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Lugu Lake: Mesmerizing views of the last matriarchal society
China Today 2020-12-01 10:48:19

Several dugout boats docked on the shore of the Lugu Lake.

The breathtaking Lugu Lake sits like a precious jewel inlaid in the mysterious frontier of the Sichuan-Yunnan region. It is one of the highest lying lakes by altitude in China’s interior region. The lake is located at the junction of Yanyuan County, Sichuan Province, and Ninglang County, Yunnan Province. It is also one of the deepest freshwater lakes in China with depths reaching over 70 meters at the deepest point and 40 meters on average.

Unique Walking Marriage Custom

Living along the banks of the Lugu Lake are the descendants of the ancient matriarchal clan-based ethnic group called Mosuo.

The Mosuo people have a population numbering about 50,000 and speak in their own native language which has no written form. The scenery around the Lugu Lake with its unique Mosuo cultural features and natural scenery encompassed by mountains and pristine water is quite famous. The lake has often been referred to as the “Kingdom of Women” due to the Mosuo people’s traditional custom of “walking marriage.” They have maintained the ancient matriarchal family clan model, and as a result have been called “the last rose of the Eastern matriarchal family culture.” This rose is becoming more fragrant and special as time goes by.

The Lion Mountain, also known as Gemu Mountain on the north side of the Lugu Lake, is the major shrine of the deity which the Mosuo people worship called Goddess Gemu. Different from their nearby neighbors, the Tibetan and Yi ethnic groups, who worship male gods, the Mosuo people worship Goddess Gemu. The Gemu Mountain reclines on the water of the lake. White clouds are her apparel, and light fog her veil. With her long hair serving as her pillow, the goddess-shaped mountain looks as if she is in a deep slumber lying on her back. In her dreams, the mountain goddess Gemu watches over the safety and happiness of her people, making sure the wind and rain come on time. Under her careful watch, everything runs peacefully, and the people live prosperously. The reflection of her face in the Lugu Lake exhibits a quiet beauty, while the ripples in the water represent the goddess’ dimples when she smiles.

Not only did the goddess teach the Mosuo people how to plant, gave them hope in daily life as well as peace and tranquility; most importantly, she gave them the beautiful legacy of romantic love. The Mosuo people maintain the matriarchy cultural custom of “walking marriage,” in which men and women do not enter into a monogamous marriage relationship. After young Mosuo women reach maturity, they live alone in what is called a “flower building.” After getting approval from the lady, a man may stay with her overnight and leave in the morning. A 300-meter wooden bridge called the “Walking Marriage Bridge” that passes through what locals call the “grass sea” of dense reeds provides a convenient pathway to fulfill the custom of walking marriage. As for the origin of the Walking Marriage Bridge, locals speak of a beautiful legend. Long ago, there once lived a man and woman on either side of the grass sea. Every evening, the man rowed a “pig trough” boat to the other side of the grass sea to visit his beloved, and then return home the following morning. Regardless of the weather, the man went to see his beloved every night without exception. Watching her beloved make the daily arduous journey back and forth by boat, the woman felt sorry for her lover and built a wooden bridge that stretched across the grass sea to make his journey more convenient.

Clouds and water merge together over the Lugu Lake during the early morning hours.

Changing Traditions with the Times

Egrets fish in the grass sea while wild ducks float around the lake in groups, clusters of reeds dot the area, and green plants give the water a green color, all creating a stunning environment for pig trough boats to pass silently by. Older Mosuo women ride boats while younger women busy themselves with the chores of keeping the house tidy.

With an increasing number of tourists passing through the area over the last 10 years, the traditions of the daily life of the Mosuo people living in Yunnan Province have been greatly if not completely changed, while the group of Mosuo people residing within Sichuan Province still maintain their traditional life. In Shekua Village, Yanyuan County, a 92-year-old grandmother on an intravenous drip is looked after by her 60-year-old daughter. The wife of her grandson, Youjiama, speaks very fluent Putonghua, or standard Chinese, and is the main interpreter for all the tourists who come through. The distance between Youjiama’s mother’s house and mother-in-law’s house is only a dozen or so meters. A monogamous relationship is very common among the young generation now, but in preserving the walking marriage tradition of the older generation, it is still very common for both sides of the couple to continue living in their mother’s house after they get married.

Youjiama makes her living working in a local inn. In her own words, “The tradition of the walking marriage still exists in the Mosuo community, but local people have a great tolerance for how people follow that tradition. It is now accepted for a couple to live together or live separately in their mothers’ home after they get married, and the tradition of one woman maintaining marital relationships with many men has been extinct for about 30 years. In addition to this, with the increasing number of people moving into the region from other places, inter-ethnic marriages are increasing as well.”

Youjiama is in her early 20s and already has two children, giving birth to her first child when she was only 19 years old. Having children at such a young age is usual among Mosuo women, but what makes Youjiama unique is that she was the first woman in her village to go work in neighboring Yunnan Province. At the time she went away to work, her behavior shocked her community and was looked down upon by the older generation of her village. After the passage of a decade, the traditional ideologies of the older generation have slowly changed. Now Youjiama organizes young ladies of the village to perform traditional Mosuo dances for tourists who pass by the village and introduces Mosuo culture to them. This won her the praise of the elders of her village.

