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Old 16th January 2007, 11:07 AM   #1
Wolfman
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A world without marriage

I hear all sorts of perspectives on marriage. Those who think monogamy is the proper standard, those who think monogamy is a tool used to oppress women, those who think that polygamy is terrible, those who think that polygamy is natural, etc.

But virtually ever culture in the world has some form of marriage...a concept in which a life-long union is idealized, where there are formal ceremonies to 'sanctify' a man and a woman (or multiples thereof). Cultures where, from childhood, children are raised and taught these ideals to the point where most of us think it is a natural part of human nature. The FORM of marriage may differ from culture to culture, but it is consistent throughout our cultures.

That is, except for at least one very unique culture, the Mosuo, a Chinese minority group who live in the Himalayan mountains, close to the border with Tibet. Two years ago, I established a non-profit organization to work with the Mosuo, focusing on a variety of aspects (education, development, etc.), but also on promoting awareness of their culture, and to trying to preserve it.

In the Mosuo culture, there is no marriage. No marriage ceremonies exist. There is no expectation whatsoever of life-time bonds or pairings. Children are raised not only without an expectation of spending their life with that one special person, but they often don't even know (or care) who their biological father is.

In the Mosuo culture, men and women can change and choose partners as they please. Monogamy is not considered special or even particularly desirable. The Mosuo live in large extended families, with many generations (grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, etc.) all living together in the same house. Men sleep in communal sleeping rooms (they don't have private bedrooms); only the women have the luxury of a private bedroom. Thus, women tend to the the ones in control of relationships.

Traditionally, a Mosuo woman will invite a man to spend the night with her. The man will come to her home at night, sneaking in through her window (it is also a part of the Mosuo culture that, while everyone knows this is happening, it should be done in a manner that is not obvious), spending the night, and then leaving early the next morning before everyone wakes up. Thus the term "walking marriage"...because the men must walk to and from their assigned rendevous each night.

The Mosuo walking marriages are generally the most interesting -- and misunderstood -- aspects of Mosuo culture. People are always fascinated by it, but misunderstandings and misperceptions abound.

One of the most common misperceptions is that the Mosuo are very promiscuous, changing partners all the time. That is patently not true; in fact, many Mosuo pairing will last for years, and even decades. There is no social stigma if someone DOES change partners often, but it is more common for the Mosuo to engage in what has been described as "serial monogamy"...that is, they don't stick with one partner for their whole life, but each pairing will tend to last for an extended period, and they won't generally have multiple partners while in a relationship.

However, there are fascinating and very unique aspects of these walking marriages.

First, even among couples who are together for months/years/decades, they generally will never actually live together, or share property. The man will continue to live in his family's home, and his responsibilities are to that family; while the woman will continue to live her her home, and be responsible to her family. The man will visit her at night, but the rest of the time they generally live separate lives.

And what if they have a baby? In general, fathers have little or no responsibility for children produced from such unions; the baby will be raised in the mother's home, and be a part of her family, not the father's. However, that does not mean that the men have no responsibility...it is just that the focus of that responsibility is shifted.

In most cultures, a man will be responsible to care for his own children; in Mosuo culture, a man is responsible to care for the children of his sisters/nieces/aunts/etc. So Mosuo men still have full parenting responsibilities...perhaps even moreso, since they may end up sharing responsibility for the children of many family members.

Now, in some cases, Mosuo men DO want to be involved in their own childrens' upbringing. If that is the case, after the child is born, the father will go to the mother's home, and present the family matriarch with gifts, asking to be accepted as the father. If the matriarch accepts him, he is then an 'honorary member' of the family, and has the right to visit and/or stay there like any other family member, and to help raise the child. However, this is not a frequent practice.

Although this sounds very strange at first, it actually provides remarkable stability for the children. First, they are not raised by just one parent; everyone in the family shares in parental duties, so the child really ends up having multiple father and mother figures. Furthermore, if the mother and father end their relationship, there is virtually no impact or stress for the child. There's no fighting over splitting property, because they never shared property. There's no fighting over custody of the child, because the child never belonged to the father to begin with. The mother's relationships with different men may change, but it has little or no effect on the children.

One more thing I'd like to point out. While this system actually works very effectively for the Mosuo, it works ONLY in a situation where there is a large extended family to provide support. For those Mosuo men and women who leave home to live/work on their own in other cities, they almost always choose more traditional marriage. After all, caring for a baby without its father when you have 20 other people in your home to help you is one thing; caring for a baby without its father when you live by yourself is another matter entirely.

For more information about the Mosuo, their culture, and our work with them, you can check out our organization's website. And I welcome questions and comments about this, or other aspects of Mosuo culture.
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Old 16th January 2007, 11:52 AM   #2
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One thing I forgot to mention...

...the Mosuo have a matriarchal/matrilineal culture, in which the woman is the head of the house, and lineage is traced through the mother's side of the family. Before my first experience with the Mosuo, I'd always assumed that men in a matriarchal culture would be somewhat emasculated...sissified versions of a 'real man' in other cultures.

Yet Mosuo men are very 'masculine'...kinda' like the cowboys of the Himalayas. When I first when there, I asked some of them how they felt about women being in charge of the house, money, decisions, etc. Most men replied that they had no problem with it...that men had muscles, so men's work was that work which required strength and endurance. Women had brains, so women's work was that work which required thinking and calculation.

Interestingly enough, unlike almost every other culture in the world, Mosuo females consistently outperform Mosuo males on mathematic and scientific tests...a rather interesting indication of how much of a role gender modeling can play in a child's development.
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Old 16th January 2007, 11:59 AM   #3
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So how do they court? Is there a dating process, or is hooking up based on daily interaction? How much daily interaction would a woman have with men outside of her household?
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Old 16th January 2007, 12:09 PM   #4
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Originally Posted by Wolfman View Post
Interestingly enough, unlike almost every other culture in the world, Mosuo females consistently outperform Mosuo males on mathematic and scientific tests...a rather interesting indication of how much of a role gender modeling can play in a child's development.
I take it there is no "men's liberation" movement underway to overturn this blatantly sexist, discriminatory behavior that dooms these men to not be scientists and doctors? J/K

Love your OP, Wolfman, this is very interesting. I think there is a similar structure, or was, among some of the Aleut tribes. Cant remember the details.

