The women of the Mosuo's agricultural villages head the households, make business decisions, and own property, which they pass on to their matrilineal heirs.
In the unique Mosuo tradition called the walking marriage, women invite men to visit their rooms at night—and to leave in the morning.
Women may also change partners as often as they like, and promiscuity carries no social stigma.
The practice has made the Mosuo famous, particularly to male Chinese tourists, many of whom see the walking marriages as evidence of sexual liberation and wanton lust, experts say.
Though there are tourist-oriented brothels in Mosuo villages, most are staffed with non-Mosuo women and are considered shameful by the Mosuo, according to the the Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association Web site.
"I think sometimes the media gets carried away with the possibility that the women can have all these husbands," said filmmaker Xiaoli Zhou, who produced and reported the 2006 documentary on the Mosuo, The Women's Kingdom.
In fact, most Mosuo women don't change walking-marriage partners very frequently. And they rarely carry on more than one romantic relationship at a time.
"Many of the women I interviewed had only had one or two relationships in their lives," Zhou said.
The lack of live-in fathers shouldn't be taken as evidence that the Mosuo don't value family life, said Lombard, of the Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association.
In fact, they value it above all other relationships—particularly those founded on the sometimes fickle feelings of male-female amour, he said.
Extended families of siblings, uncles, aunts, and others are said to be extremely stable, Lombard added.
For example, there are no divorces to destablize the families. And even the death of a child's biological father has little effect on the family, given the father's distance from the family and the extensive support network in the household.
Brent Huffman, co-producer of The Women's Kingdom, said, "The society does kind of create this question: Are fathers really necessary?
"It's hard to think of in Western society, but there, it works."
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