My Uncle, My Father

My Uncle, My Father

  • Tourists take pony rides led by Mosuo women at Lugu Lake. Yunnan, China.
  • The Cauldron Fire Evening is a nightly song-and-dance session performed by the Mosuo for tourists. About thirty dancers participate and engage with the audience in traditional Mosuo folk performances. They charge thirty yuan a person and share the proceeds equally among all performers. Luoshui, Yunnan, China.
  • Zha Ba and Na Zhu have supper with their daughter, La Mu, and Na Zhu’s family after performing at the Mosuo Cauldron Fire Evening. Although they practice “walking marriage,” Zha Ba gets to see his daughter frequently, unlike most Mosuo men in previous generations. Luoshui, Yunnan, China.
  • Mosuo girls carry firewood to their home in Nisai village. Mosuo girls perform many tasks that men say they cannot do, including carrying 40-50 katis of firewood. Nisai, Lugu Lake, Yunnan, China.
  • Mosuo people at Cao Hai make a living from tourism focused on their intriguing “walking marriage” custom. Men and women lead pony rides across the “Walking Marriage Bridge”—a bridge used by Mosuos to cross a marsh and reach their lovers in the opposite village. Tourists don’t seem to mind that the present bridge is nothing like the old one, which has long fallen into disuse. Cao Hai, Lugu Lake, Sichuan, China.
  • Mosuo women rest by Lugu Lake, some spinning prayer wheels. Despite the development around Luoshui, Mosuo women continue their traditional way of life, emphasizing a culture revolving around large matriarchal families and practice of Tibetan Buddhism. Luoshui, Yunnan, China.
  • A morning in Aguwa, a village of about 400, most of whom are Mosuo. The communities in the hills primarily rely on agriculture and handicrafts to eke out a living. Aguwa, Yunnan, China.
  • Zha Xi Yi Zong, 4, and Zhe Mei La Zu, 8, daughters of Lhamu Er Che, wash their faces outside the family home. Aguwa, Yunnan, China.
  • Su Na Dorje, 26, herds his horses from the hills back home. During the two months of winter, when the fields are left fallow, Su Na heads out with his horses to neighboring Sichuan province and chops firewood to provide for the next year’s needs. Aguwa, Yunnan, China.
  • Television arrived in the Mosuo village of Aguwa some ten years ago and has changed sleeping habits ever since. The shopkeeper is a Han Chinese who married into a Mosuo family. Aguwa, Yunnan, China.
  • Young men gather outside the only provision shop at dusk before heading to their “walking marriages.” These days, men whose partners live too far to walk typically ride motorcycles instead. Zha Xi, 22, heads off to the hot springs before seeing his lover. Aguwa, Yunnan, China.
  • With electricity came nightlife: bars sprang up around the hot spring soon after the village joined the power grid in 2000. They have since become a place for boys to meet girls and for outsiders to get drunk and rowdy. Aguwa, Yunnan, China.
  • Su Na Dorje, 26, takes his two nieces up the hill to the village shrine to worship. As the maternal uncle, Su Na has to play the role of father to the two girls, Zhi Ma La Zu, 8, and Zha Xi Yi Zong, 4. In the matrilineal Mosuo culture, uncles serve as fathers to keep the family structure intact. Women rule the roost, while their brothers practice “walking marriage.” The men are not allowed to set up their own families, but instead stay within their extended families as shared father figures. Aguwa, Yunnan, China.
  • Su Na finds village life boring, but working in cities has proven to be an even greater struggle. In the background, a relative from Lugu Lake comes to visit his wife and children in Aguwa. Aguwa, Yunnan, China.
  • Ci Er Zu Ma, 40, wife of Song Nang Da Zhu, 49. The Mosuo life revolves largely around the hearth, which is used for cooking, warming up, and smoking. Wujiu, Sichuan, China.
  • The Mosuo household thrives on numbers, and this one in Wujiu has thirty members. However the young and able-bodied are either seeking higher education or employment in cities, leaving only ten of their relatives behind. Still, the family is rich by local standards: they own thirty yaks, thirteen pigs, and sixty goats. With income from these animals, the family built a new two-story prayer hall. Wujiu, Sichuan, China.
  • Song Nang Da Zhu, 49, the “uncle” of the family.
  • Da She, 59, carries his granddaughter, 2, while everyone else in the household is busy. Aguwa, Yunnan, China.
  • Cier Zhima, 73, the matriarch of a Mosuo household, poses for a picture before heading off once again for the fields. Aguwa, Yunnan, China.
  • Mosuo matriarch Guzu Lazu, 70, carries her two-year-old granddaughter, Senu, while another granddaughter, Songnang Lamu, 5, follows. Aguwa, Yunnan, China.


In Aguwa village, Yunnan province, the Mosuo continue to practice their ancient tradition of matriarchy. Women rule the tightly-knit families as heads of households, while men practice “walking marriages,” fathering children whom they seldom help raise. Instead, these men are duty-bound to stay with their families and take care of their sisters’ children, so as to keep family bonds intact. These “uncle-fathers” serve an important role in the Mosuo culture even as it slowly disappears. —Edwin Koo

Koo is a Singaporean documentary photographer currently represented by Cosmos and based in Katmandu, Nepal since 2008. From 2005 to 2008 Koo was a staff photographer with The (Singapore) Straits...