item in the room is definitely the fire pit. The fire here is almost always burning and meals are usually eaten around it, and sometimes cooked over it. The dabu, or woman of the house, is the one who tends to the fire and makes the frequent sacrifices to the altar, which stands behind the fire pit. The altar usually has various items on it but almost always includes a Buddhist picture or figurine such as the Dalai Lama or the Buddha himself. Other items might include pictures of deceased ancestors, or of Daba idols. Daba is the local Mosuo religion. Ironically, on every altar there exists some sort of memorial of Mao Zedong, as if he actually helped and liberated the Mosuo people.

Religion is very important to the Mosuo and their daily lives. The Mosuo practice two different religions, their local Daba religion, and a form of Tibetan Buddhism. The Mosuo follow the Gelugpa sect, also known as the Yellow Hat sect of the Dalai Lama. Buddhism is far more prevalent in daily life than Daba, and it can be seen everywhere throughout the Mosuo community. Prayer flags line the streets, and stupas, or chortens, are seen spotting the hills. Old women and men are constantly walking the streets spinning their prayer wheels or fingering their prayer beads. Monks are also quite common, and before the Cultural Revolution, one male in every family was expected to become a monk.

Tibetan monks are also called upon many times for special occasions such as giving a child a name, or for a successful birth, and even after someone dies, to make sure they have a safe passage to their next life. All Tibetan Buddhist holidays are observed and usually the entire community participates. The Mosuo take pride in having their own "living Buddha," who is a reincarnation of a great Tibetan spiritual leader. There is a large Buddhist temple in Yongning, where he frequently visits.

While I was doing fieldwork in Lige, I saw Tibetan monks on two separate occasions performing spiritual ceremonies for the villagers. The first time was to pray for a successful birth of a pregnant woman who was nearing delivery. It consisted of just two monks chanting their scriptures and pounding their drums and symbols. The second time was after an incident where the police came to arrest a man who had been hiding out in a guesthouse for three months. When the police arrived the man ran, and when he was caught, he tried stabbing himself and slitting his throat with a one inch knife. He was unsuccessful and the police carried him off to the nearest police facility in Yongning. Allegedly he had murdered a man somewhere in Sichuan. The next day the Lamas came and spent the entire day trying to rid the evil out of his room and the guesthouse.

Daba is much less prevalent and it seems to be disappearing fast. During my time at Lugu Lake I did not see one daba, or shaman, and supposedly there are only a few elderly shamans left. Daba is entirely an oral religion, passed down from one daba to the next. It is an ancient religion, being passed orally for thousands of years. It is an animistic and ancestral worship religion and it really only exists in Mosuo daily lives on special occasions. A daba will be called when somebody is sick, or on certain occasions and holidays, such as the Spring Festival or the coming of age ceremony.

When I was in Lijiang I interviewed He Mei, a Mosuo woman teaching English at a university in Lijiang. He Mei is the first Mosuo woman to get a Masters degree in America, where she attended The College of St. Rose for Teaching Administration. During the interview, she told me that she believed that the Daba religion and the Mosuo language are the two most important aspects of Mosuo culture, or at least the two most endangered. It is clear that He Mei's education and experience have allowed her to appreciate the uniqueness of her culture and the importance of preserving it. She explained that these two aspects hold the essentials of Mosuo culture and history. Unfortunately, these are the two that have the highest risks of disappearing in the near future. The Mosuo have no form of written language, but only an oral language. Since there is no written language, there is no curriculum in the schools and it is not taught. For the most part only Mandarin is spoken in the schools, since many of the teachers themselves are not Mosuo. On top of this, due to the influx of Han Chinese and tourism around Lugu Lake, Mandarin is the predominant language spoken. Many children who learn Mandarin in school speak to their parents in only Mandarin, and can only understand Mosuo language if their parents speak it. The problem with the language fading away is that it holds all of the Mosuo's history which has been passed down from daba to daba orally and has never been recorded. Especially since there are only elderly dabas left, once they have all passed away, their history could be lost.

The three most important parts of the Mosuo life are birth, the coming-of-age ceremony, and death. The coming-of-age ceremony is usually held around the age of thirteen and only during the Spring Festival. A lot of Mosuo don't even know their own birthday. They only know their birth year so they celebrate it during the Spring Festival. During this time everyone is dressed in his or her best clothes and there is a big celebration under the Goddess Lion Mountain (, December 6, 2006).