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Old 16th January 2007, 12:09 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by bluess View Post
So how do they court? Is there a dating process, or is hooking up based on daily interaction? How much daily interaction would a woman have with men outside of her household?
Yes, there's lots of daily interaction, and the 'dating' process in public would be similar to that in other countries...flirting with each other, holding hands, etc. That part of the relationship is quite public; it is the sexual aspect that is done in the woman's bedroom, and which tends to be done 'on the sly' (which is a hilarious concept...the whole culture is based on walking marriages, yet the men still have to 'sneak' in after lights out).

Traditionally, there are two main ways for a woman to indicate her interest in a particular guy. One way would be while dancing (which is done in large groups), or other social activities, to tickle the bottom of his palm with her index finger. Guys can also take some initiative by presenting their belt (a wide, brightly colored hand-woven belt) to a girl...if she's interested in him, she can hang it outside her window, indicating that he's invited in for the night.

Of course, in many cases, they just talk about it directly, and make suitable arrangements.
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Old 16th January 2007, 12:12 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by Darth Rotor View Post
I take it there is no "men's liberation" movement underway to overturn this blatantly sexist, discriminatory behavior that dooms these men to not be scientists and doctors? J/K
Thanks for the light note...however, the actual answer is rather humorous, also. In my experience, many of the Mosuo men I've talked with would find such a thought ridiculous. Just as a typical western man may see things like knitting and sewing as "women's work", and not suitable for a man, so many Mosuo men have the same view of things like mathematics. It's not "man's work" to just sit and write on paper, and think about things; a "real man" is out cutting logs, building houses, riding horses, etc.
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Old 16th January 2007, 12:19 PM   #7
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Originally Posted by Wolfman View Post
Traditionally, there are two main ways for a woman to indicate her interest in a particular guy. One way would be while dancing (which is done in large groups), or other social activities, to tickle the bottom of his palm with her index finger. Guys can also take some initiative by presenting their belt (a wide, brightly colored hand-woven belt) to a girl...if she's interested in him, she can hang it outside her window, indicating that he's invited in for the night.

Of course, in many cases, they just talk about it directly, and make suitable arrangements.
See...I like this. Women in America are too frickin subtle.
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Old 16th January 2007, 12:42 PM   #8
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Great OP and great web site! How did the organization get started?
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Old 16th January 2007, 01:07 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by Shera View Post
Great OP and great web site! How did the organization get started?
My abiding interest/passion is culture. I studied Cross Cultural Studies in university, and have worked as a cross cultural consultant in China for the past 10 years.

I had heard about the Mosuo for many years, but it is not easy to get to where they live...and if I went there, I wanted to have time to actually spend there and learn about them, not just do the tourist quickie in-and-out thing. Two and a half years ago, I found myself with a month of free time, with no commitments, so on the spur of the moment, I went.

I ended up staying in a Mosuo family's home (the Mosuo family mentioned above who "adopted" me) for three weeks, in a tiny little Mosuo village high in the Himalayas. It was one of the most fascinating and enriching experiences of my life. The Mosuo were very open and frank in discussing their beliefs and customs (although they do have certain taboos...topics related to romance and sex are not discussed when men and women from the same family are together), and I found it such a different way of viewing life, relationships, etc. I've studied culture for most of my life, and knew how much cultures can differ, but this was the first time I'd been in a culture that challenged so much of what I considered to be "innate" human behavior.

My family was also incredibly generous. This is a village where average annual incomes are less than $US 100. By their standards, I was a multimillionaire. And I was more than willing to pay for accommodations, food, etc. Yet after living in their home for three weeks, being fed every day, being taken around to see how they worked/lived, etc., they absolutely refused to take a single cent from me. And my Mosuo mother actually cried as I was leaving.

Of course, I was fascinated by the many unique aspects of the culture, but was also struck by how hard they were working to improve their situation, especially for their children. These were not people sitting on their asses waiting for handouts, they were doing everything they could, and making tremendous personal sacrifices to do it. But they simply lacked the resources and knowledge to accomplish very much.

Let me give you some background. Many Mosuo villages still have no electricity. Most have no running water. Transportation to all but the most developed areas is by horse trails. Living with the Mosuo is very much like literally stepping backwards in time 100 years or more.

On my second week there, one night, the Mosuo I was with started asking me questions about my life, and how I lived. At one point, not really thinking about it, I mentioned that on a typical Friday night going out with my friends, I might spend $100-200. There was a gasp of amazement...for some of them, this represented a year's income. And it was then that I realized both how much of a barrier they faced, and how much could be accomplished with relatively little money.

I returned to Beijing, and mulled this over. The culture was an amazing one. The people had captured my heart. And I was determined to do something to help. But I didn't want it to be a case of some outsider just pushing his way in and "improving" things according to how "I think it should be". So six months later, I returned, and this time I set up meetings with key Mosuo leaders -- leaders in government, education, culture, etc. I proposed to them that we set up an organization in which they are the ones in charge. They determine the priorities. They set the standards. They oversee the projects.

My goal was, after they had decided WHAT they wanted to do, to help them get the money and resources to accomplish those goals.

That is a core principle of our association, and one I stick to adamantly.

Another question/issue that frequently comes up in this context is that of "Should you do anything at all? Isn't it better to keep them the way they are, to preserve their culture unchanged, to protect them from the outside world?" And yeah, there's a part of me that thinks that way sometimes.

But in the end -- it is THEIR culture, and THEIR lives. Not mine. Not anyone else's. And it is up to them to choose what they want to do. In my opinion, the most important thing I've given to them is the ability and freedom to choose for themselves. Some will choose to stick strictly to old traditions and beliefs. Some will abandon their culture entirely as they strike out into the exciting "bigger world". But I believe the majority will find a suitable balance between their traditions, and the influences of the outside world.
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Old 16th January 2007, 01:33 PM   #10
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While their way of life holds no particular allure to me (my job consists of sitting, writing on paper and thinking about things, I am allergic to horses, my greatest joy is my western traditional family of my wife and 2 daughters) I applaud your efforts to provide as unobtrusive assistance to these people as possible. Diversity of cultures and thinking is a Good Thing, and I like your organizations emphasis on putting them in control.

