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Traditional Mosuo Relationships

They sound like customs that belong to a forgotten culture of an ancient community. The people do not traditionally marry, but engage uninhibitedly in consensual relationships with different and often multiple partners, as desired by each party, from the age of 13. 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.

See more in Asian Geographic's Languages of Asia Issue 5/2016


Article by Jocelyn Lau

How Technology and Globalisation Are Changing Language As We Know It

In our everchanging lexical world, where languages twist and turn, and sometimes bend over backwards or die out to suit trends, cultural changes and technology, the future of the spoken and written word is difficult to predict.

Around the World

The influence of globalisation is operating in quicker and more complex ways, and creating a more connected world than ever before. This multi-cultural epoch that we live in affects language in significant ways, for wherever we go, we bring our language with us.

As the impact of the major global languages increases, it continues to pressurise local languages into adapting, and year by year we are seeing more languages bowing out. The extinction of many of Taiwan’s indigenous languages – from Ketagalan to Siraya – is a direct reaction to the spread of Mandarin in the country, and presents a hard- hitting reality for many local languages that this may also be their fate.

But could this extinction of local tongues follow suit on a global scale? Linguist, educationalist and communications professional Teresa Tinsley does not believe that the world will return to a ‘pre-Babel’state where we all speak one major language. Some linguists suggest that either English or Chinese will form the world’s lingua franca. In fact, many of the major languages inter-breed with the local colloquialisms and create a variant form of that language.

To understand the future of our global languages, one must trace back through pre-modern Europe’s history to take note of the rise and fall of Latin. The success of the Roman Empire propelled Latin throughout Europe, and kept Classical Latin alive as the standard written medium for the continent – long after the fallof Rome. But the Vulgar Latin used in speech continued to change and form new dialects. That, in time, gave rise to the modern Romance languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and Italian – languages that emerged in their own right and became mutually unintelligible.

Singapore English

Today in Asia, there are similar examples of language evolution. Step forth Singapore’s street language, Singlish, a colloquial brand of English with words plucked primarily from English, Malay and Chinese, and tossed into a straight-to-the-point syntactical structure. Singlish is widely used by the locals and can be almost incomprehensible to Western English speakers – one can almost draw a parallel between it and the early development of the Romance languages. It is interesting to note that, despite the Singapore government’s strong encouragement that its citizens speak standard British English through the national ‘Speak Good English Movement’, Singlish has only continued to thrive. In fact, some Singlish words like ‘blur’, ‘wah!’ and ‘shiok’ have become so commonplace that the highly- respected Oxford English Dictionary has added them to its lexicon!

Check out Asian Geographic Languages of Asia Issue 5/2016 for more on Asian languages and dialects!


Article by Oliver Jarvis

Scheherazade regaling Shahryar with a story. © Wikicommons

One Thousand and One Nights

During the Islamic Golden Age (8th-13th centuries), a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian tales was compiled by authors, translators and scholars across West, Central Asia and South Asia as well as North Africa. Written in Arabic, One Thousand and One Nights – also known as Arabian Nights in the English editions – drew from ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Mesopotamian, Indian, Jewish and Egyptian folklore and literature.

Common throughout all editions of the Arabian Nights is the initial frame story of the ruler Shahryar and Scheherazade. Developed from the first tale about how Shahryar, on discovering that his first wife has been unfaithful, executes her, then proceeds to marry a succession of virgins, only to execute each girl the next morning. The vizier’s daughter, Scheherazade, offers herself as his bride. To force Shahryar to postpone her execution, Scheherazade does not finish her story on the same night. On the next day, Scheherazade ends her first story, and begins a new one, and again she does not complete it on the same day. This pattern continues for 1,001 nights until the ruler eventually gives in and spares her life.

The bulk of One Thousand and One Nights is in prose, but some verse is used for the songs and riddles, or for effect.

Check out Asian Geographic's Languages of Asia Issue 5/2016


Within seconds, a herd of huge, burly yaks stampeded past the school, thundering toward the river. The yaks’ hoof beats shook the ground and momentarily drowned out the voices in the classroom. As the yaks thinned out, the students turned their attention back to the teacher and did not notice the young boy in threadbare clothes and Chinese rubber boots rounding up the stray yaks.

Krit. Wakhan. Afghanistan. July 14, 2012

The boy should be in school. But like millions of children in Pakistan and Afghanistan, he has to work instead. When children reach school age in these impoverished societies, parents must weigh their two options: work or school. “Everyone has a fierce desire for education, but where there is such abject poverty and survival depends on manual labour, many children are deprived of school,” says Greg Mortenson, co-founder of Central Asia Institute (CAI), a non-profit organisation that built DeGhulaman’s first school.

In DeGhulaman, most adults are illiterate and there are no paying jobs. Families herd sheep, goats and yaks, and grow small plots of grain and vegetables in the arid, high- altitude landscape.

