28 January 2013

PINCH Magazine takes a snapshot of China’s matriarchal Musuo Tribe

Canadian photographer Tracy Zhang set off to the remote Lugu Lake in Southern China, in search of the matriarchal Musuo Tribe, and a taste of the country in which she was born. Here, she gives us a snapshot of the idiosyncratic Musuo culture and the stunning backdrop of Lugu Lake, near China’s Tibetan border:

I wrestled myself awake at the sound of my cellphone alarm and the cooing of roosters. It’s 5 am, deep in the mountains of southern China. I am here to photograph an ethnic settlement – the Musuo tribe.

Under the quiet dark sky of dawn, I hike to a nearby lookout point with my camera to photograph the sunrise. The Musuo settle in a remote part of China called Lugu Lake. At over 2,000 meters above sea level, Lugu Lake is surrounded by mountains and only accessible by car. From the lookout, I spot a few driftwood canoes floating on the lake’s pristine surface. Musuo children grow up drinking the water from this very lake.

As I set up my equipment and wait for a glimpse of the sun, I ponder about what I have learned since arriving here the day before. The Musuo is one of many ethnic tribes in China but they are unlike any other tribe – they practice matriarchy. According to Musuo lifestyle, women rule the household. The grandmother is the authority of the family while the eldest daughter manages all property and money.

The Musuo practice something called “walking marriage”. Musuo children enter adulthood at age 13. After that, Musuo can take lovers but can never marry. Lovers must meet in secrecy at night and cannot spend their days together. As I look out towards the lake, I wondered if any of the canoes I saw were carrying men away from their lovers.

For the last 10 years, I have been visiting China to document the intricacies of the country where I was born. On each visit, I discover something fascinating about the nation and the people who live in it. As the sun rose over Lugu Lake, I realized that it is this group of people – the Musuo tribe – who look like me yet lead lives so different from my own that keeps me coming back to China year after year.