Death is the most significant element of the Mosuo life. It is extremely important that you must die in your home, where you were born, so that you complete the circle of life. Soon after a person has died the family members will pick an auspicious date, and after both the daba and the lama have said their according prayers and wishes, the body is cremated.

Ethnic Tourism

As mentioned above, China has classified 56 different nationalities within its borders. Yunnan Province alone contains 25 of these, providing for an extremely diverse and cultural province. Many of these minority groups have their own language and writing system, and maintain a completely different culture than the Han majority. Clothing, food, religion, and language all vary quite vastly between each minority. Though numerous attempts have been made to try and assimilate these minorities into Han culture, curiosity and fascination have created a huge appeal to preserve these cultures and capitalize on exceptional identities. This phenomenon is epitomized by Edward Said's theory of the "other" in Orientalism, 1978. Said explains that people are fantasized with those who are very different from us because it puts us above them and allows us to scrutinize their faults while legitimizing our own. "Ethnic tourism is about the consumption of 'the other'. The further away from ourselves 'the other' is, the more marketable and consumable it becomes-as long as that image is non-threatening and fits with perceived notions of how 'the other' should appear," (Hillman 2003, 181). All over China, and especially in Yunnan, it is clear to see how minorities are marketed under the pretense of "ethnic tourism."

Within the capital of Yunnan province, Kunming's Minority Village has provided us with the perfect example of this theory and provides the groundwork for ethnic tourism throughout China. On one side of the street in South Kunming is the Minority Museum, where you can see the assumed ancient "primitive" minorities and their "costumes." Then directly across the street you will find real live minorities in the Minority Village! This large park hosts most of the province's minorities and will entertain tourists for days. Different minorities are shipped in from all over the province and are paid to entertain the tourists with their own songs and dances while dressed in traditional "costumes" from their minority. The village gives off the same sense as a zoo would, strolling on the sidewalks viewing the beautiful Dai women from Xishuangbanna partaking in their representation of the Water-Splashing Festival for a few minutes and then moving on to listen to the Tibetan minority sing and dance.

Ethnic tourism does not just reside in these manufactured villages, but naturally exists in many areas of China where an "interesting" minority might reside. People come from all over the world to visit "Shangri-La," previously known as Zhongdian in Northwestern Yunnan Province. In the mid 1990s, timber accounted for 80% of the area's GDP. Due to depleting timber sources and a forced ban on timber production, ethnic tourism was by far the number one moneymaker in Zhongdian by the turn of the millennium. The largest nationality after the Han in Zhongdian is the Tibetans. While the Tibetan government is still in exile, the Chinese government portrays itself as a patron of Tibetan traditions and religion in Zhongdian. Shangri-La has developed into a prime ethnic tourism target, where Tibetans are glorified for their differences even if they are not genuine. Signs in Zhongdian are now in both Chinese and Tibetan, and even though some of the Tibetan is illegible, it still provides a sense of authenticity (Hillman 2003, 180).

Many times in areas of high ethnic tourism the subject begins to change their traditions and presentations to fit the stereotypes and desires of the tourists. Tibetan performances in small farmhouses outside of Zhongdian provide great entertainment for tourists even though most of the songs they sing are in Chinese and the atmosphere is completely catered towards the Han. It does not matter, though, because it is the sense of authenticity that establishes prosperous ethnic tourism. In the same manner, when a minority becomes too modernized and similar to the Han, they lose this sense of authenticity and tourists lose their desire to visit. This has been exemplified in some Dong villages in Guizhou Province, where the lack of the sense authenticity began to deter ethnic tourism (Oakes, 1997).

