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Mosuo Women (wikipedia.org)
105 points by trias on June 7, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 62 comments



To me this was the most fascinating bit: “ Historically the Mosuo lived in a feudal system where a larger peasant population was controlled by a small nobility. The nobility was afraid of the peasant class gaining power. Since leadership was hereditary, the peasant class was given a matriarchal system. This prevented threats to nobility power by having the peasant class trace lineage through the female line. This system has led to numerous distinct traits among Mosuo society.“

But there is no reference.. if true this is some clever social engineering by the nobility!


It has been argued that the raise of the Catholic Church to power had a similar reason: catholic priests don't have offspring (at least in theory) hence priests cannot form dynasties and the advantages (for trust and cooperation) of shared descent don't apply, thus priests and hence the Catholic church were less of a threat to existing nobility than other organisations that can form dynasties based on descent. (Note that the Catholic Church is the oldest still existing organisation, and was at some point in history arguably the most powerful organisation in the world.)

I have no opinion on the truth or otherwise of this theory, but find it fascinating.


Diarmaid McCulloch's book "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years" discusses this at some length. My recollection from the book is that celibacy was not a driver of the rise of the Catholic Church (which was already well established) but it was a reason for the Church to establish celibacy as a rule for priests. That is, the celibacy rules (which did not exist in the early church) were instilled to prevent the accumulation of dynastic wealth (and power) by clergy. Control of the accumulated wealth remained with the Church. Monasteries, however, were a way around this, as monasteries could accumulate substantial wealth as institutions despite the celibacy of their members.

Just my recollection from having read the book - don't guarantee it is 100% as the book presented...


It has been argued that the raise of the Catholic Church to power had a similar reason: catholic priests don't have offspring

The opposite occurred with the Roman Legions. The Legions started out as a voluntary honor carried out by citizens -- no place for the family in that situation. Then being a Legionnaire became a career, and after awhile the rules changed so they could have families live with them. At that point, the "military industrial complex" was permanently cemented in place for that society.


>Note that the Catholic Church is the oldest still existing organisation, and was at some point in history arguably the most powerful organisation in the world.

The book "The Shoes of the Fisherman" by Morris West is a good fiction novel, sort of related to your comment.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morris_West

Excerpt:

[ In an unforseeable literary coup, the book was published on 3 June 1963, the very day on which Pope John XXIII died.[2] The book reached No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller List for adult fiction on 30 June 1963, and became the No. 1 best-selling novel in the United States for that year, according to Publishers Weekly. ]


The 1968 film version starring Anthony Quinn is excellent as well.


Didn't know about it, thank you. Will check it out if I can. IIRC, Quinn is the same actor who plays the Greek, Andrea, in the movie The Guns of Navarone, based on the book of the same name by Alistair MacLean.

I just googled about Quinn, and it seems he has played a role in some other famous movies too, including Zorba the Greek, Lawrence of Arabia and Lust for Life:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Quinn


His performance in the scene after the final failed vote during the papal conclave is one of my favorite film performances ever.

He also played the title role in Barabbas.


Ha ha, nice. I also have a few personal favorite scenes like that. If I think of some soon, will post them here. Thanks for those tips.


Here is one:

The scene between (actors) Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise in which Tom tells Jack "I'm not your son, and you're under arrest, you $#%#%@^!" is a good one. I forget the name of the film though.

Another one is the scene in the movie Julius Caesar (maybe based on some classical novel about him, possibly by Shakespeare?), which occurs just before his death. Powerful performances by both the actor playing Caesar and other Roman officials of the time.


I'm not sure of your claim that the Catholic Church is the oldest existing organization as that is a pretty broad term. For instance this Church is older, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_Orthodox_Church_of_Jerus...

I believe the Catholic Church is the oldest corporation (they were the first non-human entity recognized by law as having similar rights and responsibilities as an individual).


I thought that a lot of sons of wealthy families went into priesthood so by keeping them celibate the church would then get their inheritance. That’s how I heard it.


True, but that also means filling the ranks of the Church with people coming from wealthy, powerful families. You can imagine the effect that has on the relationship between temporal and spiritual powers.


Sparta had a similar effect, where (citizen) women inherited all of their husband's (doomed, as he will go to war) property, and an equal part of their immediate family's estate, and so owned the vast majority of the land and pulled the state around by the nose; even as they went out with a whimper.

(apologies if misremembering Xenophon)


not specific to Mosuo, but matriarchal lineage was not 'replaced' by patriarchal in any simple way .. men hunted then men fought wars, and the winner of the wars declared themselves to be rulers, while "peaceful" people stuck with the old ways centered on fertility .. this happened in different parts of the world with very different peoples, over centuries


'Old ways centered on fertility' is unscientific feminist babble pioneered by Marija Gimbutas. It has been thoroughly debunked.

