This past weekend I traveled to Lugu Lake, a high-altitude alpine lake located on the border between Yunnan and Sichuan. With some Chinese friends from the office, we spent two days cycling around the lake on red rented mountain bikes, admiring the deep turquoise water and avoiding the sudden and violent thunderstorms that materialized at random intervals throughout the weekend. It wasn’t an easy trip; besides sickness and a minor bike accident, we also had to deal with ten-hour bus rides and a bathroomless guesthouse—the outhouse was literally out back with the pigs. Nevertheless, the beautiful and fascinating scenery made the trip absolutely worthwhile.

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The mountains surrounding Lugu Lake are home to the Mosuo people (摩梭人), who number approximately 40,000. The Mosuo are famous for their woven textiles, their preserved pork, and—most of all—their unique marital customs. Mosuo heritage is traced matrilineally, and couples engage in so-called “walking marriages,” where the man visits the woman by night and returns to his own home during the day. Any children born from these meetings are raised in the mother’s home. Today, this cultural quirk is one of Lugu Lake’s biggest tourist draws. The entire area is advertised as the “Land of Daughters,” and I’m told that the perceived promiscuity of Mosuo women attracts desperate men from all over China and has created a booming red light district in the area.

In our peaceful circumnavigation of the lake, my friends and I saw no signs of prostitution. We did, however, see the effects of tourism apparent in many areas of southwest China. Entire villages seemed converted into tourist havens, where every wooden house has an inn and a restaurant, and every lakefront shop sells the same scarves, jewelry, and other “authentic” “ethnic” souvenirs (identical to those for sale in Lijiang, Dali, Yangshuo, etc.).

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After hearing so much about their perceived exoticness, I was surprised to learn that the Mosuo people are not considered their own ethnicity by the Chinese government. In Yunnan, they are officially classified as a sub-group of the Naxi. In Sichuan, they are officially Mongolian. The government ID cards of Mosuo people say “摩梭人” not “摩梭族” using the 人 (person) suffix instead of the usual 族 (nationality/ethnicity) suffix. What’s going on here?

“Ethnicity” can be a very fluid concept. Juxtaposed against the rigidity of Chinese government policy, the concept becomes dizzyingly complex. The population of the People’s Republic of China is officially classified into 56 ethnic groups. One of these groups, the Han, comprises 92% of China’s total population; they are the largest ethnic group in the world. The remaining 55 minority groups are known as 少数民族, translated alternatively as “minority nationalities” or “minority ethnicities.” (The word “nationality” was based on a Marxist definition of “nation.” Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the word “ethnicity” is generally preferred to avoid confusion between political and cultural entities within China).

Some of China’s minority groups, such as the Hui (回族) are spread throughout every province in China, while others, such as the Naxi (纳西族) of northwest Yunnan, are found only in one particular area. Some ethnicities are associated with neighboring independent countries, such as ethnic Mongolians (蒙古族), Koreans (朝鲜族), and Kazakhs (哈萨克族). Others, like the Bai or the Hani, are found only in China.

The ethnic groups most frequently in the Western news are those in conflict with Han people and the Chinese government, namely the Tibetans and the Uighurs. Both groups have a history of cohesive political autonomy, and the centers of these historic civilizations are currently located within the borders of the PRC. Tibetans and Uighurs are known throughout the world, but many people do not know that the second largest ethnic group in China (after the Han) is the Zhuang, whose 18 million people live in the rural mountains of Guangxi and neighboring provinces. Many people also do not know that Russians (俄罗斯族) are considered one of the 56 official groups, or that the Manchus (满族), despite ruling all of China not so long ago, have all but completely assimilated into Han culture.

Ever since the government began officially cataloging ethnicities in the 1950’s, there has been plenty of confusion. The Hakka (客家人) of southeastern China were originally labeled as a unique ethnic minority because their customs and language differed from their Cantonese neighbors. Today, Hakka people are classified as Han (supported by genetic evidence), and their language is considered to be a dialect branch of Chinese.

The Hui (回族), meanwhile, seem to be classified more according to religion than cultural identification. Often known as “Chinese Muslims,” the Hui are thought to be descended from early Arab traders in China. Modern Hui people are spread across every province of China, and except for their religion, they are linguistically and culturally indistinguishable from their (mostly Han) neighbors. Interestingly, Bai-speaking Muslims in Yunnan and some Tibetan-speaking Muslims in Tibet are also classified as Hui, confirming the label as a religious rather than a truly ethnic designation.

So what’s the deal with the Mosuo? According to one of the friends I was traveling with, a Naxi girl, the Mosuo and Naxi languages are very similar. The two groups also inhabit the same region, so it makes sense that they would be related. My friend acknowledged that the Mosuo people consider themselves to be an independent group, but explained that their population is too small to qualify for official status. I’m not sure if this is true, since the Oroqen in northeastern China have less than 9000 people, and the officially registered Tatars in Xinjiang number only 3500.

Historically, both the Mosuo and the Naxi (as well as the Lisu, Yi, and other local groups) are believed to have descended from the ancient Qiang people. After this their histories diverge. In Yunnan, linguistic and geographic similarities were enough to classify the Mosuo as Naxi. In Sichuan, a group of Mosuo claiming direct descent from Mongol officials during the Yuan dynasty successfully petitioned to be classified as Mongols. This discrepancy highlights the complexity of provincial politics in China, where the same group of people can be classified in two different ways on either side of the border.

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The real question is, what does it matter? My Naxi friend did not express any strong opinions on whether or not the Mosuo are truly Naxi. All ethnic minorities in China are awarded certain privileges, such as exemption from the one-child policy and affirmative action admission to universities. These privileges apply to the Mosuo regardless of how they are characterized. To me, this is an issue of personal identity, rather than practical benefits. If the Mosuo people consider themselves to be a separate ethnic group, and the Naxi people (and certainly the Mongolians as well) do not disagree, how can anybody else say otherwise?

Unfortunately in China, the government can indeed say otherwise. A new classification might bring solidarity and pride to the Mosuo people, but to the Chinese bureaucracy it would only bring paperwork and confusion, adding another layer to China’s massively complicated ethnic landscape.

For now, the Mosuo people seem to be struggling with the same problems as ethnic minorities all over China—commercialization and fetishization. No matter what the government says, it’s important to understand the complexity of Mosuo culture and to avoid romanticizing and cheapening their social and marital customs. Although I had a fantastic time in Lugu Lake—bathroomless guesthouse aside—I regret that I did not take the opportunity to speak first-hand with more Mosuo people. I hope to return again to the lake, this time to more fully understand the complex issue of ethnic identity. And maybe next time, I’ll splurge for a room with an indoor toilet.

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