"[Shangri-La] represents what people of all races are searching for - a desire that among people, and between people and nature, there be no conflict, no chaos, only economic prosperity, national unity, and social stability," (Hillman 2003, 179). This is what was written by the Zhongdian counsel in petition to change the name of the town. The name Shangri-La was first used by James Hilton in his novel, Lost Horizon, to represent pristine and far off land that is exotic and foreign, yet peaceful and secure. Lugu Lake is also seen quite similarly and it is possible that maybe Hilton was describing the land of the Mosuo. The significance of this name, now, is more of an attraction though, and its meaning is very misrepresented. Many nationalities, like the Tibetans and the Mosuo, are seen as completely peaceful and pristine, exotic and friendly, living without a worry in the world. Of course this in not completely true, and the attraction of your very own Shangri-La could create dangerous misconceptions.

Tourism at Lugu Lake

Tourism in Yunnan province did not begin until the late 1970s when the Yunnan Provincial Bureau of Tourism and Sightseeing was set up. By 1988, the prospects of tourism were seen as very promising and tourism was proposed to be considered as a "big industry." By the mid 1990s, tourism was seen as the backbone industry of Yunnan Province, and has continued to grow until today. In 2004, the total contribution of tourism revenue has exceed 35 billion RMB (Qiu, 2005).

Tourism now brings in the largest revenue for Yunnan Province. Lijiang, lying somewhat northwest of the province capital, Kunming, and just south of the Tibetan Plateau, is China's number one destination for domestic tourism. In 1996, an earthquake shook the area destroying all the modern buildings, while the old style Naxi buildings held strong. This drew the attention of the world and soon after Lijiang was declared a World Heritage site, drawing millions of tourists every year. Lugu Lake is just an 8 hour bus ride northeast from Lijiang. Until 1996, there were no good roads leading to Lugu Lake and the Mosuo community was completely secluded from the modern world. By the late 1990s, tourism began to grow immensely in China and Lugu Lake became a hot tourist spot.

Lugu Lake, or Xienumi (meaning "Mother Lake" in Mosuo), lies at an elevation of 8,825 ft. The lake straddles the boundary between Ninglang County, Yunnan Province and Yanyuan County, Sichuan Province. It covers an area of 31.25 mi2, of which 18.83 mi2 sit in Yunnan. It has an average depth of nearly 150 ft, while its deepest point is a gasping 305 ft. The lake contains 6.4 billion ft3 of water, constituting it as the 3rd largest deep-water lake in China. It has 18 bays, 17 beaches, 5 major islands, 2 peninsulas, and an embankment island. Lugu Lake has no input streams, but is only fed by a spring near Xiao Luoshui in Sichuan making it a crystal clear lake allowing you to see almost 40 ft down into the water. The clear bright blue water is, undoubtedly, a major reason for much of the tourism, for sometimes it is impossible to distinguish it from the blue sky. The water flows out at the marshy area of Caohai, flowing into the Gaizu River, and then into the Yulong River, and finally into the mighty Yangtze River which empties into the Pacific Ocean at Shanghai (Lijiang Lugu Lake Provincial Tourism Zone Management Committee: Attracting investment and capital brochure).

The lake is lined with villages all along its banks. The Mosuo People, as they are now officially called (though still under classification as the Naxi nationality in Yunnan and the Mongol nationality in Sichuan), make up the majority of the population around the lake. Other nationalities include the Pumi, Lisu, Yi, Tibetan, Naxi, and an increasing amount of Han. Recently a road has been completed around the lake which is sure to boost tourism in the many small poorer villages quite like it had for Luoshui.

Disguised as a tourist myself, I spent nearly a month observing and interviewing the Mosuo and the tourists around Lugu Lake in November, 2006. The interaction between these two groups of people was especially of interest. During my stay I traveled all around the lake, spending time in many of the scattered villages. The tourist hotspot on Lugu Lake is no doubt the village of Luoshui, and though I only spent one complete day there, it gave me a very vivid representation.

Luoshui lies on the western shore of Lugu Lake and is the first town that you come to on the lake from Lijiang. The buses drop you off at an open area on the lake where canoes are lined up waiting to take you for a ride. From here you can walk for about a mile along the lake and enjoy the beautiful scenery of the lake and the surrounding mountains, or shop around in the hundreds of tourist shops that line the waterfront. The shops sell many things, none of which seem to resemble Mosuo culture. Instead, the products resemble things you would see in nearby Lijiang, basically anything to catch the tourist's eye. Scarves, cowboy hats, silver jewelry, and erotic paintings (some of them completely nude) are just some of the products for sale. In 1999, there were approximately forty guesthouses in Lijiang, and countless shops. The estimated annual income per capita was about 20,000 RMB and has no doubt significantly increased over the past decade (McKhann 2001, 153).

