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But because Chinese texts refer to the Mosuo by many different names, and the government has mistakenly classified them as belonging to the Naxi ethnic minority group, a definitive account of their genesis does not exist. Rada recounts the tale of the Goddess Mountain that looms at the lake’s edge: There was once a wise beauty named Gemu, the most desirable woman in the land.One day, while picking herbs in the forest, she crossed paths with the hunter He Long. They spent every moment together until the devil showed up. Gemu became the Goddess Mountain and He Long an island within sight but out of reach. These days, a different kind of threat is appearing: tourists.Sons, including Rada’s 33-year-old brother, live at home until they are in their 30s, when they opt to live alone or leave to find work.Walking marriages are monogamous, and most women only accept visits from their child’s father, but affairs are not unusual, so long as they are discreet.In the Mosuo language, there are no words for husband or jealousy.Lunch is spiked with tingling Sichuan pepper and eaten in comfortable silence.At the core of Mosuo tradition is the belief that women are more valuable and intellectually superior to men.
Seated by the hearth fire between a carved wooden bedchamber and hand-painted Buddhist mural is Ku Mu, Rada’s grandmother.Dressed in a traditional wool jacket and pantaloons, her head wrapped in an indigo turban, she sips a glass of homemade corn wine with an air of detached authority while the rest of the women make small talk.As the head of the household, or dabu, 80-year-old Ku Mu is the undisputed boss, in line with the traditions of the Mosuo, said to be the last matrilineal society in China and one of few left in the world.“In our culture, girls are very important,” explains Rada.“But we don’t push away our men.” While the Mosuo are perhaps the best known of the matriarchal societies that endure worldwide, the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, Indonesia, at 4 million strong, are the largest community with women-centric traditions.
Hungry male relatives file through the door: first an uncle, then a younger cousin, and finally Rada’s father, Wang Ji Zengheng, on break from his job as a boatman guiding tourists on the nearby lake. The Mosuo practice a custom called zouhun, or “walking marriage,” in which most men live separately from their wives and children and do not play a significant role in the children’s upbringing, though they do financially support their families.