LUGU LAKE, China—We are 9,000 feet above sea level, and John Wayne is taunting me. “Come on, Grandmother, you can make it. I’ll give you a hand.” Joe thrusts out his arm, and we scrabble down another switchback. I take his digs in good humor. Our cowboy is obviously in the throes of a crushing hangover.
He has, however, struggled out of bed to take us to see a relative who he says is almost 100 years old. But neither love nor money has been able to secure transportation. “It’s the police,” says Candy. “They’re checking licenses on the Sichuan side of the lake this month, and none of these cars have permits.”
Requests to rent yaks or horses are met with flat refusals. “It’s only 5 miles,” Joe groans, “Can you walk 5 miles, Grandmother?”
After two hours, I determine that estimating distance is not Joe’s strong suit. All four of us (we’ve been joined by Candy’s friend Laura) are exhausted, hot, and hungry. Ducks paddle in the sapphire waters, and I mentally drench them in orange sauce. We’re fading when a dump truck roars around a hairpin curve. Another of Joe’s many cousins screeches to a halt, and our footsore band is saved. He drops us near the village of Zhoung Wa.
You don’t go to a Mosuo home without presents, and a ramshackle stall provides us with cigarettes, whiskey, and sweets. A red dirt path snakes up a hillside between vegetable patches and narrow, foul-smelling ditches. The house is in the traditional style, two timbered stories built around a U-shaped courtyard. We step through the stockaded front gate, and Joe goes to find a real grandmother.
Yong Mu is 98 years old, with a face like finely creased leather. She wears a wool cap, a brown quilted jacket, and black silk pants. A jade bracelet gleams dully from her wrist. Her family leads her to a cushioned bench. Joe offers a cigarette, which she sets aside for later. She takes the sweets and the liquor but has trouble accepting the three aliens who’ve dropped into her home. “They want to talk to you, Grandmother,” Joe shouts. (Grandmother is almost deaf.) “They want to know your story.” Yong Mu lights the cigarette and begins to cry. No strangers—let alone foreigners—have ever come to ask her about her life.
“I was a slave,” she says. “My parents died, I was given to the Tusi. They kept me until the Communists came.” I ask about the Tusi. “They were Mosuo, but rich.”
Yong Mu is talking about tusi zhidu, a system of hereditary tribal chiefs established in the Yuan Dynasty, who administered local government and reported to Beijing. “I cared for their children and did housework. The Tusi starved us. We ate water with cornstarch. I lived under leaves. I had to leave my baby in the forest all day. It was a hard life. No clothes. No food.” She smokes in silence. “A very hard life.”
An old man in a brown tweed jacket quietly seats himself near Yong Mu. Nong Bu was ma bang—a nomadic cowboy who accompanied the caravans across the Himalayas. “The Communists saved us,” continues Yong Mu, “but the first years after the revolution were very hard. When the corn is hard, it passes through the horses’ shit. We washed the shit off and boiled the corn. We drank rice water when we had no rice. Nong Bu would steal horse food for me.”
Her gratitude to the Communists still blazes after more than 50 years. “Then we got our own field to plant corn, beans, rice—to feed ourselves. We have a better life.” She gestures across the courtyard. “A real house.” Nong Bu is almost 20 years her junior. He took the walking out of “walking marriage” and moved in with her when he was about 50, taking a pallet in the kitchen, next to the hearth room, where the oldest woman makes her bed.
Grandmother is still the matriarch, but it is her youngest daughter, Buer, who keeps all the money and all the keys. Buer practices walking marriage, but her azhu (“friend”)—the Mosuo have no word for “husband”—is here helping to pour a concrete floor for one of the rooms. I ask Yong Mu about her children, and she begins to cry again. “Nong Bu and I had three girls, and one boy who died seven years ago. Many grandsons and granddaughters. They have all left.”
I am not good at math, but something isn’t adding up. When she mentions carrying a baby with a heavy load as a Tusi slave, Candy catches it, too. “I thought you didn’t have babies until after the Communists.”
There’s some back and forth, and then Yong Mu fixes me with a pointed stare. “I am old. I get confused.” It’s time to put away my notebook. What happened to this woman and to any babies before Nong Bu and the Communists is her own tragic story, and she doesn’t want it told. She relaxes and speaks to Buer. It is time to eat.
We enter the hearth room, where a feast has been laid. Rice whiskey is presented, for the newest addition to the family must be toasted. Buer’s son Dan Zhuo has married, and his wife Erche gave birth less than a month ago to Zha Xi Picuo, who’s swaddled tightly in the warm room. In an unusual reversal of Mosuo tradition, Dan Zhuo has brought his wife and child to live in Grandmother’s compound. “They are my family now,” he says. “There can be no leaving.”
As I work my way through slices of preserved pig fat, I chew on his words. Although their lack of coyness draws the world’s attention to the Mosuo, sex is not the center of their universe. I think of my parents’ bitter divorce, of childhood friends uprooted and destroyed because Mommy or Daddy decided to sleep with someone else. Lugu Lake, I think, is not so much a kingdom of women as a kingdom of family—albeit one blessedly free of politicians and preachers extolling “family values.” There’s no such thing as a “broken home,” no sociologists wringing their hands over “single mothers,” no economic devastation or shame and stigma when parents part.
Later, I play with the soap opera-loving Sada at the guesthouse. Sassy and confident, she’ll grow up cherished in a circle of male and female relatives. The man who fathered her may well remain a presence in her life, but his whims will not dictate her security. And when she joins the dances and invites a boy into her flower room, it will be for love, or lust, or whatever people call it when they are operating on hormones and heavy breathing. She will not need that boy—or any other—to have a home, to make a “family.” Already, at 5, Sada knows that she will always have both.