We were always violent. It's just that before agriculture the scope and the resources for violence were limited, so the amount of violence fell into equilibrium, mostly by hunter-gatherer groups establishing clear borders between them.


A few years ago, a journalist reporting on how the Mosuo culture is being affected by the modern world found that many Mosuo men and women were abandoning their traditions in favour of modern Chinese social values. They also had to leave their villages for the larger cities to do this. The senior Mosuo women were apparently very concerned by this. I wonder what the rate of this defection is now. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosuo#Modernity


You can see it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_l9D7tEixc

To be truthful, most of them are leaving the villages because they see better career and living opportunities in the cities which is why they are adopting mainstream values.


There's also a documentary on the Mosuo Women here, which is how I heard of the culture: https://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/rough/2005/07/introductio...


This culture comes up in the (excellent) BBC detective series The Fall, in the relatively negative context of Gillian Anderson's character using it to try and justify her somewhat predatory behaviour towards younger men.


Do you have a youtube link for this?


How do the economics work, though? The article seems incomplete with respect to that. It says children are the responsibility of the women's household. Does it make a difference if a woman only has daughters (no men in the household)? They just do the same jobs as the men?


There is a tradeoff with these cultures - men contribute little to child rearing as a result of having less parental certainty. This is very hard for women, as they have to both subsistence farm and raise children. From that perspective, "at least the sexual double standard isn't present", is a first world problem. These women lead hard lives, directly as a result of losing the efficiency of the single partner marriage.


Not sure if that's the case. Women remain with their family, with their brothers and fathers, and possibly uncles. No sure if men have issue with helping their sisters and their children. I think such large family provides way more support to young mother than any single man can provide.


The men don't farm. That's most of the work. They butcher livestock, fish, but mostly "preserve their strength for nighttime visits".

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosuo#Role_of_men

https://jezebel.com/in-chinese-matriarchal-society-women-do-...

https://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/the-mosuo-mat...


That doesn't mean that in more traditionally organised society they'd farm. Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn't. Maybe their traditional "men deal with animals, women deal with plants" would be kept.

> That's most of the work.

The wikipedia sounds like livestock and fishing is also big part of their lives.


Sarah Constantin's essay on plow cultures and hoe cultures seems apposite here: https://srconstantin.wordpress.com/2017/09/13/hoe-cultures-a...

(Note the very first photo in the wikipedia article)


I don't know if or easy or hard for them, because if the culture is set up that way to begin with maybe it's adapted for that in ways a western mind would not anticipate.

I do, however, think it sounds like a huge bummer, speaking as a father who is very involved in raising my kids and would not like to be shut out of the role.


Well I guess you'd still be very involved in raising your kids, it's simply that culturally in that society what you'd consider "your kids" would be your sister's kids.

Possibly if you would want in that society to raise the children you fathered it'd be akin to you in our society wanting to raise your sister's children.


Farming sucks, even moreso when a single parent. It doesn't matter whether your mind is "western" or not.


But the article says they live in a multi generational household with the mother's blood relatives. Doesn't sound like single parenting to me, itself a term with a very loaded meaning in our culture.


Explains no developed Mosuo civilization and what awaits western civilization.


Fascinating. There's more information on the Mosuo wiki article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosuo

The wiki articles are not especially well written. I'd love to read a book about this.


If anyone has been to Li Jiang, yunnan of china, one may see some Mosuo women. When I was a backpacker almost 20 years ago, the reception of the hostel was a Mosuo girl. But I never been to Mosuo’s village near lugu lake, landslides in summer blocked the road.


Vice youtube video from 3 years ago on Mosuo women, a bit out-dated but good explanation of their lives:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_l9D7tEixc


The further we get from religious orthodoxy, the more diversity in human behavior we see arise naturally. Just like many people are wired for monogamy, at least some of us are wired for polyamory.

I can absolutely see how this behavior could be a more reliable way of passing along diverse genetic material in hunter gatherer societies. Raising children was more or less communal anyway, so the identity of the father mattered way less (plus I assume many of the fathers died young).

It actually carries a lot of benefits over pair bonding in these scenarios: less conflict for romantic rivals given the expectations, addresses the fact that men were far more likely to die young, and children without fathers were simply raised by the women of the village by default until the boys were old enough to hunt. Some level of genetic diversity would be provided by mixing pairs, which was likely augmented by exchanging or abducting women with other tribes.