As smoke rises from home stoves throughout the village, corn and eggs are cooked while Youjiama’s mother-in-law entertains guests with salted tea boiled in black clay teapots simmered over coals. Several years ago, her father-in-law passed away, after that Youjiama moved in with her mother-in-law. But as for her own children, her mother still maintains the traditional Mosuo culture in which the grandmother is in charge of the home, while the mother and aunts take care of the children. About half of You Jiama’s classmates in school to this day still live in their mothers’ homes, while their husbands live in their mothers’ original homes, thus making Youjiama’s experience of living with her husband unique.

The roles of genders in the family are changing with the rise of a new generation. In Youjiama’s husband’s family of 10, even though his younger brother and sister haven’t left home, her husband has taken on the role of head of the family, altering the traditional model of the family. As for Youjiama’s mother’s strict traditional family, two of her daughters have already left home to live permanently with their husbands. The reason for these changes has to do with influences from local people’s exposure to the outside world as well as other factors that cannot be avoided. When a child’s residence registration is applied for after they are born or later when they apply to go to school, they are required to provide the marriage license of their parents. As a result, getting a marriage license from the government is a must for couples of the younger generation. But just a few years back, young people the age of You Jiama’s elder sister who now has two children, one of which is 16 years old, never applied for a marriage license.

White sea cauliflowers decorate the surface of the Lugu Lake.

Clean and Pristine Natural Environment

The water of the Lugu Lake is so clear and unpolluted that when standing on the bank of the lake, one can see the bottom of the lake with fish swimming freely around the water plants in the lake. Stalk-like topaz sways under the water, and on the surface, there are sea cauliflowers. The flowers are like hairpins on the temples of elves in the bottom of Lugu Lake. Perhaps they are also the physical manifestation of the color white which is worshiped by the Mosuo people. Between the months of May and October every year, the bright Ottelia acuminate flowers bloom along the banks of the lake. This flower is not only beautiful to look at, but is nutritious and tastes delicious when prepared as a cold dish or cooked.

The Lugu Lake has clean water and pristine quiet islands. The turquoise colored water is surrounded on four sides with lush green mountains with bays along the lake shore. Along the road that winds around the lake, there are scenic points to stop and enjoy and photograph the beautiful scenery. Both the Yunnan and Sichuan sides of the lake have a “lover’s beach” which attract many tourists.

The lover’s beach on the Yunnan Province side looks out over a vast expanse of water and from it the Gemu Mountain and Houlong Mountain can be seen in the distance, and represents a romantic love story. According to local mythology, the deities Gemu and Houlong were in love with each other but were separated by the deity of the heavens who turned them into two mountains that could only look forlornly at each other across the waters which lay between them. The deity of the heavens only allowed them to share a few moments with each other once a year on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month on the lover’s beach. As a result, this is how the “lover’s beach” came about. The beach is quite spread out and has several trees growing on the banks of the lake, perhaps providing shade for the two lovers from the sunlight and moonlight. As the sun rises over the lover’s beach, winds whisper and clouds gather to watch the pair of immortal mountains as they glance at each other with wishful longing. The line between the waters and the sky is blurred, the clouds gather around, and in the stillness, boats cross back and forth day after day. As the boats approach the waterways lit up by the radiant sunshine, they look like boats sent from a fairy family far away.

As the moonlight glows over the Sichuan lover’s beach, lovers make their way home, fishermen spread out their nets and tie up their small boats, hiding them from the boundless waters. During good weather the beaches are full of couples, enjoying the scenery together, taking pictures to preserve the moment, or just looking out over the lake and mountainous area, forgetting everything around them including themselves.

During religious festivals in which they conduct sacrifices, the Mosuo people walk around the mountains and lake, worshipping the mountains and water. Sacrificial activities may not continue a long time, but the altar is not idle. Here they worship the goddess and enjoy the beauty of the goddess’s bay. The peacefully sleeping goddess with her long hair, clearly defined chin, gentle and deeply set eyes, and graceful and charming neck, presents a mystical sight as the sun slowly sets over her heart.

Every view of the Lige Peninsula and Lige Cove looks like a postcard. At the beginning of the day, the expected red glow does not appear, and the sun seems to beat out the goddess’s pulse. Then in the quiet water, a small boat slowly appears without a sound, appearing as if it had traveled all the way from ancient times and had always been there.

Throughout the vast expanse of China, lakes dot the land like stars do the night skies. Various kinds of beauty graces the different lakes around China, like the vast natural beauty of the Taihu Lake, the calm and pristine Qinghai Lake, cultural beauty of the West Lake, stunning natural beauty of the Namtso Lake, and astounding scenery of the Hulun Lake. But as for the beauty of the Lugu Lake with its stunning natural mountainous scenery and rich cultural history, it can be said that it is a pure and rare beauty.

The grandmother is in charge of home in the Mosuo community. 

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