Once the tourists have finished exploring the shops and have been paddled about the lake, they will get comfortable in their hotel or guesthouse and await the evening's activities. After a Chinese dinner, the tourists will filter into an auditorium to watch some Mosuo entertainment. Normally, in a non-tourist flooded town, the Mosuo would only dance altogether a few times a year, for the Spring Festival, and sometimes for a wedding or even a funeral. But in Luoshui, and now in Lige and soon in every tourist town around the lake, there are dancing performances every night. The locals will dress up in traditional costumes and dance around the fire pit with someone playing the fiddle and music blaring to set the beat. Soon the tourists will join in the dancing. The night concludes with a competitive singing competition between the Mosuo and the Han tourists. After it's all done, everyone heads to the small bars anticipating a night of sexual jokes or even a chance at zuohun. Many people will only stay one night and head back to Lijiang early the next morning.


The majority of my time spent on Lugu Lake was at Lige. I used this village as my base camp where I would make frequent day trips to other villages. Lige's laid-back atmosphere provides a prime model for fieldwork. Since the town receives only a fraction of the tourists as Luoshui does, the residents were much more welcoming and open towards my work. On top of this, Lige is just beginning to open up to tourism on a larger scale, and if developed properly, could act as a prototype for more sustainable tourism elsewhere around the lake.

Lige is the next big town along the road from Luoshui. This town lies on the very northern part of the lake, directly under Lion Goddess Mountain. There are 32 families living here, all of which are working hard to boost the tourist industry. This year (2006) the entire town was moved back nearly 90 yards from the waterfront. Originally the town was built right on the water, as its Mosuo belief that living close to the water brings good fortune. When tourism started to spread to Lige the houses progressively got bigger and soon enough you had to walk on stepping stones and wood planks to get from house to house and getting your feet wet was almost unavoidable. This was beginning to restrict tourism and officials also claimed that the houses were beginning to pollute the lake since there were no sewage systems. A plan was written up in 2005 and when I visited in November, 2006 there was no sign of the old village. Where the old town used to be is a long scenic walkway and a dock for boarding the pig-trough boats. Now there was a local cobblestone road passing in front the house extending all the way to the next bay with access to Lige Island. The town is now equipped with a waste processing system, public bathrooms, and a parking area.

The creation of the new town has already increased tourism, even though much of the buildings have yet to be finished. China Radio International reports that the new town has been "relocated to the new spot with the same layout and ethnic style as before." Unfortunately this is not the case and the new houses are being built in more modern styles, ones that will attract the tourists. The guesthouse that I stayed at was definitely the best looking one, but the exterior didn't resemble Mosuo architecture at all. In fact a man from Guangzhou had designed it, and another man residing in Lijiang financed half of it. The owner commented on the style saying she likes the style and she knows that it will draw more tourists than a regular Mosuo style house. The only part of the house that is still in the traditional style is the rimi, the mother's house. The mother, who was 68 and the oldest woman in the village, and therefore the most respected, did little but feed the pigs in the back and sit by the fire pit all day. It was hard not to question that when she passed away, would the rimi also fall out of existence?

Though the atmosphere seems much better than that of Luoshui, and the layout of the town is much more hospitable, soon it will be overrun with tourists and its fate will be much the same as Luoshui. Every day Lige boasts the same canoe rides and every evening the same entertainment.

The Primitive Mosuo

Zuohun is not the only part of Mosuo culture to attract tourists, though. The belief that Lugu Lake is a place where women do all the work and make all the decisions seems to attract many people. This misconception that the Mosuo are a complete matriarchal society is common. The tourist industry has consistently used this description to attract tourism. On the ¥80 ticket which you purchase to enter the Lugu Lake area it reads, the Mosuo People at Lugu Lake "still maintain the tradition of the matriarchal marriage system named Visiting Marriage, thus praised by the experts home and abroad as 'The Last Piece of Pure Matriarchal Society.'" Unfortunately Lugu Lake is neither the last matriarchal society nor is it pure in any means.