Again, monogamy is also evolutionary useful once we organize into bigger societies — if land / property ownership becomes a thing, knowing the identity of the father presents a way to ensure resources are consolidated in eldest sons to ensure there is a line of descendants with a much better chance of passing on their genes — with less conflict due to the social norms. The levers that ensure genetic material is passed on changed, and I also believe monogamy is innate for a lot of humans. There is probably also a middle group who, in the absence of social norms either way, would be okay with a polyamorous situation to various degrees.

In modern society, patrilineal inheritance is no longer the norm, so the advantages of monogamy are reduced. In fact, monogamy carries some disadvantages relative to polyamory that I think aren’t obvious at first.

My family are TINKs (triple income, no kids). This enables a massive jump in standard of living without having to sacrifice our passions — my husband and I have high-paying tech jobs while my wife is a social worker. Once we’re ready for kids, we have an extra parent to pitch in on household chores and child rearing. I’m genetically infertile anyway, so if my husband were monogamous with me he wouldn’t be passing along his genetic material. If he were monogamous with my wife, their earning power would be severely reduced. Bonus if you’re “50/50” bisexual — there’s no need to have to choose which half of your identity gets erased to avoid “cheating” on your partner. When one of us just isn’t in the mood for sex or is traveling for work, it’s way less of a problem. I’ve noticed a huge influx of well-off, “socially mainstream” people into the poly community in recent years, which tells me this idea is getting more popular as taboo around sex start to subside (tho most of us are closeted at work to avoid judgment).

That said, it takes some pretty evolved emotional intelligence and communication skills to balance 3 sets of interpersonal relationships. It’s taught me to be able to be radically open about very personal things that initially seem difficult, but I also have to compartmentalize my life at work — we agreed my husband would be my “official” spouse at work as my wife has zero interest in networking with a bunch of techbros anyway.

TLDR: evolutionary diversity is amazing in how it has provided the basis for the survival of the species across many varied types of society over a long period of human development. Polyamory is one of those where the taboo is starting to disappear.


You talk a lot about evolutionary diversity, but you simply replaced one religious dogma with another.

I agree with your statement about religious orthodoxy, but it's just a part of a larger issue; we have been living in an unnatural, deviant environment for 6+ thousand years, based on agriculture. This Mosuo culture is just another part of that, but you try to use them for your argument anyway.

In a natural environment, there is no 'evolutionary diversity' in the way you try to paint it. Main drivers in human sexual evolution are hidden ovulation and a monthly cycle, we are one of the few rare mammal species that have it. Its purpose is to make monopolization by a male costly, because he doesn't know when the female is fertile. This generally results in serial monogamy - a male and female are together until their child reaches age of around four. The female, being fertile from cca 14 to 30, will generally enter cca 4 pairings of this kind. With high child mortality in hunter-gatherers, that generally results in slightly above replacement rate.

No matter how much you rave about 'evolutionary diversity' and your type of relationship, you are not rediscovering the natural ways. Yours is just as deviant as the forced lifelong monogamy with the woman having 12+ babies, and just as dogmatized.


I place no moral judgments on either, nor do I claim this evolutionary link is certain by any means. Just that both are useful in different contexts, and in the modern world where sexual intercourse isn’t required for procreation, we have the freedom to choose.


No moral judgements here either, I'm just someone very interested in evolution of human species. I only attacked the 'appeal to Nature' fallacy which is otherwise most commonly used against lgbt people.


The only appeal to nature I make is that humans are incredibly diverse. Monogamy is a default state for some human beings; as is polyamory for others. And there are likely a lot of people in between who would be open to either in the right context.


I'd like to see some sources for your statements.


Which ones exactly? Let me know.


This entire section, your explanation of a natural environment:

> In a natural environment, there is no 'evolutionary diversity' in the way you try to paint it. Main drivers in human sexual evolution are hidden ovulation and a monthly cycle, we are one of the few rare mammal species that have it. Its purpose is to make monopolization by a male costly, because he doesn't know when the female is fertile. This generally results in serial monogamy - a male and female are together until their child reaches age of around four. The female, being fertile from cca 14 to 30, will generally enter cca 4 pairings of this kind. With high child mortality in hunter-gatherers, that generally results in slightly above replacement rate.


>Bonus if you’re “50/50” bisexual — there’s no need to have to choose which half of your identity gets erased to avoid “cheating” on your partner.

I'm bi, in a monogamous relationship. My identity isn't at all "erased", because I don't define myself by who I have sex with. Nice scare quotes around cheating.


Everyone is different and that’s awesome! I’m glad you don’t feel the experience of “bi erasure,” but it’s super common among bisexuals. Polyamory is just one way of dealing with that for people who don’t jive with monogamy.