I would suggest that you don't worry about people who suggest that you try to protect them somehow from the outside world. If the Mosuo don't want you or your organization's help, I am sure they are quite capable of telling you to get lost.
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Old 16th January 2007, 01:48 PM   #11
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Have they accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior?
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Old 16th January 2007, 02:14 PM   #12
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Originally Posted by pgwenthold View Post
Have they accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior?
Ummm...don't really have a clue what to make of that. But will clarify that one of our organization's most basic principles is that nobody working with us is allowed to engage in religious proseletyzation. People working with our organization are expected to come in with a respect for Mosuo beliefs, not to impose their beliefs on them.

And on the topic of religion, the Mosuo actually have two religions: they have their own native religion called Daba, which is an animistic, ancestor worship type of religion; and they have Tibetan Buddhism (an interesting bit of trivia, one of the designated "living buddhas" recognized by the Tibetan religious leaders is a Mosuo man).

On a day-to-day basis, Tibetan Buddhism plays a much greater role in their lives. Buddhist monks walk the streets, there are monasteries for teaching and housing monks, prayer flags wave from the branches of every tree, old women walk the streets spinning prayer wheels, etc.

Daba is practiced on a more ritual basis...for births, deaths, naming ceremonies, sickness, etc., the Daba priest will be called in to perform the relevant ceremonies.
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Old 16th January 2007, 02:22 PM   #13
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I want to talk also about what is, to me, one of our most exciting (and challenging) projects. The Mosuo have their own language, but it is a purely oral language, with no written form. Their entire history/culture/tradition is preserved in the form of oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation.

Typically, it is learned by the Daba priests, who are expected to go through a lengthy (ie. decades) apprenticeship, learning by rote all the information that comprises their oral history and tradition. However, when the Communists took over in China, they made all religions illegal, and any Daba priests who tried to pass their knowledge on to the next generation were punished and imprisoned. The result is that today there are only about 15-20 Daba priests left, most of whom are very elderly. As each one dies, a huge portion of Mosuo history, culture, and tradition dies with them. (A note, the Daba religion is no longer illegal)

In addition, under modern Chinese law, students from Chinese minorities have the right to have a certain portion of their education done in their native language...but without a written language, it is impossible to create textbooks (and without textbooks, the gov't cannot authorize the curriculum, so nothing can be taught).

For this reason, we are bringing in linguists to analyze the Mosuo language, break it down into its component phonemes, and then develop a written system, which will then be taught to the Mosuo. I think, out of everything we are doing, this is the project that is closest to my heart. I try to keep from letting ego have too much of a role in what I do, but I have to say that it is very much a dream of mine that in 20 years or so, I'll be able to go to Mosuo schools and see Mosuo children reading and writing in their own language, and be able to know that I had something to do with that.
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Old 16th January 2007, 03:20 PM   #14
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Originally Posted by Wolfman View Post
Ummm...don't really have a clue what to make of that. But will clarify that one of our organization's most basic principles is that nobody working with us is allowed to engage in religious proseletyzation. People working with our organization are expected to come in with a respect for Mosuo beliefs, not to impose their beliefs on them.

And on the topic of religion, the Mosuo actually have two religions: they have their own native religion called Daba, which is an animistic, ancestor worship type of religion; and they have Tibetan Buddhism (an interesting bit of trivia, one of the designated "living buddhas" recognized by the Tibetan religious leaders is a Mosuo man).

On a day-to-day basis, Tibetan Buddhism plays a much greater role in their lives. Buddhist monks walk the streets, there are monasteries for teaching and housing monks, prayer flags wave from the branches of every tree, old women walk the streets spinning prayer wheels, etc.

Daba is practiced on a more ritual basis...for births, deaths, naming ceremonies, sickness, etc., the Daba priest will be called in to perform the relevant ceremonies.
My comment was mostly tongue-in-cheek (I knew very well they weren't christian), but your response is exactly what I was hoping to hear. I was curious about their religion.
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Old 16th January 2007, 03:27 PM   #15
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Originally Posted by Wolfman View Post
For this reason, we are bringing in linguists to analyze the Mosuo language, break it down into its component phonemes, and then develop a written system, which will then be taught to the Mosuo. I think, out of everything we are doing, this is the project that is closest to my heart.
When you say "we" are doing this, who is "we"? In particular, have you hooked up with the various groups like the LSA and the Endangered Languages Foundation?

There's a lot -- well, by linguistics standards, a lot -- of money floating around for doing exactly this, and it sounds like Mosuo is one language that might be saveable if you can bring it to the attention of the appropriate professionals. So depending upon who the linguists you are bringing in are, it may be possible/practical to get some real heavyweights to come in for their support....
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Old 16th January 2007, 03:34 PM   #16
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Originally Posted by drkitten View Post
When you say "we" are doing this, who is "we"? ..

I'm guessing it is the NPO:

"Two years ago, I established a non-profit organization to work with the Mosuo, focusing on a variety of aspects (education, development, etc.), but also on promoting awareness of their culture, and to trying to preserve it."
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Old 16th January 2007, 03:36 PM   #17
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Wolfman, sounds like you're doing some amazing work! The Mosuo sound like a fascinating people. Matrilineal systems are indeed rather rare. I think there used to be ( ) some in Polynesia. I don't know if property was owned by females but it was transferred through the female line (a man's heirs would be his sister's children). I think some of the Native American tribes in the U.S. plains were also matrilineal.
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Old 16th January 2007, 08:37 PM   #18
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Originally Posted by drkitten View Post
When you say "we" are doing this, who is "we"? In particular, have you hooked up with the various groups like the LSA and the Endangered Languages Foundation?

