Where Women Reign: An Intimate Look Inside a Rare Kingdom

High in the Himalayas, the last matriarchs of the Mosuo people struggle to keep ancient traditions alive.

photographs by Karolin Klüppel
Published 3 Nov 2017, 22:38 GMT
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.”
Photograph by Karolin Klüppel

In the shadow of the Himalayan mountains, at the edge of the lush, expansive Luga Lake, live the Mosuo people. Their complex social structure is said to be one of the last semi-matriarchal societies in the world, following a maternal bloodline and the practice of “walking marriage.” Women may choose and change partners as they wish, a structure that favours female agency over male dependence.

But this ancient tribe with surprisingly “modern” values is in high demand. Tourists visit them in their hundreds, anthropologists flock to examine them, while the Chinese government sees them as little more than a lucrative commodity.

In the middle of this perfect storm of pervasive interests are the women themselves. Wise and physically strong, their quiet, dignified power has been their armour against threats of cultural erosion, which came to a fever pitch during the Communist Revolution. But in the last 20 years, their stability has gradually crumbled.

As with many first nation communities around the world, the opportunity to make money from tourism has come at a price. By opening up their culture to visitors, it is gradually eroding. “It is a conflict for many families,” photographer Karolin Klüppel, who spent time documenting the Mosuo, tells National Geographic. “Life is easier when you benefit from tourism but they also feel really saddened by the changes.”

Younger Mosuo have become more integrated with Han Chinese, with many marrying outside of their tribe and moving to larger cities to find work. And with little practical help from the government, it has fallen to the older women to be the custodians of their culture. “They were the part of the culture that impressed me so much because they were so strong and so present and full of dignity,” Klüppel says.

Amid the chatter of exploitation, Klüppel’s soulful portraits seek a different, deeper kind of truth. Rather than simplifying or deconstructing their way of life, her images reveal the women’s enduring strength, as unshakeable as the Himalayan mountains they call home. “The older women were quite present in village life, giving all the orders to family members,” she says. “One woman I spent time with had one daughter, two sons and two grandchildren. But she was working the hardest.”

The matriarchs Klüppel met were “often very funny, and very active”, at odds with the German culture she is used to. “I saw an 80-year-old women carrying things I could no way carry myself,” she says. “Their bodies are really tense with power. I realised that physical strength really depends on what you do with your body – the women have more strength than the men!”

Though female dominance in the workspace is a rarity elsewhere in the world, the Mosuo’s “walking marriage” system is arguably the most unique – and exoticised - part of their culture. Progressively feminist or selectively misandrous, depending on how you look at it, tradition dictates that the Mosuo women’s partners only visit them at night, and these partners have very little to do with their children’s upbringing. Mosuo children stay with their mother’s families for life, and as such, the woman is the head of the household.

“In Han Chinese society, status really depends on your job and women choose partners differently, love is second or third on the list,” says Klüppel. “For the Mosuo, it's only the heart and love and passion they feel, and if they don’t feel it any more they can stop the relationship and it's no big drama. The feeling of butterflies in the belly is more important than staying together.”

Klüppel spent a total of three months with the Mosuo and visited over 250 homes. She grew accustomed to their particular daily rhythms and the way mutual respect was so closely cherished. At a time when female empowerment is the global topic de jour, it seems painfully ironic that a culture where women truly prevail is on a steady decline.

Follow Alexandra Genova on Twitter @alexandraaa_cg

You can see more of Karolin Klueppel’s work on her website: www.karolinklueppel.de

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