Category Archives: matriarchy

Lijiang & Shuhe

My time here in Yunnan is nearly finished so I decided to come to Lijiang to say good bye to some friends before going back to the mountains for the last few weeks.

Lijiang is a must-see for all the tourists in Yunnan (among Dali and now increasingly Shaxi). Especially Chinese tourist companies do cheap package tours here which has resulted in the place turning into a Naxi culture Disneyland. Lijiang got famous after the old town survived a massive earth quake in 1997. It was also accepted to the UNESCO World Heritage list. I visited Lijiang first time in 1999 during the winter. It was so quiet and beautiful! Now the old town is at least 3 times the size it was then and most of the Naxi minority people have sold their properties in old town to entrepreneurs from other parts of China.

Another reason for Lijiang’s popularity is it’s reputation as a matriarchal society. To quote Lonely planet ”The Naxi are descendants of Tibetan nomads and they lived until recent times in matriarchal families although the local rulers were always men. Still, it seems that women are running the show. Naxi matriarchs held their power over men through flexible love affairs. This azhu (friendship) system permitted the couple to be lovers without a marriage. Boyfriend could spend his nights at a girlfriends house but would return to his mother’s house to live and work at day time. The possible children of the couple would belong to the mother who was responsible for raising them. The father would offer support but if the relationship came to an end so did the support. The children would live with their mother and recognizing fatherhood wasn’t very important.Women would inherit all the property.”(Lonely Planet 1998: 845.)

In reality the Naxi are strictly patriarchal and patrilineal. The reason why women seem to run the show is that Naxi men leave all the work to women, be it farming or running a business. The azhu relationships are practiced by Mosuo people who live at the Lugu Lake and are counted as a part of Naxi nationality. But not even the Mosuo are matriarchal, but matrilineal. Girls inherit their mothers but both political and religious power belongs to men. And now this matriliny might work against the girls as the families prefer them to stay home instead of getting an education outside.

The third reason for Lijiang’s popularity is that most people use it as a stop over on the way to Tiger Leaping Gorge which is probably one of the most popular treks in China. Actually the gorge is located in Shangri-la but Lijiang seems to have hijacked most of the tourism. This also applies to tourists heading north to Meili Snow Mountains. Most of the tourists get their drivers and guides or the whole tours from Lijiang. And this is the reason why most of the young men of Xidang village are in Lijiang. They all want to make money from tourism by guiding or driving customers.

Yunnan’s old towns all resemble one another with their cobbled streets, canals and shops all selling the same crap. And nearly all of the buildings have been turned into guesthouses, shops or bars/restaurants. Shopping is the most popular form of entertainment.


As Lijiang is really busy especially during the high season, another old town opened up nearby, Shuhe. I visited Shuhe in 2005 and at the time it was a sleepy little village. Now it’s a copy of Lijiang, although a bit smaller and somewhat more quiet. But the difference is not big.


Both of the photos in this post are from Shuhe a few years ago. Lijiang can be beautiful also if you wake up 6 am to avoid the crowds but I can’t be bothered to do that. And the old pics from 1999 are on paper back home.