There's a lot -- well, by linguistics standards, a lot -- of money floating around for doing exactly this, and it sounds like Mosuo is one language that might be saveable if you can bring it to the attention of the appropriate professionals. So depending upon who the linguists you are bringing in are, it may be possible/practical to get some real heavyweights to come in for their support....
The Endangered Languages Foundation won't work with us because, at present, the number of language speakers is still too large (around 30,000) to qualify for their work.

In truth, this project is still in its infancy; I am contacting linguists with experience in this field, who also have suitable 'sensitivity' to the political situation (ie. they won't end up writing huge papers critical of the Chinese government that force the gov't to shut our organization down). This is not a field in which I personally have a lot of experience/knowledge, so am really relying on these experts to help us with making those crucial connections.

So, to answer your question, "we" in specific terms is our organization; but in general terms, "we" is anyone who is interested to get involved and help.

One more point of interest I forgot to mention; the form the written language will take. We had a number of options in this regard:

* Use a phonetic version, similar to the English alphabet. Advantages – facilitates outsiders learning the Mosuo language; and familiarizes Mosuo children with the alphabet, facilitating their ability to learn English. Disadvantages – it looks and feels “foreign”, has no direct link to Mosuo culture or history, and may face greater difficulty being officially adopted by the Chinese government.


* Use symbols similar to “Dongba” script, the written form used by the Naxi minority. Advantages – the Mosuo are fairly familiar with Dongba, and have used it in the past for trade and communication with the Naxi. Disadvantages – the Mosuo strongly dislike being categorized as part of the Naxi minority, and have expressed a strong desire not to use Dongba.


* Use a modified form of Tibetan script. Advantages – Being Tibetan Buddist, many Mosuo are at least somewhat familiar with Tibetan script, and it is perceived as more a part of their own culture. Disadvantages – can lead to confusion of identity between Mosuo and Tibetan.


* Use some form of Chinese writing. Advantages – the Chinese government would like it, and it could provide mutual reinforcement of both Chinese and Mosuo written languages. Disadvantages – every linguist we have spoken with have said that using Chinese characters for the Mosuo language would be extremely problematic, as Chinese is a syllabic language, but Mosuo is not. In addition, most Mosuo have stated they don't want a Chinese form.


* Adapt Daba symbols. Although the Mosuo have no written form of their language, their religion, Daba, does have a variety of religious symbols. These symbols do not represent an alphabet or language (it would be similar to they symbol of the cross, or the fish, or the dove, in Christianity). However, we could adapt these symbols to have each symbol represent one sound in the Mosuo language. Advantages – it provides a written form that is derived directly from the Mosuo culture, and is immediately recognizable to the Mosuo. It also encourages preservation of a unique part of their culture. Disadvantages – it means designing an entirely new written form, including having to develop Unicode versions for computer use.
Following the principles of our organization, this decision was not made by any non-Mosuo. Rather, we presented the list of possible options to the Mosuo, explaining the relative advantages and disadvantages of each choice. The overwhelmingly popular choice was to adapt Daba symbols as the written form. Therefore, this is the course we are pursuing.


In order to alleviate some of the potential problems (that is, for non-native speakers to also learn the language) in using Daba symbols, we will also be developing a phonetic version of the language. In Chinese, this is already done; as young children, Chinese students will learn Pinyin, an alphabetic form of their language. Then later, they will learn the more complicated Chinese characters. We plan to do something similar. This will have the particular advantage of facilitating outsiders in learning the Mosuo language.
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Old 17th January 2007, 12:11 AM   #19
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As a sociology major I added your site to my favorites. Thank you!!!
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Old 17th January 2007, 01:21 AM   #20
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Originally Posted by bluess View Post
Wolfman. You rock.
Wow. What Bluess said.

Wolfman, did you write this part of the Wikipedia article on the Mosuo?

Quote:
Generally, the Mosuo uses the Han script for daily communication. The Tibetan script is mainly used for religious purposes.
Just wondering if the the Hans script is similar to the Dongba script you mentioned in one of your posts (#28)?

I also think it would be very interesting to add a .jpeg file showing the Daba symbols to both your web site and the Wiki article.

Also am curious if you wrote or agree with this part of the Wiki article?

Quote:
There is also a very important historical component which is often unknown to (or ignored by) those studying the Mosuo. Historically, the Mosuo actually had a feudal system in which a small "nobility" controlled a larger "peasant" population. The Mosuo nobility practiced a more ‘traditional' patriarchal system, which encouraged marriage (usually within the ‘nobility'), and in which men were the head of the house.

It has been theorized that the "matriarchal" system of the lower classes may have been enforced (or at least encouraged) by the higher classes as a way of preventing threats to their own power. Since leadership was hereditary, and determined through the male family line, it virtually eliminated potential threats to leadership by having the peasant class trace their lineage through the female line. Therefore, attempts to depict the Mosuo culture as some sort of idealized "matriarchal" culture in which women have all the rights, and where everyone has much more freedom, are often based on lack of knowledge of this history; the truth is that for much of their history, the Mosuo ‘peasant' class were subjugated and sometimes treated as little better than slaves.

The truth is, as in most situations, both more complicated, and more fascinating. There is a very viable argument to be made that the "matriarchal" system of the Mosuo was actually enforced to keep them in servitude to the ruling Mosuo class. Yet, practically speaking, this system has led to a number of unusual traits within Mosuo society. Mosuo families have an incredible internal cohesiveness and stability; and certainly, Mosuo women do not (within their culture) face many of the struggles and barriers that women in many other cultures do.
It does seem to have the ring of truth to it, and helps make it more understandable how a society developed where men had very loose ties, if any, to their children.
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Old 17th January 2007, 02:05 AM   #21
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Some questions off the top of my head. Do they have an STD problem? Where did the word "Daba" come from? To what extent has their culture already been impacted by the "outer" world. Do they already have computers there? Do they trade with China or other regions? If so, what?

TIA.
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Old 17th January 2007, 02:36 AM   #22
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Originally Posted by Shera View Post
Wow. What Bluess said.

Wolfman, did you write this part of the Wikipedia article on the Mosuo?
Virtually the entire Wikipedia article was written by me, yes...and is mostly copied from the more extensive information on our website.
Quote:
Just wondering if the the Hans script is similar to the Dongba script you mentioned in one of your posts (#28)?

