The concept of love fidelity, in the sense that we might be accustomed to in modern-day society, does not exist. Little value is attached to the notion of possession or exclusivity, and even less to the idea of shared finances, property, and responsibilities, as each partner normally remains socially and economically a part of his or her own maternal family. In addition, the concepts of ‘husband’ and ‘father’ are traditionally not a part of the Mosuo social structure. As such, children who are born of these relationships are fully accepted as members of their maternal family and brought up collectively by its members.
But these are traditions that still exist, albeit somewhat precariously and incongruously, in a rare polyandrous matrilineal Tibeto-Burman community, called the Mosuo. Having a population of about 40,000, the group lives mainly in the remote high-altitude wetland basin area in the southwestern Yongning region, and in the surrounding mountainous areas.
One of the most studied ethnicities in China, the Mosuo (pronounced ‘mwo swo’), also known by other names, including [Yongning] Na and Moso), officially belongs to the Naxi ethnic group. Believed to have originated in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), the traditions of large matrilineal households and visiting sexual unions – popularly referred to as the ‘walking’ or ‘visiting’ marriage – are based both on the view that women, by virtue of their reproductive role, provide the core and continuation of the Mosuo household, and on a strong sense of sexual individuality. Sexuality is not considered negotiable or exchangeable in Mosuo society, but remains a purely sentimental or amorous matter, implying no mutual constraints. Societal norms see the man visiting his partner in her bedroom when the other members of her household have retired for the day, often spending the night with her, but leaving to return to his maternal home early the next morning.