The Mosuo Matriarchy: 'Men Live Better Where Women Are In Charge'

How does a matriarchy really work? Argentinian writer Ricardo Coler decided to find out and spent two months with the Mosuo in southern China. "Women have a different way of dominating," the researcher told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Coler, you are from Argentina, where macho behavior is not exactly unheard of. What was it like living for two months in the matriarchical society of the Mosuo in China?

Coler: I wanted to know what happened in a society where women determine how things are done. How do women tick when, from birth onwards, their societal position allows them to decide everything? We men know what a man is, we put that together quickly -- but what constitutes a woman? Although, I didn't get any wiser on that point.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is Mosuo society a paradise for feminists?

Coler: I had expected to find an inverse patriarchy. But the life of the Mosuo has absolutely nothing to do with that. Women have a different way of dominating. When women rule, it's part of their work. They like it when everything functions and the family is doing well. Amassing wealth or earning lots of money doesn't cross their minds. Capital accumulation seems to be a male thing. It's not for nothing that popular wisdom says that the difference between a man and a boy is the price of his toys.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is life like for a man in a matriarchy?

Coler: Men live better where women are in charge: you are responsible for almost nothing, you work much less and you spend the whole day with your friends. You're with a different woman every night. And on top of that, you can always live at your mother's house. The woman serves the man and it happens in a society where she leads the way and has control of the money. In a patriarchy, we men work more -- and every now and then we do the dishes. In the Mosuo's pure form of matriarchy, you aren't allowed to do that. Where a woman's dominant position is secure, those kinds of archaic gender roles don't have any meaning.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What astonished you the most?

Coler: That there is no violence in a matriarchal society. I know that quickly slips into idealization -- every human society has its problems. But it simply doesn't make sense to the Mosuo women to solve conflicts with violence. Because they are in charge, nobody fights. They don't know feelings of guilt or vengeance -- it is simply shameful to fight. They are ashamed if they do and it even can threaten their social standing.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And when there's no solution to a problem?

Coler: Either way, there won't be an altercation. The women decide what happens. Some of them do it more strictly and others in a friendlier way. They are strong women who give clear orders. When a man hasn't finished a task he's been given, he is expected to admit it. He is not scolded or punished, but instead he is treated like a little boy who was not up to the task.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are men raised to be incompetent?

Coler: For the Mosuo, women are simply the more effective and reliable gender. However, they do say that the "really big" decisions -- like buying a house or a machine or selling a cow -- are made by the men. Men are good for this kind of decision-making as well as physical labor. The official governmental leader of the village, the mayor, is a man. I walked with him through the village -- nobody greated him or paid him any attention. As a man he doesn't have any authority.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How does this division of roles function when it comes to love?

Coler: In the matriarchal society, love and eroticism are omnipresent. But there is a big difference between the two. They constantly crack double-entendre jokes. Someone always wants to present you with a woman and there is always a woman there who is smiling at you. Like I said, these are very strong women who give the orders and yell at you as if you were deaf. But when it comes to seduction, they completely change. The women act shy, look at the floor, sing softly to themselves and blush. And they let the men believe that we are the ones who choose the women and do the conquering. Then you spend a night together. The next morning, the man leaves and the woman goes about her work like before.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: A paradise of free love, in other words?

Coler: The sexual life of the Mosuo is very distinctive and very active -- partners are changed frequently. But the women decide with whom they want to spend the night. Their living quarters have a main entrance but every adult woman lives in her own small hut. The men live together in a large house. The door of every hut is fitted with a hook and all the men wear hats. When a man visits a woman, he hangs his hat on the hook. That way, everybody knows that this woman has a male visitor. And nobody else knocks on the door. If a woman falls in love, then she receives only the specific man and the man comes only to that woman.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What makes a man attractive to a Mosuo woman?

Coler: When she can talk with a man, have sex, and go out, then she is in love. Love is more important for them than partnership. They want to be in love. The one reason to be with another person is love. They aren't interested in getting married or starting a family with a man. When the love is over, then it's over. They don't stay together for the kids or for the money or for anything else.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does the concept of marriage exist for the Mosuo?

Coler: Yes, the children are even threatened with it: "If you aren't good, then we will marry you off." The children understand marriage as a horror story. They asked me how we live. I said: man meets woman, they fall in love, have children and live together for their entire lives. Oh, they said, that must be great. But you know that they laugh at the fact that we constantly repeat something that even we know doesn't work.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: May we ask if you also hung your hat on a hook?

Coler: One woman wanted to have a child with me. I told her, no, I can't have a child with you because you live here in China and I live in Argentina. "So?" was the reaction. The children always stay with the mothers. I said that I couldn't have any children whom I could never see. She just smiled as if I took it too seriously. When they have kids, the children are theirs only -- the men don't play a role.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In Chinese society, there is more value placed on the sons than on the daughters -- is it the other way around with the Mosuo?

Coler: A family without daughters is a catastrophe. Furthermore, these families do worse economically because the women are the ones who deal with money. One family has 15 to 20 members. Although, there are also small families with five or six members. They are allowed to have up to three children, which is unusual in China, where the urban populations are only allowed one child and people in the countryside can only have two. But the roughly 25,000 Mosuo have the status of ethnic minority and thus they can have three.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do the Mosuo actually have a word for "father"?

Coler: Yes, there is a word but nothing like our concept of what a father should be. These duties are taken over by the mother or the family. Often, the women don't know which man is responsible for the pregnancy. So the children also don't know who their biological father is. But for the women it is usually not important because the men barely work and have little control over things of material value. The family is what's important and they would never separate themselves from it.

Interview conducted by Jürgen Vogt

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