Lugu Lake's Kingdom of Women
Lugu Lake has nurtured the Mosuo people for centuries. [Photo/Courtesy of In Search of the Forgotten Kingdom]
Although it is far in every sense from Hong Kong where I run a literary press, I always had a hunch that I would visit Lugu Lake some day. The alpine lake, nested in the sub-Himalayan roots of China's Yunnan province, has long been a fashionable retreat for Chinese writers fleeing urban modernity. One of our more famous novelists would occasionally pop up in our offices, dressed in flowing ethnic threads, announcing she was back from "Yunnan" - by which she meant Dali, Lijiang and Lugu. Inseparable from the lake's modish mystique is the much-misrepresented matriarchal culture of the Mosuo people who live on its shores.
So when photographer Pamela and I finally arrived in southwestern Yunnan to work on a new book, after a few days in Lijiang we felt it was time to move onto Lugu. The 200 kilometer ride was a spectacular one through passes deep in the Yulong mountain range with stunning vistas of snowcapped peaks. Our bus stopped at a high-altitude ticket station and finally we saw how the fabled lake unfolded: alpine flowers blooming around the glittering waters with forested slopes, beaches and pearl-like islands.
Mosuo women favor collar and cuffs and pleated ankle-length skirts, and seem to love a bit of bling. [Photo/Courtesy of In Search of the Forgotten Kingdom]
The bus came down to Luoshui village with its clusters of characteristic Mosuo lengfang - chic yet orderly Mosuo houses. We reached the lakeside and found a curved gravel promenade with weeping willows which was described as a "Mosuo style road" and offered Mosuo-themed guesthouses, boat tours and bonfire parties. Our simple room was not warm on that winter's night but the balcony had a table and great views of the lake: I guessed it would be a decent place to sit and write a novel.
Like most of the village's guesthouses and restaurants, our inn was run by a Mosuo family. The men wore wide-brimmed felt hats, gold pants, a belt with a knife, and boots with trousers folded into them, hinting at their nomadic herdsmen tradition. The women favored collar and cuffs and pleated ankle-length skirts, and they seemed to love a bit of bling. The Mosuo famously have sexual relationships called Tisese, sometimes referred to as "walking marriages". Tisese differs from conventional marriages in that men and women as couples do not generally live under the same roof; neither do they have contractual relations to each other. However we had read that the term matrilineal does not reflect the full complexity of their social organizations.
The village makes a big deal of its Mosuo dance displays, which turned out to be good humoured community affairs. I linked arms with a Mosuo woman, who towered over me, and I would have liked to have asked her about how she saw her future at Lugu Lake. Apparently, as the young generation increasingly leave their clans to work in Mosuo tourist sites and distant cities, some have been marrying Han Chinese to start families. However the language barrier (and no doubt my repetitive line in shallow questions) limited our chance for conversation.
The Lugu Lake scenic area has many villages and there are several different ways to explore them but we decided to hire bikes. If you have good physical stamina it is supposedly possible to cycle around the lake in one day, but two days seemed more manageable for us. Indeed, the first section of the Mosuo Road from Zhaojia Bay via Luowa to Wuzhiluo has steep sections and within an hour we were wistfully imagining the rumoured sightseeing bus.
One of our first stops along the road, Gemu Goddess Mountain looms 1,000 meters above the northeast peninsula of the calm lake, watching over the Mosuo children playing on its shoreline. Already thinking about saving our legs, rather than climbing the mountain we joined the easy-riders enjoying the vistas by cable car. The peak harbours Goddess Cave with its bizarrely shaped stone stalactites and an image of the white goddess.
The myths of the Gemu goddess make it very clear that she has many lovers. In one story, a mountain spirit found Gemu occupied with a love rival and rode away, but on hearing the horse's neigh Gemu realized the situation and gave pursuit. It was too late, however, because she saw only a large hoof print at the foot of the mountain, which made her tearful. The male spirit, touched by such celestial emotion, threw a few pearls into the lake, which then became an island.
We spent that night in Lige village, which is located on one of the most beautiful of these pearls. Climbing up to the viewing platform, we enjoyed a panorama of peaceful Lige Island casting a clear silhouette on the lake under the blue sky and white clouds. Lige is home to more than a dozen Mosuo people living in apparent matrilineal family harmony. Our lakeview rooms at the Mosuo Inn offered us exquisite night views of a sky full of stars.
The next morning, a visit to a village lengfeng raised a curtain on the mysteries of matriarchal society. Traditionally the Mosuo live in clan houses with their matrilineal families, from the cradle to the grave: earnings are controlled by the family's female head, the dabu. During the day, men live and work with their maternal families while at night they go to their lovers in their homes. We entered the main room of the lengfeng that houses the "fire pit", which is the front stage of Mosuo living, cooking, eating and gatherings. Besides this central area were chambers where elder women and children live, although the "grandmother chamber" was traditionally off-bounds to visitors.
By now we had fully surrendered to the charm of Lugu Lake. We cycled to Caohai Lake, or the Grass Sea, a southern section of Lugu which is known as the soul of the Mosuo people. This part of the shallow lake has a murmuring growth of dense reeds where Mosuo girls dressed in red and white expertly navigate their boats. The color of the water changes throughout the day and there's a huge variety of avian and water life. A 300-meter long wooden bridge connects the two sides of the Grass Sea. Walking Marriage Bridge is the symbolic center of dating culture for the young Mosuo men and women who meet on it to express their affection through dancing and singing. The Mosuo men are referred to by their sweethearts as Azhu and the women by their beaus as Axia. On a clear winter afternoon it was definitely a stirring sight to see a Mosuo youth walking on the bridge across the rippling grass sea. As we stood there, Hong Kong seemed a long way away. Much of China's ancient history has been penned into its ethnically diverse margins. Despite having resisted its fashionable allure for so long, the soul of Lugu had won us over.
The author is a Hong Kong-based writer, translator and publisher. In Search of the Forgotten Kingdom, a cultural guide to this part of southwestern Yunnan, is out now from Make-Do Publishing.
If you go
The Lijiang area is served by Lijiang Sanyi International Airport, 28 kilometers south of Lijiang city. From Lijiang, the express bus to Luoshui village at Lugu Lake costs around 100 yuan ($15, depending on the bus station) and now takes four hours. Entrance to the Lugu Lake Scenic Area costs 100 yuan per person. Getting around the lake can be done by car, boat, hiking, or even on horseback. Along the way you will find plenty of little shops and restaurants. Luoshui village's lakeside has many guest houses, some of which offer food, cultural entertainment and bike hire. Further around the lake is Lige village near Gemu Goddess Mountain where it is possible to stay with host families in traditional wooden residences. The smaller lakeside villages are less commercialised and many also offer opportunities for homestay.