These misconceptions run much deeper than the entry tickets and the tourists' views. In 1982, a Chinese sociologist named Yan Ruxian published an article titled "A Living Fossil of the Family - a Study of Family Structure of the Naxi Nationality in the Lugu Lake Region." In this paper, Yan argues that the Mosuo people are just slow on the path of evolution. Yan makes clear his view of the Mosuo as a primitive being that is far inferior to the Han. "[The Mosuo] are like a colorful historical museum of the evolution of families in which one finds living fossils of ancient marriage formation and family structures" (Yan 1982, 61).

What Yan and many others fail to consider is that the Mosuo system of marriage (or lack thereof) has survived for thousands of years in a peaceful and unique manner. Just because they have very different practices in their society, does not make them primitive or inferior. In fact, their system has created a relatively peaceful economic relationship within the family due to the fact that you cannot marry into the family, so the family head retains all of the economic responsibility.

Eroticizing the Mosuo

At Lugu Lake the term zuohun, has lost its sole distinction as a Mosuo cultural identity. Its meaning has changed significantly from a lover's extended unity to an equivalent of the western perception of a "one-night stand." Many tourists are drawn to the area by the misconception of a free-loving society, where women will sleep with whoever fancies their interests that night. In fact the Mosuo are far from a promiscuous people and some people will only have one lover their entire life. Of course there are cases where women will have many lovers throughout her life, much like in the western world, but even in these cases relationships seem to stabilize after a child is born.

Due to this false impression, zuohun has turned into a commodity around the lake. People have started to capitalize on this, not only opening shops selling erotic paintings but also a rise of prostitution has occurred. Many non-Mosuo have come to Lugu Lake, in particular Luoshui, from the poorer mountain regions to earn some money as a prostitute (Wu Xiao Ping, 2006). Hotel names begin to hint at this with names like "The Mosuo Garden of Eden." Sadly, it is beginning to resemble a Red Light District. One night, when I was about to go out, the owner of the guesthouse that I was staying at held out a hundred Yuan bill and jokingly said in Chinese, "Take this for tonight's zuohun," obviously implying to some form of prostitution.

Naturally these impacts of tourism are having a horrible effect on the Mosuo and their culture. If it continues in this degree it will surely change zuohun altogether. Already the change is quite obvious and many Mosuo have begun to play into it. Every night is filled with sexual jokes and enticing engagements between the guests and the locals. Unsurprisingly, a rare occasion exists when a local and a guest will "zuohun" after a night of alcohol.

A Sexual Revolution

I have thought about these negative impacts quite a bit and the more I noticed people opening up about their sexuality at Lugu Lake, the more I considered what positive results could arise from the Han Chinese's interaction with the Mosuo's concept of sexual freedom. Women in China have never had sexual freedom. Though today, personal freedoms are increasing, the private sex life is still a suppressed subject. Women frequently choose, or are searching for, a husband with a secure job and high status above romantic love or sexual freedom. The Mosuo society provides a perfect example for the combination of these feats. Lugu Lake should not be a place for people to fool around and explore their sexuality, but it should be used as an example that should be brought into our own lives. The time I spent at Lugu Lake I frequently observed people flipping through Yang Erche Namu's books of sexy pictures and romantic stories. Every night people would sit around speaking freely about sex and telling all sorts of sexual jokes, something that I would never hear elsewhere in China. Maybe it is time that China takes a deeper look at Lugu Lake, beneath the commodity of sex, and start realizing the romantic essence of the Mosuo. Perhaps it's time for the Mosuo to lead the Chinese Sexual Revolution.

Again Lugu Lake is not a promiscuous society, contrary to popular belief, but the Mosuo women do have complete sexual freedom. They can choose who they want to be with, for how long and when they want to meet. This is something completely unheard of in the outside world, especially in China. Christine Mathieu describes this in the afterword of Leaving Mother Lake:

"[The Mosuo] have personal rights and freedoms in the domain of sexual relations that are unthinkable in much of the rest of the world. Indeed, above and beyond gender relations, Mosuo society is extraordinary for its institution of visiting relationships, which may well claim to have solved a universal conundrum of human existence, predicated by the desire for sex and love, and the requirements of family continuity, and economics" (279).

