Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The White Mongols

My discovery of the Mosuo society through the last assignment at UNC-G was very interesting. The Mosuo are a matrilineal group that has an absence of a formal marriage system. They practice the “walking marriage” where the female has her lover/husband over at night and he then returns to his mother’s home the next morning. The children of these couples are raised in the mother’s home with little or no support from the father. The mother’s brothers are surrogate fathers and provide the male role model for his sister’s off spring. This practice is certainly strange from a western view as we generally believe that men should be the head of house and be an active participant in the rearing of his children.

During my research I discovered another ethnic minority group in China that has an interesting marriage system as well. This group is the Tu people. The Tu only number around 250,000 and live in the fertile foothills of the Qilian Mountains in the north and northwest area of China. The Tu are often called “Chahan Monggue” which translates to white Mongols. It is believed that Mongolian soldiers invaded the area in the 1200s and intermarried with the local people. Their language is similar to Mongolian and is called Mongour. It is a difficult language and there is no written form. The life of this language is also threatened by the fact that China wants to eliminate languages it considers foreign in relation to that spoken by the Han majority.

The Tu wear elaborate clothing that clearly distinguishes them from the Han, Mongols, and Hui of that area. The women and men have multicolored outfits with fine embroidered sleeves. This is in great contrast to the simplistic clothing that the majority of rural people typically wear.

The comparison that I wanted to make with the Mosuo is the marriage system that so differs from the west. The Tu incorporate two distinct types of "marriage" into their culture. The first is the usual practice of arranged marriages, after which the brides go and live with the groom’s family. The second "marriage" is a ceremony that takes place when a young girl reaches the age of fifteen, after which she is considered as being "married to Heaven." She continues to live with her own family, but is allowed to take in different sexual partners. Any children born to her will become members of her father's family, unlike the Mosuo culture where the children live with the mother’s side.

An unmarried Tu woman wears a single ponytail to indicate her status to prospective partners. If a woman is still single by the time she has reached her mid-twenties, she is permitted to bear children out of wedlock so that she might avoid the disgrace of not having borne any children. The whole community cares for these illegitimate children. This gives a new meaning to “it takes a village to raise a child.”

The Tu are hardworking and peaceful people. They specialize in animal husbandry, concentrating on sheep breeding. Recently, modern industry and equipment has begun to make its way into the agricultural areas. Paved roads and electricity has also made its way into the former isolated area. Most modernization has been good for the Tu. Agricultural production and mining has increased. There have also been several hydro electrical plants installed, bringing more electricity to the area. This has led to an increase in school systems for the youth as well as health facilities for the public.


Ellen O. said...

Thanks Kevin for this post, it was very interesting and a nice companion piece to the Mosou.Interesting that we think these options are "strange" compared to our own familiar sexual/marriage patterns when there seems to be much more stability in these alternatives. It would be interesting to hear if these 2 groups encounter any of the usual relationship problems that Westerners do.

Rook said...

Ellen you make a good point. We are fortunate to get any information from behind the Great Wall. China's communist regime strictly controls the dissemination of information. But, I agree I would like to know more about the problems or lack of personal problems that these marriage systems encounter. I hope that more is discovered about many of the Chinese minority people that are slowly disapppearing