Chinese Tribe Without Marriage Points to Future

The Mosuo people of southwest China do not marry and fathers do not live with, or support, children. Do the Mosuo anticipate a global future where no one marries?

Whether the Mosuo have marriage depends upon what you mean by marriage. Their mating system is called "walking marriage" where the man and woman do not live together even though they sleep together.

As soon as she is sexually mature, a young woman gets her own bedroom and may invite a man to spend the night with her. If babies are produced from these informal unions, they are raised by the mother with the help of her siblings and the father does not provide economic support.

So far, it might seem that this is no different from a women in a modern society having one night stands and opting to become pregnant as a result. Yet, walking marriages are not necessarily casual relationships. In general, they seem to be long-standing arrangements that can even last for a lifetime.

Moreover, Mosuo women generally know the paternity of the children and the father is ceremonially welcomed by children on special occasions, such as Chinese New Year. So, however minimal they are, walking marriages include one key feature of other marriages, namely the joining of a kin network.

What is conspicuously missing is the economic support that married fathers around the world are expected to provide for their children in return for the opportunity of fathering children of the marriage.

The avunculate

How could such a seemingly unbalanced version of marriage come to exist? Anthropologists offer some clues because there are other societies where fathers invest little in children of their marriage. Instead, they become attached to children of their sisters -- a phenomenon known as the avunculate.

The avunculate likely exists because a husband's confidence of paternity of children of the marriage is low. Whether this is true of the Mosuo is unknown.

Apart from low confidence of paternity, there is another good reason that men (and women) might choose to care for their nieces and nephews as though they were offspring. It might be a response to the difficult living conditions of the Himalayas. After all, such conditions in Tibet may be responsible for the very unusual marriage system of polyandry where a pair of brothers shares a bride.

Yet another possible reason for walking marriage is that Mosuo men used to be long-distance traders who were absent for long periods in trading caravans.

What it means for the future

As I pointed out in a recent post, modern marriage may be converging on the Mosuo tradition in the sense that formal marriage may well be on the way out. The key data point here is the fact that in some developed countries, the majority of children are already born outside marriage in a fast-developing trend.

One of the key practical factors today is that mothers are financially much more independent than was true in the past thanks to near-universal participation in the paid labor force. Another is that women have remarkably small families of just one or two that they may be able to raise independently particularly if they live in a modern welfare state with extensive government supports for children and aggressive collection of paternity payments.

So the Mosuo may either be one of those strange historical holdovers -- a marginal group occupying a marginal ecology. Or they may offer a revealing glimpse into the future in which formal marriage suddenly disappears.