The Na, also sometimes referred to as Moso or Naxi, live in a remote part of the Chinese Himalayan mountains near the Burmese border. With a population of 30,000, this people live off agriculture (rice), livestock and fishing. The religious beliefs stand between Tibetan Buddhism and a cult of nature’s fertility.
The Na people, although a discreet and relatively small population, became known worldwide thanks to the anthropologist Cai Hua, who lived among them for several years. He describes a very special family, sexual and love system in his book A Society Without a Father or Husband: The Na of China.
Relationships between men and women:
For the Na, there is neither the notion of a father nor that of a husband. Relations between men and women are governed by what is known as the « stealth visit ». From the age of thirteen, women get their own room, with a door opening directly outside. Through this door, men can visit the woman for the night, unseen. The woman then chooses a man who will stay with her until the early hours of the morning. The term « stealth visit » comes from the fact that no one in the house is aware of the woman’s affairs. The man arrives late at night, leaves early in the morning. In this system, men and women have the option of either accepting or rejecting all relationships.
Besides, there is a polygamous system: unless an informal exception is made (the « stealth visit » can become an « ostensible visit » or « open visit », i.e. it is no longer hidden from the woman’s family members), no one has a duty of loyalty. On the contrary, jealousy is not understood, even unwelcome. Women can have several lovers, for one night or several months if an affinity is created between the two partners. This approach to love and sexual relationships undoubtedly influences the family system. Among the Na, the children do not know their biological father. They are raised in the maternal home, composed of the woman and her brothers. The maternal uncle becomes sort of a father figure.
Both men and women have well-defined roles in the household: the woman takes care of children and housework, while the men devote themselves to outside tasks, working to support their sisters, nephews and nieces. Agricultural work is carried out collectively. In each house, one man and one woman are considered as leaders and direct all the tasks assigned to their gender.
Having a daughter is a good omen since it is her who will be responsible for the transmission of the family heritage and especially of the lineage: without a daughter, the family line is extinguished. Nevertheless, the birth of a boy provides support for the household both in the maintenance of the home and in the education of his sister’s children.
Influences of religion:
Religious beliefs and family configuration are rather entwined. The Na worship nature, especially the Hlidi Gemu mountain – which embodies the Mother Goddess – but also water, a symbol of fertility. The status of man in the kinship system is compared to that of rain in the growth of grass: it only provides the necessary water. When a woman wants a child, it is customary to go to Hlidi Gemu Mountain, and drink the water from the spring running through it.
Furthermore, in the family approach, the oldest woman, the grandmother, plays an important role as she is responsible for the cult of the ancestors and for passing down the lineage’s memory.
In addition to animist beliefs, there were also Buddhist influences such as going to the temple to pray or worship Buddhist divinities – coming from neighbouring people.
The notion of matrilineality:
The Na are thus an example of a so-called matrilineal society: inheritance, family name, titles, properties… everything is transmitted by the mother, and not by the father. In practice, there are relatively few matrilineal societies or communities in the world. Some of the most well-known are the Minangkabau (Indonesia) or Boyowan (Trobriand Islands, New Guinea) or Judaism.
Author: Gaétan Chevreau
Translated by: Laurane Mandin
For further documentation:
- Braun, F., Matriarcat, maternité et pouvoir des femmes, in Anthropologie et Sociétés, Vol. 11 n°1, 1987. Disponible sur : http://www.erudit.org/revue/as/1987/v11/n1/006386ar.pdf
- Cai Hua, Une société sans père ni mari : les Na de Chine, 1998, PUF.
- Les Moso : une des dernières sociétés matrilinéaires au monde. Arte.tv, 2009. Disponible sur : arte.tv/sites/fr/carnets-de-route/2009/09/15/les-moso/
Photo credits :
Creative commons (photo de couverture, 2, 4, 5)