Mathieu explains that other societies have marriage at its core to protect the family line and obtain economic security, as well as satisfy our human nature of sex and love. But in the outside world, love is usually sacrificed for a good marriage, or marriage is sacrificed for sexual freedom. She continues to say that the Mosuo have it all: sexual freedom, romantic love, economic security, and a continued bloodline. Indeed there is much we have to learn from this society and it may require a new world sexual revolution to see any extensive change.


What part of Mosuo culture was getting left out at Lugu Lake? This is the question I was determined to answer by visiting a small Mosuo village far west of Lugu Lake away from any tourist intervention. The Labei area rests right along the Yangtze River with mountains towering over on either side. The hillsides are dominated by terraces, which undoubtedly play a huge role in the people's lives that live here. Its population is about 9000 people, where over 5000 are Mosuo. Other ethnic minorities in the region include Miao, Zhang, Tibetan, Lisu, Yi, Pumi, and Han. The village I lived in was named Waxialuo and was populate by 480 people, all of which are Mosuo. I stayed mainly in this village for the few days that I was there and focused my fieldwork on this small community in order to begin to understand the structure of its population.

Labei is very far from any big towns. It takes over a day's walk to reach Ninglang, the county's capital, or Yongning near Lugu Lake. Presently there is a bridge being built which will allow people to get to Lijiang in 8 hours by bus. For this reason, the area has a strong community and it seems like each small village is its own family, sometimes quite literally. The villages were completely self-sustainable, growing all their own food and raising all their own animals.

It soon became clear that I was asking the wrong question and in fact it was Labei that was losing its culture, not Lugu Lake. Due to the fact that Labei was so far from any large town, and there were only primary schools in Labei, many of the young people have left the area to attend middle school, high school, or even university. The nearest middle school is a ten hour walk north to Tuodian and the nearest high schools are in Yongning and Ninglang. Many of the youth have left the area at a young age and only returned for holidays. Most of the people I met in Labei told me they met their spouse in middle school and some said in high school. Once they fell in love they got married, usually around the age of 18, and either moved to their spouse's village or brought their spouse home to settle in Labei. Naturally this process has destroyed the tradition of zuohun, but they insist that zuohun still exists before marriage. This seems to just mean that they experimented with different lovers, but none the less zuohun has pretty much vanished from the Labei communities. Without zuohun, the matrilineal society has little foundation, and though the women are highly respected and the mothers have similar roles as in Lugu Lake, the Labei society is now a nuclear society, where lineage is traced through both the man and the woman.

It was clear to see the impact of this on the Labei area. A majority of the population is old people and most of the younger people who are there have only graduated from primary school. Some have moved back with their spouses and live with their parents or have built a house for their own. Even some of the older people have left Labei searching for jobs in Ninglang, Yongning, or Lijiang, leaving their spouse behind and only returning after a few years of work. The most people in a house would be about six or seven, but most of the families had only three or four. The big family has seemed to disappear, but a close-knit community has replaced it and the feeling of a big family is still there.

On the other hand some aspects of Mosuo culture were more prevalent in Labei such as the Mosuo language and Daba. The Mosuo language was spoken much more than it was in Lugu Lake, while many people couldn't even speak Mandarin. The primary school taught Mandarin, but many of the teachers would communicate with the children in Mosuo only. Daba was still very uncommon but it was more present than it was at Lugu Lake where it was practically obsolete. The Mosuo language and Daba are still in great danger in Labei though because of the amount of people who are leaving to find school or work.


Change is inevitable; there is no question about that. In many cases, change is a transition that improves many people's lives. However, at Lugu Lake things seem to be changing a little too quickly. The development around the lake is rapidly increasing and the once peaceful and pristine lake may soon be lined with resorts. Construction has already begun on an "amusement park" in Caohai, an area unreachable from Lijiang only a few years ago. This park has been titled "Matriarch Kingdom Town" and plans to include "an art center, starred hotel, international conference center, a folk food culture center, a local culture exhibition center, [model] Mosuo homes," and tapping into the Mosuo Hot Springs. The park itself will be able to cater 1.2 million people annually and will cover an area of some 20 acres. Already completed in the town of Nisai, the next town past Lige on the lake, is a chairlift almost summiting Mosuo's sacred Goddess Lion Mountain. Also in the works is a small airport, which will cut Lijiang's journey to Lugu Lake from 8 hours, down to less then one.

