Mosuo in the World Market: From Remote Village in China to Modern Mall in Singapore


Growing up, woman artisan Luru-Dashima never imagined such a possibility: her scarves, resplendent in colour and painstakingly hand-woven, sit atop shiny modern surfaces in Tangs, an upscale Singaporean department store. This year, for its Christmas sale, Tangs chose products not from one of Europe’s famous fashion houses but rather from villagers located in a remote part of Yunnan Province, China. This exclusive collection of artisan-made scarves is the proud handiwork of Luru-Dashima’s people, the Mosuo.

The last-remaining matriarchal society in China, the Mosuo are a culturally-rich people who live by their own alternative social institutions and unconventional gender roles. The Mosuo community brims with unique traditions, among them the practice of tracing family lineage through the female side; an embrace of “walking marriages,” which holds love above all else; and persisting in the use of time-honoured techniques to weave their scarves and other handicrafts.

In Mosuo society, weaving is an important cultural skill symbolizing the ability to provide for the family. Mothers weave to clothe their children – and at the same time, to reinforce the notion that they are heads of households. Luru-Dashima and many women like her spend most of their waking hours weaving, hard work and dedication crystallized in every thread of their craft. 

Highlights

  • The Mosuo are a small group – around 53,000 people in a country of 1.3 billion, or 0.004%. Endangerment of Mosuo culture is due in part to lack of political, social, and economic space for the people to practice their culture meaningfully. Commercial pollution on their agrarian economy and traditional way of life has also contributed greatly to widespread poverty and cultural erosion.
  • Four of the most vulnerable ethnic minorities are currently supported across three culture-based development projects, directly benefitting over 500 people.

However, the advent of industrial mass production and rapid occurrence of modernisation throughout all aspects of life in China have had a profoundly detrimental effect on the community’s way of life. Local shop owners in the nearby tourist town Lijiang failed to appreciate the artisanal aspect of the Mosuo’s craft and sold the precious scarves at cut-rate prices in order to be competitive with mass-produced goods, pocketing most of the profit in the process.

“We do not know how to do business. Now scarves are made by machines, so sales of our hand-woven scarves were particularly difficult,” says Aqi-Duzhima, leader of the Mosuo Traditional Weaving Association. “We could not find a way out.”

The Mosuo are a small group – around 53,000 people in a country of 1.3 billion, or 0.004%. Their geographic isolation acts as a major hurdle to development and the pursuit of prosperity. Moreover, commercial pollution on the Mosuo’s traditional agrarian economy and the encroachment of mainstream culture make preserving cultural tradition and maintaining the group’s way of life difficult. Younger generations, who often saw no economic benefits or employment opportunities in their cultural inheritance, became reluctant to resist modern temptations, resulting in large-scale migration of young people away to the bigger cities. With every villager that left, Mosuo culture took one step closer to extinction.

Culture-based development

To help the struggling community stem the tide of cultural erosion, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched a project designed to help the Mosuo bring in economic opportunities while preserving and enhancing their cultural identity and traditions. Endangerment of Mosuo culture is due in part to lack of political, social, and economic space for the people to practice their culture meaningfully. Thus, the culture-in-development project sought to introduce the scarves made by Mosuo women to an international audience in order create new markets for their wares. In a milestone move validating the business potential for Mosuo women, iconic department store Tangs placed an order for 160 custom-made pieces as a part of an exclusive collection. Although a small order by Tang’s standards, the opportunity represented a huge leap forward for the Mosuo community, allowing it to step out and claim its own market niche.

The project emphasizes the unique tradition and handmade aspect of the Mosuo’s handicraft. Every scarf tells a story of the hidden value of behind the Mosuo’s weaving – a signal that the people’s passion, livelihood, and the whole of their economic activity are all deeply embedded in their cultural roots and traditional way of life.

The scarves’ cosmopolitan new home, more than 3,000 kilometres removed from the modest village in Yunnan, marked an international debut for the Mosuo. Furthermore, the opportunity to sell in Singapore has finally, rightfully raised the value of Mosuo products. The scarves sell, on average, for 200 RMB, with the weavers making 120 RMB per item. What the Tangs crowd is really paying for is the time it takes to make something by hand, intricate quality, and an authentic piece of age-old tradition.

From poverty to pride

Ethnic minorities comprise 8.49% of the national population. According to the State Ethnic Affairs Commission (SEAC), over 40 million ethnic minority individuals are still living in extreme poverty, constituting 32% of the country’s poor. UNDP has been working with the SEAC and the China International Centre for Economic and Technical Exchanges since 2006 to plan and implement poverty-reduction initiatives for these groups. Chinese cosmetics firm Jala Group signed on in 2011, bringing in more financial backing and business knowledge. Currently, the partnership supports four of the most vulnerable ethnic minorities across three culture-based development projects, benefitting over 500 people. Goals include raising awareness on ethnic cultural diversity, promoting the unique value of cultural products, and increasing the cultural recognition and pride of local communities.

Assimilation into modern culture without compromising their unique cultural identity remains the Mosuo’s biggest challenge. The Mosuo are not just selling their products, but embracing their right to fair trade, as well as their right to their own place in the modern world.

Tangs represents a new beginning for the Mosuo. Success means new opportunities: the women hope it will help kick off a broader base of retail outlets for their community and other ethnic minorities amongst more affluent foreign markets, where ethnic handicrafts can be appreciated for their unique artisanal quality. But success also means not abandoning tradition: mothers can again believe weaving is a gift, something beautiful they will proudly pass down to their daughters one day.

Sitting amidst spools of colourful thread, with her fingers never idle, Luru-Dashima says “A full, vibrant life for my children. That is my dream.”

With a start in Singapore, Mosuo villagers can continue to pursue their craft and grow their dreams.