Home Institution

University of California, Berkeley

Publication Date

Spring 2017

Program Name

China: Language, Cultures, and Ethnic Minorities


China is currently in the midst of the largest labor migration in human history and yet we know very little about the cultural impact on the migrants themselves. For many ethnic minorities, like the Mosuo, who have been isolated from urban, if not Han, influence for much of their history, this migration is sure to result in some cultural disruption. As a matrilineal culture defined by large extended families traced by the matriline, a distinct, non-exclusive sexual-reproductive system, a housing layout that reflects religious beliefs and social structure, and a fluid interplay of the local ddaba religion and Tibetan Buddhism, the Mosuo are an interesting group through whom to follow the impacts of migration. This study traces the Mosuo migration to Lijiang, the closest urban area to the Mosuo geographic epicenter, to develop a better understanding of how the Mosuo cultural experience both shifts and sustains itself in the face of migration. This study’s findings are based on a month of formal interviews which combined structured and unstructured techniques conducted in Lijiang (migrants: N=18, government officials: N=2, Mosuo researchers: N=4), and five primarily Mosuo townships and villages (N=11). Through participant observation techniques I conducted informal interviews with (rural: N= 34, urban =6) Mosuo residents. Through this research, I ask: What aspects of Mosuo culture change in the face of migration and what remain relatively constant? The answers to these questions can not only give a clue to the future of the Mosuo, but also tell a larger story of the ways that migration impacts migrants. Thus, in the context of a rural to urban migration in which young Mosuo migrants are often coming to the city solo to start a new life with a new job, I argue that the first aspects of Mosuo culture to be susceptible to change are those physical attributes and cultural practices that are less compatible with urban life, whereas the deeper values that the Mosuo associate with their identity and the rituals that mark important life events remain more stable.


Chinese Studies | Demography, Population, and Ecology | East Asian Languages and Societies | Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Place and Environment | Social and Cultural Anthropology


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