There is no doubt that tourism at Lugu Lake needs to be controlled and closely monitored. Prostitution, at least in the name of the Mosuo, should be stopped altogether. Information given out in tour books, pamphlets, websites, etc. needs to be accurate, not just appealing to the average tourists. The specifics of zuohun and the matrilineal society need to be clarified so that people will not come to the area merely for "free sex." And finally it should be known which shops are run by Mosuo people, what products are actually authentic, and if a purchase will be benefiting the Mosuo people.

Tourism has its positive effects though. It has definitely improved the quality of life for the Mosuo around the lake to a great extent, ridding poverty completely. Children are growing up with better choices and better education. The Mosuo have better access to the outside world broadening their knowledge and increasing their opportunities.

Besides improving the quality of life, I have now learned that tourism is also preserving aspects of Mosuo culture such as zuohun and the matrilineal way of life. This is due to the fact that young people around Lugu Lake are able to stay in their home village, unlike in Labei, because there is enough revenue and work in the tourist industry for them. Also the Mosuo have realized their uniqueness and are quite proud of it, themselves striving to preserve it. Sijie from Lige told me, "I would not marry even if I had the opportunity because I cherish my culture too much." Now understand that this is the same woman who owns the completely non-Mosuo style guesthouse. But I think it is the material things like the architecture and the dress that will inevitably change and the traditional styles will only be seen in museums. It is the non-material parts of their culture that must be preserved, for we may have a lot to learn from it before it fades away.

The Mosuo are a peaceful society, one that has managed to achieve both sexual freedom and marital securities (economic security and protection of a bloodline). Arguments are kept to a bare minimum, since there are no legal contracts and no spousal disputes. This society is as close to an ideal society as one could think of. Is it not obvious that we can learn much from the Mosuo people?

Unfortunately language and religion have been left in the dust. Children are growing up knowing only Mandarin and soon all of the Daba priests will soon pass away, taking with them the entirety of Mosuo history. Luckily there have been a few desperate attempts to try and record their history and religion. The main attempts have been by Lamu Gatusa a Mosuo historian and the Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association. Lamu Gatusa is from Labei and was the first Mosuo academician. He graduated from Yunnan Normal University. Gatusa, along with Australian anthropologist Christine Mathieu, have taken it upon themselves to collect and translate Mosuo oral history as well as document every Daba ceremony and every Mosuo song and story (Yang and Mathieu 2003, 269-272).

The Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association has also begun efforts to preserve the Mosuo language as well as spearheaded a campaign to create a written Mosuo language. They are still at the preliminary stages but plan to use Daba symbols and pictographs much like the Naxi of Lijiang and have a pinyin system with it to encourage the study of it by Mosuo and outsiders alike. This association, directed by John Lombard, also has plans to begin giving grants to Mosuo people interested in starting up a business. The grants will come with education and the necessary connections for starting up the business. In return the new business will be required to give a certain percentage of its profits to a fund which will improve social services in Mosuo towns unaffected by tourism.

Efforts like these are what can help preserve the cultural aspects of the Mosuo people, and at the same time halt the shameless exploitation. Individual efforts, as well as NGOs, help to educate the people about the issues and are making innovative and beneficial progress in raising the quality of life, while valuing, sharing, and preserving the culture.

Works Cited

"Coming of Age." Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association. 2006. 6 Dec. 2006 --

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Walsh, Eileen R. "Living with the Myth of Matriarchy: the Mosuo and Tourism." Tourism, Anthropology, and China: Studies in Asian Tourism. Ed. Tan Chee-Beng, Sidney C.H. Cheung, and Yang Hui. Bangkok: White Lotus P, 2001. 93-124.

Wu Xiao Ping. "Ethnic Tourism Development and Reconstruction of Ethnic Culture: Mosuo Cultural Tourism in China," lecture April 4, 2006. University of Colorado at Boulder.

Yan, Ruxian. "A Living Fossil of the Family - a Study of the Family Structure of the Naxi Nationality in the Lugu Lake Region." Social Sciences in China 3(4): 60-83. 1982.

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