I also think it would be very interesting to add a .jpeg file showing the Daba symbols to both your web site and the Wiki article.
"Han script" is actually just normal Chinese writing. Dongba is more pictographic, and would resemble hieroglyphics more than Chinese writing. And yes, am working on adding a lot more content to the site, including pics of the Daba symbols.
Quote:
Also am curious if you wrote or agree with this part of the Wiki article?

Quote:
There is also a very important historical component which is often unknown to (or ignored by) those studying the Mosuo. Historically, the Mosuo actually had a feudal system in which a small "nobility" controlled a larger "peasant" population. The Mosuo nobility practiced a more ‘traditional' patriarchal system, which encouraged marriage (usually within the ‘nobility'), and in which men were the head of the house.

It has been theorized that the "matriarchal" system of the lower classes may have been enforced (or at least encouraged) by the higher classes as a way of preventing threats to their own power. Since leadership was hereditary, and determined through the male family line, it virtually eliminated potential threats to leadership by having the peasant class trace their lineage through the female line. Therefore, attempts to depict the Mosuo culture as some sort of idealized "matriarchal" culture in which women have all the rights, and where everyone has much more freedom, are often based on lack of knowledge of this history; the truth is that for much of their history, the Mosuo ‘peasant' class were subjugated and sometimes treated as little better than slaves.

The truth is, as in most situations, both more complicated, and more fascinating. There is a very viable argument to be made that the "matriarchal" system of the Mosuo was actually enforced to keep them in servitude to the ruling Mosuo class. Yet, practically speaking, this system has led to a number of unusual traits within Mosuo society. Mosuo families have an incredible internal cohesiveness and stability; and certainly, Mosuo women do not (within their culture) face many of the struggles and barriers that women in many other cultures do.
It does seem to have the ring of truth to it, and helps make it more understandable how a society developed where men had very loose ties, if any, to their children.
Yup...as I said above, I wrote most of the content there; all content was not only written by me, but checked and approved by both Mosuo leaders and anthropological researchers. So I'd consider its veracity to be fairly reliable.
Originally Posted by SezMe View Post
Do they have an STD problem?
Ah, there's a MAJOR potential problem. Historically, no, STDs do not seem to have been a significant problem. However, these days, huge numbers of Mosuo girls are being lured away to work as prostitutes in larger cities (one potentially negative aspect of Mosuo culture is that since they consider it normal to have multiple sexual partners, and have no expectation of virginity or monogamy, Mosuo girls tend to be more easily lured into prostitution, particularly when they see no other way to make money).

At present, there is no reliable data regarding STDs among the Mosuo; and conducting studies is difficult because the Chinese gov't is wary of outsiders getting such information, then using it to criticize gov't policies. We are attempting to work with several China-based health organizations that can help us in this area.

However, it doesn't take a genius to see the potential for huge danger. Mosuo girl goes off and works as a prostitute for a few years. She gets an STD, but isn't aware of it. She returns home. She has multiple sexual partners, who in turn have multiple partners of their own. Within a relatively short time, an STD could sweep through an entire community.

There is another aspect to this...the Mosuo are generally considered "primitive" and "uncivilized" by the Han Chinese, a description that the Mosuo obviously dislike. They are therefore loath to have a perception that their traditional culture of walking marriages could actually be responsible for the rapid spread of dangerous diseases...that would only 'confirm' Chinese opinions about their culture. So it is a very sensitive matter to even get their willing cooperation in such a venture.
Quote:
Where did the word "Daba" come from?
That's a romanized version of the word they use in their own language; I don't know what the specific roots are.
Quote:
To what extent has their culture already been impacted by the "outer" world. Do they already have computers there? Do they trade with China or other regions? If so, what?
That really is hard to answer, because it varies depending on which communities you talk about.

The main Mosuo community that everyone knows about is on the edge of Lugu Lake, a gorgeous lake high in the Himalayas that straddles Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. This is a major tourist center, and as such has become a typical tourist trap. Almost nothing here represents 'real Mosuo culture', but is rather a charicature of Mosuo culture, exaggerating some aspects, ignoring others, and generally presented by Chinese tour guides who really don't understand the culture at all. In this area, the impact has been huge.

There are communities close to Lugu Lake that are trying to cash in on Lugu Lake's popularity (and ability to make money) by developing small tourist industries themselves, mostly modeled on the system at Lugu Lake. In this case, there's been some negative impact, but not so much, and much of their daily life is still very 'typical' Mosuo culture.

In the first two instances, the Mosuo involved have electricity, and therefore access to TV (few have computers), so they've also seen more of the 'outside' world, and been influenced to a greater or lesser degree by that. But in the third category, we have lots of remote, tiny villages scattered throughout the mountains. Most of these don't even have electricity, and have very limited contact with the outside world. In these cases, their life today still goes on much as it has for hundreds of years. They are aware of the outside world as a general concept, but have little understanding of it, and are not very influenced by it.

Computers are a major issue for our organization. Obviously, in communities that don't even have electricity, computers are a bit problematic. But even in communities that do have electricity, computers are often too expensive for most Mosuo (consider that even a cheap computer would represent several years' salary for the average Mosuo).

However, for students in China to gain admission to senior high school or college/university, they must pass standard entrance examinations that include tests of their computer skills. Its pretty damn difficult to pass a computer examination if you come from a village that doesn't even have electricity.

Education is an entirely different subject, which perhaps I'll tackle a little later on.
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Old 17th January 2007, 06:35 AM   #23
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First, would like to thank everyone for your compliments and kind words!

Second, I'd really like to express my gratitude...I've made posts about the Mosuo, their culture, and our work with them on a number of other online forums, and aside from quick "gee, that sounds nice" responses, got very little feedback, and very little interest in learning more about the Mosuo.

Here' I've got people who are reading everything I'm writing (and, by this point, its a LOT of stuff!), and coming back with intelligent questions and requests for more information. For a guy like me (who often feels like he's operating in a vacuum), that means a lot.