The village children rise before sun-up, fetch water and collect dry yak dung and brush to fuel the fire. They milk the goats, sheep and camels, and later take the animals high into the mountains to graze. Everything is done by hand: ploughing, building, sewing. There are no shortcuts. In the face of such adversity, parents too often have no choice but to keep their children home from school to help support the family.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights unequivocally states that every child has a right to education. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, governments, community leaders and humanitarian groups like CAI are working with communities to make that right a reality. But the work is slow, labour-intensive and expensive.

Read more in Asian Geographic Issue 3/2015


Article by Karin Ronnow

Travellers lucky enough to have flown into Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport before it closed in 1998 will know that the final approach was one of the more thrilling moments in modern air travel. The aircraft would descend low over the densely-populated and heavily built-up Kowloon peninsula, aiming for a large orange and white checkerboard painted on the side of a hill.

The pilot would then execute a 47-degree right turn, giving passengers a heart-stopping view as the wing dipped down and sliced past rooftops full of laundry, TV aerials and neon signs, before levelling out below 200 feet to line up with the single runway jutting out into the oily waters of Kowloon Bay. Landings were often hard and accompanied by an outburst of clapping from relieved passengers.

Passengers on the left side of the aircraft were provided a different, though no less extraordinary view. If you knew what you were looking for, you would have been able to pick out a large, strange, almost medieval- looking structure as it flashed by below, just three blocks from the end of the runway.

This was the closest most people ever got to the Kowloon Walled City – 300 interconnected high-rise buildings, built without contributions from architects or engineers, home to nearly 40,000 people. This
was the most densely-populated place on the planet. Technically, it was a piece of sovereign Chinese territory in the middle of British-administered Hong Kong, though at the time almost no one knew any of these facts, including me.


Discovering a “building-thing”

Living in Hong Kong in the 1980s I had heard about the Kowloon Walled City. Almost everyone had. It was rumoured to be a dangerous area controlled by triad gangs – a place where the police didn’t venture. But I had never been there nor ever seen it, even in photographs. And I certainly knew nothing of its strange and complicated history. I “discovered” it one evening while photographing in the streets near Kai Tak Airport. Turning a corner I was stopped in my tracks by a building at the end of the block that looked completely out of place. “Building” isn’t quite the right word. It was more of a “building-thing”. It looked like what a building in a crowded city might look like if there were no rules, no regulations and no laws governing buildings and their inhabitants, which of course is exactly what the Walled City was.

Read more in ASIAN Geographic No. 115 Issue 6, 2015. 


Article by Greg Girad


Janki Devi's Story

Janki Devi's relationship with the man she fell in love with was never easy. She was only 15 when she met Anand Kumar, a 20-something to whom a few months later she lost her virginity, but both sets of parents opposed the union outright.

Not surprisingly, in rural areas of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, as is common across the country in varying degrees, romantic relationships are a matter arranged between two families regardless of feelings. They become a mathematical operation where caste, economic status and political relations between the two clans are considered. Love, they say, comes with time and routine.

For Janki and Anand that equation did not yield its desired result, so their parents demanded that they cease the relationship and stop seeing each other. Against their parents' wishes, the couple decided to marry in secret. Thus, as tradition dictates, Janki finally moved into the home of her in-laws in 2006. And so began another nightmare for her. For unknown reasons, because she was never allowed to access medical tests, she was unable to conceive a child. 

So, on 23 February 2015, Anand's parents doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. Neighbours still managed to take her to the hospital as she hung by the thread of her life, but Janki Devi died that very same night. Despite the complaint lodged by her parents, the police did not carry out any investigation and no media showed interest in her story.

India's Shocking Statistics

Janki is only one out of more than 300,000 women each year who suffer from different forms of gender violence in India, a country where, according to official statistics from 2013, a women is abducted every 10 minutes and one is raped every 20 minutes. And these figures still fail to reflect the country's situation in all its cruelty, because, as Doreen Reddy, Women Sector Director for the Rural Development Trust explains, "For every case reported there is at least another one who has suffered in silence."

In fact, according to a government survey conducted between 2005 and 2006, 51% of men - and, surprisingly, 55% of women - justify domestic violence in some form or another based on these excuses; the disrespecting of in-laws, the postponing of housework and arguing with the husband. And it doesn't only happen in poor rural areas - in February 2014, the Supreme Court of India ratified that rape within marriage is legal.

Many also believe that an infertile woman is akin to a useless animal, and some, including those who killed Janki, even feel entitled to take matters into their own hands. But her father, Dinesh Prasad Panday, believes there is no justification for murdering a woman. So, after months of unsuccessfully trying to get the police to prosecute Anand's family, who belong to a higher caste and have contacts among local government officials, he has decided to seek justice in another way: he has taken the case to the headquarters of the Gulabi Gang, located in the small town of Badausa.

Created in 2006, this association in which about 400,000 women spread across the country are already a part of, has become the terror of rapists, abusers and corrupt policemen - all because of its founder, Sampat Pal Devi, a woman not to be messed with. 

Check out Asian Geographic's Issue 3/2016!


Article by Zigor Aldama

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