Finding one’s own Shangri-La

The cultural practices of the Muosuo people are liberating, if unconventional.

Here I stand, somewhere between the lake and the sky. The two are hardly distinguishable. Misty mountains wrap the landscape. A few horses in the distance feed on the half-barren land. A Muosuo boy with tanned skin and mountain red cheeks howls a strange love song into the wind.

It’s hard to know where to begin writing when you have found your heart’s Shangri-La and lost it just as suddenly.

You can listen to bits and pieces of recordings, stare at pictures until your insides ache, but Shangri-La has escaped. It is more fleeting than shadows. It is harder to capture than feelings. It’s not a place. It’s not a person. It’s not words. For me, it is fragments of time and space that cannot be fully recaptured.

I found my Shangri-La for three days by Lake Luguhu in the northern Yunnan province of China. I journeyed there alone, hoping to find some peace from urban Beijing.

Luguhu is the home of the Muosuos, the only minority population in China with a matriarchal society. Their practice of “zhou hun,” literally translated as “walking marriage,” means your chosen male partner doesn’t live with you. He only comes to you at night. Before dawn, he is gone again, back to his own life. Most Chinese people characterize the Muosuos’ way of life as “romantic” and “barbaric.” To me, it is liberating.

The Muosuos challenge the very concept of marriage, which to most so-called “civilized” people means two people living together with a state-issued marriage certificate. This legal union that we have grown so accustomed to might be problematic in terms of frequent conflicts, financial management, and keeping a fixed role of “mother,” “father,” “husband” and “wife.”

For the Muosuos, love marriage means the unity of two people who also maintain their own individual spheres of life. This minority tribe realized the type of idealized relationship that D.H. Lawrence wrote about in his novel, “Women in Love.”

Besides “walking marriage,” the Muosuos also defy the status quo with their emphasis on human bonding. As one Muosuo man put it simply, “Even the poorest, dirtiest place on Earth, if I have a friend there, I will go back there again and again.”

Having spent my entire life in urban cities, his sincere words deeply touched me. Human bonding is as essential as food or water. Yet, a lot of us are trapped in so-called “modern” societies, in which increased mobility and the need to always be “on the run” for efficiency’s sake forces us to sacrifice bonding time.

Sitting in a bar with a group of near strangers, glancing up now and then at the misty Lake Luguhu lying outside the window, I got a rare taste of raw human bonding. The boundaries between “Han” and “Muosuo”; “traveler” and “resident”; “gazer” and “subject of gaze” melted with the smell of wine and roasted lamb leg. For once, time seemed like an old toy concocted by a sly craftsman.

“Everything is relative. Even the most respected government official in Yunnan is nothing once he crosses the borders into another province, another country,” said the handsome Muosuo bar owner. He has a Tibetan accent, although he is Muosuo. He left for the monastery at age 8 and returned at age 18.

Years ago, he led herds of Western researchers and explorers through the mountains. Years later, these roads became paths from which the outside world catches glimpses into Luguhu.

“People say that Luguhu is Shangri-La. The truth is, it was only Shangri-La for the three people that first stood on its shores and sighed at the horizon,” he said. He gulps wine. I taste Shangri-La in his words.

Diana Fu welcomes comments at [email protected]