The quotes were only there because in a poly relationship, it’s not really cheating as long as there’s open communication within whatever framework you’ve agreed upon. Being poly takes like 10x more talking about your relationships.


"less conflict for romantic rivals given the expectations"

This assumes all men would be equally likely to get to have sex with the women. Otherwise, if the whole society has to take care of the children, but only a few men get to procreate, it just means many men working for free (like drones) to support other men's children.

Of course that would be a good scenario for some members of society - the women who can choose to mate only with the most attractive men, and the few lucky men. I doubt it would automatically create a happier society, though.


It already is like that to an extent. 80% of all women that ever lived had offspring, while only 40% of all men who ever lived did.


Where are you getting those numbers from?



That says it was true historically, not any longer.


That reminds me of something I read once about college, saying that "20% of the men were getting 80% of the sex".


> > "less conflict for romantic rivals given the expectations"

> This assumes all men would be equally likely to get to have sex with the women.

I think the OP meant since no one was expected to be monogamous, there is no "cheating" and no conflicts of "infidelity". More women having multiple partners means potentially more different men would be having sex.

> it just means many men working for free (like drones) to support other men's children.

Well, not just anyone's children, because they would all be related by blood. They'd be taking care of family.


Sort of. There's a big difference between working to raise your cousin's kids and working to raise your own.


Thanks for talking about this.

Exposure to unorthodox social positioning is good for everyone. There's way too much rigor mortis around it. I'd say, in the context of the modern society, exploring different modes of relationships and integrating that into everyday life in a holistic way is the social equivalent of discovering that the earth is round, or colonization of the Americas. Your nick name is fitting.

Either way, again, thanks for talking about this, and I hope you'll continue to do so. You'd be doing a great service to everyone.


This is really interesting; I have questions.

How did you end up in such a relationship? Was there a couple that added a third, or did you all start the relationship together?

Who are you out to? How did that go?


I was basically a 50/50 bisexual, and after a failed marriage to a woman with jealousy issues, I knew I didn’t want a purely monogamous relationship so I was open about that up front. I started dating in the poly scene, and eventually ended getting close to a guy who was also dating my future wife. She and I ended up clicking as well (most people in the poly scene are bisexual to some degree), and we all eventually decided since we were hanging out and sleeping together every weekend, it may make more sense to do that under one roof.

I’m out to everyone in my personal life: we tend to hang out with a lot of polyamorous people / swingers and LGBTQ people. I’m also out to a few people at work, though only in an LGBTQ diversity context (I personally lump polyamory under the category of “Queer” along with heterosexual people into “lifestyle kink”). I know a few people at work who are also in poly relationships — which is how I learned it helps to designate one spouse as the “work spouse”.

When open-minded monogamous folks find out, their reaction is mostly curiosity — which is why I think an openness to polyamory is way more natural that we would think. When I mention the three income thing it really strikes a chord: when we have kids, we can have one parent stay at home full-time without sacrificing quality of life. And it’s not much more expensive than living in a monogamous pairing since we have one grocery bill, one mortgage and one set of utilities.


Way out there, dude.


It's interesting that this society is matriarchal and non-monogamous. Bonobos, our closest animal relatives, are also matriarchal and non-monogamous. Chimps, on the other hand, are patriarchal and live in what are essentially harems. Is patriarchy is associated with monogamy whereas matriarchy is associated with non-monogamy?


> Chimps, on the other hand, are patriarchal and live in what are essentially harems.

So, also non-monogamous.

> Is patriarchy is associated with monogamy whereas matriarchy is associated with non-monogamy?

Not from the evidence you've marshalled so far.


Chimps actually do not live in harems. That is a more accurate description of orangutangs and gorillas.

Chimps live in what could fairly be called a polyamorous society.

Matriarchy is very rare in the animal kingdom. Thus it is hard to say what it is associated with. Even when species have a female dominance hierarchy, it may not be the dominant one, if you take my meaning. Observationally, female dominance hierarchies are characterized by inter-generational immobility: dominance is for the most part inherited.


Chimps live in what could fairly be called a polyamorous society.

What about Bonobos? If Chimps are already polyamorous, maybe we need a different term for Bonobos?


Polyamorous isn't a specific enough term. Perhaps for the sake of our discussion it's enough to say that neither animal demonstrates monogamy or the kind of harem / central-female-group characteristic of sultans or lions.

There's a lot of good material online about what chimp mating behaviour is actually like.

Monogamy is rare in the animal kingdom, more characteristic of birds than of any other creatures.




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