So...thanks!!
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Old 17th January 2007, 07:08 AM   #24
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Originally Posted by Wolfman View Post
And while the Mosuo are quite loose in regards to relationships, they would have problems with a guy who did a mother and daughter in the same family
Are there incest taboos? How are they 'policed' if paternity is not regarded as significant? Great OP BTW!
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Old 17th January 2007, 07:48 AM   #25
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Originally Posted by sphenisc View Post
Are there incest taboos? How are they 'policed' if paternity is not regarded as significant? Great OP BTW!
Thanks!

Yes, there are incest taboos, but it is 'policed' in a very interesting way. The matriarch of the family will keep track of the different relationships, and warn their children against potentially incestuous relationships. An example:

Let's say a woman has had two partners at around the time she gets pregnant. She doesn't know for sure which is the father. She'll inform her mother about both men. When those children are older, and start to date, the matriarch will then warn them away from relations with children who come from either of those two men's families.

Its not the most scientific of methods, but it seems to work.

Oh...and sexual relations between members of the same family are most definitely taboo.
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Old 17th January 2007, 08:23 AM   #26
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Was just thinking about the Mosuo attitude towards same-sex relationships. This is something I don't really have extensive info on (its not a question you tend to ask people casually), but have talked with a few closer Mosuo friends about it. Their responses are interesting.

They seem to feel no particular revulsion at the idea (which is certainly very different from the vast majority of Chinese), it isn't something that they consider sick or disgusting. They just seem to feel that it doesn't happen (or very, very rarely). If I ask them a question like, "If you knew that guy was having sex with another man, what would your reaction be?", they'll respond with something like, "Well, I guess that'd be up to him, its his choice, but I don't know anyone who actually does that".

I find these reactions interesting because there seems to be no implicit societal taboo that would prevent homosexual relationships, yet such relationships either do not exist among the Mosuo, or else are kept secret despite not being particularly taboo.

However, in truth, I've only talked to four Mosuo about this, so it is hardly authoritative, and I have not yet met any anthropologists who've done any real work in this area either.

On the lighter side of this topic -- because of the whole matriarchal, no marriage thing, the Mosuo attract a significant number of feminist and/or lesbian visitors. Now please understand, I have no problems with either feminism or lesbians...but there are always, within any given group, a certain number of extremists and crackpots, and Lugu Lake seems to attract more than its share. These are women who go there not so much with an interest in sincerely understanding the Mosuo, as they are in squeezing the Mosuo into whatever predetermined agenda they've already decided on.

When I first started setting up this organization, and was looking to see what info was available online, I stumbled onto a website of an American woman -- a proud feminist and lesbian -- who, after spending a grand total of two days among the Mosuo, went back home to write about her experiences. According to her, Mosuo women are almost entirely lesbians, sharing their bedrooms at night and keeping men cooped up in common sleeping quarters like cattle; men were only invited into their rooms when they decided they wanted to have a baby. It is a kind of Chinese version of the Amazon myth.

What blew me away was just how little anything she wrote even remotely resembled the actual Mosuo culture; yet I knew there were people reading this who would inevitably end up believing it.

This is one of the main reasons why, for myself, I insist that anything that goes on our website, or our public materials, is vetted by numerous Mosuo, and by knowledgeable anthropologists, to try to ensure that it is not just a case of me transferring my own subconscious expectations on to them, but rather is as accurate and truthful a representation of the Mosuo culture as possible (and whatever mistakes do inevitably creep in are purely my fault, but I am confident they'll be corrected in a timely fashion by others in our organization).
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Old 17th January 2007, 09:32 PM   #27
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Originally Posted by Wolfman View Post
Virtually the entire Wikipedia article was written by me, yes...and is mostly copied from the more extensive information on our website.

"Han script" is actually just normal Chinese writing. Dongba is more pictographic, and would resemble hieroglyphics more than Chinese writing. And yes, am working on adding a lot more content to the site, including pics of the Daba symbols.
Yup...as I said above, I wrote most of the content there; all content was not only written by me, but checked and approved by both Mosuo leaders and anthropological researchers. So I'd consider its veracity to be fairly reliable.
Yes, I thought you wrote both. Again -- great job, its very informative and easy to read. I was just trying to understand why they can't continue to use Hans script?

Also I was wondering -- how does the Chinese policy of "one family, one child" apply to the Mouso?
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Old 17th January 2007, 10:11 PM   #28
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In most cultures, a man will be responsible to care for his own children; in Mosuo culture, a man is responsible to care for the children of his sisters/nieces/aunts/etc. So Mosuo men still have full parenting responsibilities...perhaps even moreso, since they may end up sharing responsibility for the children of many family members.
Very interesting. What this shows, I think, is that while there is no marriage, there is also no illegitimacy--that is, most children (a) know who their fathers are (and the fathers do not deny it, even if they have no role in caring for them) and (b) have two male and female adults (mother and her brother) take care of them.

Also, it's easy to see why this social arrangement will discourage promiscuity. In general, most men will be responsible for raising, roughly, the same number of children as they have, even if they don't raise their own children.

However, if you are a man who has too many partners--or, more important, too many children--you are probably seen as a freeloader: someone who makes society take care of their many children while only caring for a few of society's children in return.

Am I correct here? You're the expert, I'm just making an educated(?) guess.
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Old 17th January 2007, 10:13 PM   #29
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Originally Posted by steverino View Post
Hey, I saw her first...Get lost!
Heh. Actually, while this woman can hardly be said to be sexy, she is by no means ugly--just an older woman.
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Old 17th January 2007, 10:45 PM   #30
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Originally Posted by Shera View Post
Yes, I thought you wrote both. Again -- great job, its very informative and easy to read. I was just trying to understand why they can't continue to use Hans script?
Oh, they can and will continue to use standard Chinese writing; that is, in fact, required by Chinese law, and certainly a reasonable requirement. All Mosuo children will at least go to primary school, and all education is conducted in Chinese.

We are not seeking to 'replace' Chinese as their written language, but to add written Mosuo in addition to written Chinese. Orally, they are bilingual (Mosuo and Chinese languages); but in writing, they can only write one language.

