SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's a pristine lake in southwest China. And the women who live there run that society. It's home to one of the world's only matrilineal societies and, also, a popular tourist destination. Tourism has helped bring money to a very poor region. But it's also eroded their traditional family structures. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: On the banks of Lugu Lake, a barn dance is the main nightly entertainment. Locals of the Mosuo ethnic group put on traditional costumes and sing and dance around a fire for Chinese and foreign tourists.
One of the singers is 34-year-old Nazhu Zhuoma. Most of her family's income comes from tourism. Every family in the village gets a cut of dance-ticket sales. She also rents out an inn on the lake for out-of-town businessmen to run. Here's how she says her family divvies up the work.
NAZHU ZHUOMA: (Through interpreter) My mom feeds the pigs and chickens. I take care of relations with the businessmen and paperwork for the inn, such as permits and contracts.
KUHN: Her mom is the honorary head of the household. But Nazhu herself manages the family's money. And she decides how many kids to have.
ZHUOMA: (Through interpreter) I don't think I ever discussed whether or not to have children with my husband. It seems he didn't really have much to do with it.
KUHN: She and her husband, Zhaba Songding, did manage to have two kids. He takes care of them while she works. But he doesn't live with her. He spends the nights with his wife and the days with his mom. It's called a walking marriage. And the dudes do the walking. Before he got his wife's family's permission to marry her, Zhaba admits he didn't get much sleep.
ZHABA SONGDING: (Through interpreter) I had to sneak into her home after her family had gone to sleep around midnight or 1 a.m. and leave at around 5 or 6 a.m. before they woke up.
KUHN: In traditional Mosuo families, brothers and sisters live their whole lives together in the same house. They live with their mothers and their mothers' relatives. Everyone shares the family's belongings equally, as well as responsibility for raising their sisters' kids.
The kids take their mother's surname. Thanks to this arrangement, the Mosuo say, their society has no widows or orphans, no war or crime. But they also admit the system was a way to survive extreme poverty and isolation.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIN)
KUHN: In the morning, mostly Chinese tourists pile onto rowboats to tour the lake. Many arrive via a new airport and roads. While many Mosuo people want the tourists' business, others are getting fed up with the increase in traffic, noise and garbage. Tour guide Geze Duoji adds that many Chinese tourists see the Mosuo and their matrilineal society as primitive and weird.
GEZE DUOJI: (Through interpreter) Many people say, you're so backward. Now that you've met advanced people like us, why do you still practice these walking marriages? It makes me furious.
KUHN: Even worse, he says, some male tourists think that they can take liberties with Mosuo women.
DUOJI: (Through interpreter) So we have to beat them up. After that, they behave better.
KUHN: Geze says that with more money, the Mosuo increasingly find they don't need large matrilineal families to survive. He estimates that around a quarter of the roughly 40,000 Mosuo people have abandoned their traditional family structure. Nazhu Zhuoma says that the prospect of freedom from family pressures once tempted her to leave her mother's home.
ZHUOMA: (Through interpreter) But because I'm an only daughter, I know I must inherit the family line. I mustn't shirk my responsibility to my family.
KUHN: Tour guide Geze Duoji notes that the provincial government has banned the building of new hotels on Lugu Lake in an apparent attempt to preserve the environment and Mosuo culture. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Lugu Lake, Yunnan province.
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