Many Mosuo, to try to prevent the loss of their cultural legacy, have made efforts at writing down their oral history using Chinese. However, the fact is that this is a translation, and as such inevitably loses some of its impact, meaning, and context in the translation. For example, many rituals and songs are very poetic and rhythmic, but when translated into Chinese, although the general meaning may be preserved, it sounds awkward and clunky.

At present, there are significant efforts being made to make audio and video recordings of the Daba priests reciting this oral legacy, in order to preserve it. But this is hampered by the fact that some of them regard it as a sacred tradition to be handed down only from father to son, kept within the family (an interesting side note here -- Daba priests and their families actually follow a patriarchal system; this is a holdover from the past lord/servant dichotomy that was mentioned by Shera above, in which the priests were part of the ruling class).

This also has the problem that, while it accomplishes the goal of preserving this knowledge, it doesn't help so much with teaching it. Consider if you were required to write an essay about War and Peace, and had only an audio transcript. Certainly, listening to it would be easy enough, but when it came time to study it in detail, find specific passages, etc., it would be a royal pain in the behind.

In general, we view the use of Chinese translations and oral/video recordings as very useful, but nevertheless as stopgap measures; creating a full written form of the language is really necessary to preserve both their language, and much of their cultural legacy.
Quote:
Also I was wondering -- how does the Chinese policy of "one family, one child" apply to the Mouso?
Actually, in China, all minorities are allowed two children per family. However, in regards to the Mosuo, this doesn't make much difference, as the Mosuo are pretty much self-regulating in regard to population, it is part of their culture.

Another significant benefit of their walking marriage system is that male and female children have equal status; there is no preference for a male or a female child, because neither will leave the home when they get married. The only 'preference' as such is that if one family has too many males, and another has too many females, they may swap babies to maintain proportions.

If a particular household is getting too small (usually under 10-15 people), the women within the household will have more babies. If a particular household is getting too large (usually over 20-25), they will stop having babies (they don't have contraception in general, but do apparently have various herbs that can be consumed to induce a miscarriage -- abortion is not an issue among the Mosuo).

The result is that overall numbers remain pretty much constant.
Originally Posted by Skeptic View Post
Very interesting. What this shows, I think, is that while there is no marriage, there is also no illegitimacy--that is, most children (a) know who their fathers are (and the fathers do not deny it, even if they have no role in caring for them) and (b) have two male and female adults (mother and her brother) take care of them.

Also, it's easy to see why this social arrangement will discourage promiscuity. In general, most men will be responsible for raising, roughly, the same number of children as they have, even if they don't raise their own children.

However, if you are a man who has too many partners--or, more important, too many children--you are probably seen as a freeloader: someone who makes society take care of their many children while only caring for a few of society's children in return.

Am I correct here? You're the expert, I'm just making an educated(?) guess.
You're correct that the Mosuo really have no such concept as an 'illegitimate' or 'bastard' child. Even the concept of an orphan, while not entirely nonexistent, is significantly lesser...since even if both biological parents die, there's still a large extended family that continues to fill the parenting niche. To be a real "orphan", you'd have to lose your entire extended family.

However it would not be accurate to depict men who have too many partners as freeloaders. For the simple reason that, as described above in my response to Shera, women pretty much have full control over their bodies, and their decision whether or not to have a child. They will only have children if that is what they want.
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Old 17th January 2007, 10:45 PM   #31
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Fascinating.

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Interestingly enough, unlike almost every other culture in the world, Mosuo females consistently outperform Mosuo males on mathematic and scientific tests...
What sort of mathematics do they have? Do they have their own number system and calculating aids?

How do they view people who do not wish to fit into the gender roles? For example, what if a boy wants to do calculations or a girl wants to do some physical labour? Or even wants to take on the opposite role completely?

Quote:
I find these reactions interesting because there seems to be no implicit societal taboo that would prevent homosexual relationships, yet such relationships either do not exist among the Mosuo, or else are kept secret despite not being particularly taboo.
There does seem to be a taboo on knowing who does it with whom, considering the whole "climbing through the window in the dead of night" business. So it perhaps there is homosexual behaviour going on, but people just don't want to know about it.
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Old 17th January 2007, 11:01 PM   #32
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Originally Posted by Earthborn View Post
Fascinating.

What sort of mathematics do they have? Do they have their own number system and calculating aids?
Ah, sorry, I should have clarified that I was talking about their performance in the regular (ie. Chinese) education system.
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How do they view people who do not wish to fit into the gender roles? For example, what if a boy wants to do calculations or a girl wants to do some physical labour? Or even wants to take on the opposite role completely?
So far as I've seen, this is usually acceptable. The person might be considered a little strange, but I don't think there would be any condemnation. And in the face of modern realities, gender roles are certainly shifting. It is a fact that males will stand a better chance of being admitted to mathematic/science programs in college/university (since these are Chinese institutions that still tend to have a strong male bias), so it can be seen as more practical for the boys to focus on this area. On the flip side, for day-to-day physical labor, such as taking care of the livestock, planting the fields, etc., this does tend to fall under the woman's responsibility (as explained in a previous post, Mosuo men traditionally traveled in caravans as traders, so any daily jobs were the responsibility of the women). Mosuo women are very feminine...but also very healthy and strong, not at all delicate or fragile.

Its really a rather complex structure, and I will inevitably simplify some aspects of the culture as I try to explain it; these questions help a lot to clarify some of those issues, and hopefully give a fuller, more comprehensive picture of the culture.
Quote:
There does seem to be a taboo on knowing who does it with whom, considering the whole "climbing through the window in the dead of night" business. So it perhaps there is homosexual behaviour going on, but people just don't want to know about it.
As I said above, I don't really have enough personal knowledge in this area to comment authoritatively; but my own personal suspicion is that the Mosuo attitude towards homosexuality will be somewhat similar to that of the U.S. military..."Don't ask, don't tell".
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Old 17th January 2007, 11:44 PM   #33
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Originally Posted by Wolfman View Post
Ah, sorry, I should have clarified that I was talking about their performance in the regular (ie. Chinese) education system.
Do they use arabic numbers? Do they know scienfic notaton, for example?

New area: What is their medical system like? Do they have any western medicine? Do they have a hospital such as I in the USA think of it?
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Old 18th January 2007, 12:28 AM   #34
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Originally Posted by SezMe View Post
Do they use arabic numbers? Do they know scienfic notaton, for example?

New area: What is their medical system like? Do they have any western medicine? Do they have a hospital such as I in the USA think of it?
These are slightly different questions, in that they don't really relate to Mosuo culture as such, but rather to Chinese culture and politics. Education, health care, etc. are all under Chinese control, not Mosuo.

To answer your questions quickly -- mathematics and science are taught using standard international systems and notations (otherwise, how could Chinese mathematicians and scientists exchange results with those from other countries?). In big cities, there are some hospitals that are quite modern and developed, but many more that lack modern equipment (not from lack of perceived need or desire, but from lack of money). In rural areas, medical care is minimal at best. For example, the Mosuo village that I usually live in is seven hours by non-stop driving over twisting mountain roads to get to the nearest 'real' hospital.

And all Chinese hospitals tend to incorporate both Chinese and western medicine; the x-ray lab will be next door to the acupuncture section, and the pharmacy will have a "western medicine" and "chinese medicine" section.
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Old 18th January 2007, 02:35 AM   #35
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Just a quick note tonight, Wolfman. I've posted my questions without much context but only because I'm fascinated by your experiences. I really appreciate your responses. As I read them, many questions just pop into my mind and I have just posted them as I go along. Please don't take this posting style in this thread as anything other than a rambling thought process.
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Old 18th January 2007, 02:48 AM   #36
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SezMe,

Please don't take my comment above as a criticism of your questions...I appreciate everyone who's taken the time to read all of this, and has the interest to ask questions. I just wanted to specify that it wasn't a specifically Mosuo-related question to avoid misunderstandings in relation to my answer.

Please do feel free to post any/all questions.
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Old 18th January 2007, 12:06 PM   #37
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Originally Posted by Wolfman View Post
Oh, they can and will continue to use standard Chinese writing; that is, in fact, required by Chinese law, and certainly a reasonable requirement. All Mosuo children will at least go to primary school, and all education is conducted in Chinese.

We are not seeking to 'replace' Chinese as their written language, but to add written Mosuo in addition to written Chinese. Orally, they are bilingual (Mosuo and Chinese languages); but in writing, they can only write one language.

Many Mosuo, to try to prevent the loss of their cultural legacy, have made efforts at writing down their oral history using Chinese. However, the fact is that this is a translation, and as such inevitably loses some of its impact, meaning, and context in the translation. For example, many rituals and songs are very poetic and rhythmic, but when translated into Chinese, although the general meaning may be preserved, it sounds awkward and clunky.
Oh, OK. I had misinterpreted the Wiki article than.

Originally Posted by Wikipedia
Script

Generally, the Mosuo uses the Han script for daily communication. The Tibetan script is mainly used for religious purposes.
I had assumed that this meant they transliterated vs. translated Mosuo into Hans or Tibetan script.


Originally Posted by Wolfman
At present, there are significant efforts being made to make audio and video recordings of the Daba priests reciting this oral legacy, in order to preserve it. But this is hampered by the fact that some of them regard it as a sacred tradition to be handed down only from father to son, kept within the family (an interesting side note here -- Daba priests and their families actually follow a patriarchal system; this is a holdover from the past lord/servant dichotomy that was mentioned by Shera above, in which the priests were part of the ruling class).

This also has the problem that, while it accomplishes the goal of preserving this knowledge, it doesn't help so much with teaching it. Consider if you were required to write an essay about War and Peace, and had only an audio transcript. Certainly, listening to it would be easy enough, but when it came time to study it in detail, find specific passages, etc., it would be a royal pain in the behind.

In general, we view the use of Chinese translations and oral/video recordings as very useful, but nevertheless as stopgap measures; creating a full written form of the language is really necessary to preserve both their language, and much of their cultural legacy.
I admire what your association and the Mouso are doing, and I appreciate what a challenge it must be.
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Old 18th January 2007, 06:12 PM   #38
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Originally Posted by Shera View Post
I had assumed that this meant they transliterated vs. translated Mosuo into Hans or Tibetan script.
Transliteration isn't really practical, as there are sounds (and sound combinations) in the Mosuo language that don't exist in Mandarin Chinese or Tibetan. I know of Mosuo who've made attempts at this, but the result is worse than just translating it into Chinese (or some other language).
Quote:
I admire what your association and the Mouso are doing, and I appreciate what a challenge it must be.
Thanks!
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Old 19th January 2007, 03:28 PM   #39
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Originally Posted by Wolfman View Post
On a day-to-day basis, Tibetan Buddhism plays a much greater role in their lives. Buddhist monks walk the streets, there are monasteries for teaching and housing monks, prayer flags wave from the branches of every tree, old women walk the streets spinning prayer wheels, etc.

Daba is practiced on a more ritual basis...for births, deaths, naming ceremonies, sickness, etc., the Daba priest will be called in to perform the relevant ceremonies.
It sounds similar to Japanese religious culture, and the melding of Buddhism and Shinto. Although with the Japanese, there was historically a class divide between the two.
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Old 19th January 2007, 03:47 PM   #40
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Originally Posted by Wolfman View Post
Adapt Daba symbols. Although the Mosuo have no written form of their language, their religion, Daba, does have a variety of religious symbols. These symbols do not represent an alphabet or language (it would be similar to they symbol of the cross, or the fish, or the dove, in Christianity). However, we could adapt these symbols to have each symbol represent one sound in the Mosuo language. Advantages – it provides a written form that is derived directly from the Mosuo culture, and is immediately recognizable to the Mosuo. It also encourages preservation of a unique part of their culture.
As strictly an amateur dabbler in linguistics (and philology to a lesser extent), I find this to be a particularly interesting, and in my mind aesthetically pleasing, choice. Creating an entire symbolic system, rather than just adapting an existing one, is a unique challenge. I'm reminded of the development of the Hangul (Korean) writing system. Are you using something like that as the model for your Mosuo script, or a more arbitrary sytem?

Sounds like a truly exciting project to be involved in, and I definitely envy you.
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