NAXI SOCIETY AND LIFE
Naxi have traditionally lived in villages that vary in size from a few households to more than 200 but most have around 40 households. They also dominate some towns and cities with populations of more than 25,000. Having water for irrigation is an important consideration for choosing a village site. Most villages are comprised of closely spaced dwellings, surrounded by vegetable gardens and orchards, with fields for grains and staple crops further away. Traditional Naxi homes are made of logs and have roofs made of slates weighted down by stones. However Han- and Bai-style homes with wood frames mud-brick wall and tiled roofs are also very common.
The kinship system is organized on patrilineal lines, heavy work is done by men and household chores are done by women. Even so women exert a lot of control in economic matters. Many of the family-owned businesses in the Lijiang area are run by women.
In Many Naxi villages people play a lot of mah-jongg and drink quite a bit. Naxi try to avoid the court system when they settle disputes. Instead they rely on kin networks and elders. Gossip is also widely used as a means of social control.
Naxi Marriage and Family
Marriages have traditionally been arranged and patrilineal cross-cousin marriage (between a man and his father’s sister’s daughter) have traditionally been encouraged. Young people frequently took lovers that were not their arranged partners. Cases have been reported of such couples committing joint suicide after not be able to break out of their arranged marriages.
Most Naxi adults who live in densely populated areas of Yunnan are conventionally married but in remote mountain valleys there are villages where the old matriarchal customs are still practiced (See Mosuo). In the Lijiang area married sons tended to set up household near their parents while daughters left the households of their husbands. The youngest son remained with his parents, moving in with his wife when he got married, and took care of the parents in their old age. Mothers of the husband exert a lot of control over their daughter’s in law.
Children are given a fair amount of freedom to do what they want when they are young but are expected to help out with chores when the reach the age of 12 or 13. Boys help with herding; girls help in the gardens. About 90 percent of children attend grade school, with about 40 percent continuing on to middle school.
Naxi Marriage and Wedding Customs
Pedro Ceinos Arcones wrote: “Naxi marriage is monogamous, patriarchal and arranged by the parents. The maternal uncles have the privilege to choose daughter-in-laws among their nieces. In Naxi society the maternal uncle is an all powerful persona, a vestige of the old matriarchal society. The marriage is arranged by the parents from the time of their son's birth, with the help of fortune-tellers and matchmakers. When the spouses are thirteen or fourteen years old, a small marriage takes place. After that they frequently visit one another, and about six or seven years later, they marry definitively.” Unmarried Naxi traditionally have been “forbidden from having sexual relations. Pregnant girls were forced to get abortions; and their descendants, excluded from the family and society. If a deep feeling grew between a boy and a girl, it was difficult to reach a happy end, because usually the parents arranged their wedding when they were very young. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\]
According to Chinatravel.com: “In Naxi culture, young people usually get acquainted with each other on public occasions such as festivals. After an initial acquaintance, the two ask a third party to act as a go-between, or matchmaker. Then both families consult the horoscope of the young couple. If the horoscope bodes well, the boy's family asks of the matchmaker that two tubes of tea, four to six boxes of sugar and two liters of rice be delivered to the girl's family as an engagement gift. On the occasion of an engagement, a banquet is a must. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
“When the wedding itself takes place, it lasts three to five days. The participants include members of the extended family on both sides, as well as invited guests. During the wedding ceremony, a shaman recites scriptures for the happiness and prosperity of the new couple, and he draws four pictures as a special gift to the bridegroom. The pictures are of tiger, a conch, a vase and a bronze basin. The picture of the tiger depicts a tiger's body with a human's head. This picture is identical to that seen on the tiger totem in ancient Naxi culture. \=/
“At the wedding ceremony, when the bride asks those present to take their seat for the meal, a kowtow of humility must be made by the couple. After this has been received by those assembled, music begin as the dishes are served. At the commencement of the third course of the meal, the person who presides over the wedding ceremony proposes a toast to those assembled, and at the fifth course, the bride and bridegroom drink a double toast to those assembled. After the feast, the couple and their extended families gather outside to say good-bye as the guests depart.” \=/
Love and Suicide Among the Naxi
Bruce Chatwin wrote in the New York Times, “One evening, walking back to town across the fields, I came on a boy and girl reading aloud beside the embers of a fire. Their book was a traditional Chinese romance and, on its open page, there was a picture of Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy. The Nakhi are a passionate people, and even today, rather than submit to a hated marriage, young lovers may poison or drown themselves, or jump to their death from the mountain. At the Nakhi Institute in Lijiang, we were shown a pair of pine saplings, adorned like Christmas trees, commemorating two people who killed themselves for love. Rock wrote that such suicides become ''wind-spirits,'' reminding Pound of Dante's Paolo and Francesca, whose shades were ''so light on the wind,'' and who, readers of the ''Inferno'' will remember, fell in love while reading a romance of chivalry.” [Source: Bruce Chatwin, New York Times, March 16, 1986]
Pedro Ceinos Arcones wrote: “Before the communist reforms of 1956, there was a high index of suicides among Naxi youth. Most of these suicides were committed by young people who, having violated the rigid rules of the unmarried couples, were afraid of the social stigma. The need to separate from the loved one, to marry the partner chosen by the parents pushed many young to the suicide. When the lovers decided to commit suicide, they dressed in their better clothes, and left the village, sometimes to hang themselves together in the same tree. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\]
“Li Jinchun, himself a Naxi, has studied the evolution of the Naxi marriage during their history. An analysis of the kingship terms in Naxi language suggest that in remote times Naxi ancestors practiced a type of marriage quite free. Their society was, in these times, possibly, a matriarchal one. During the initial period of patriarchal society women still could can marry more than once, enjoying a high degree of sexual freedom. Chinese influence, however, turned the institution of the marriage into a rigid prison to which the young Naxi have never got used.” \*\
Birth of a Naxi Child
Bruce Chatwin wrote in the New York Times, “The grandson's name is Te-Sho: ''Te'' for virtue, ''Sho'' for longevity. On a sheet of red paper, now pinned to the porch, the old man has written the following: The grandfather grants his grandson the name ''Te-Sho.'' Te is high as the Big Dipper. Sho is like the southern mountain. Te is valued by the world. Sho respected by men. Te is an oily rain. Sho the fertilized field. Long life and health to him, born 10:30 A.M., 9th Moon, 14th Day. [Source: Bruce Chatwin, New York Times, March 16, 1986 *^*]
“The focus of all this adoration is swaddled in a length of gold-and-purple Tibetan brocade, and has the face of a man born wise. He is on show downstairs, in his mother's lap. The bedroom has white-papered walls to which are pasted scarlet cutouts of characters representing happiness and of butterflies flying in pairs. *^*
“Apart from the Doctor's herbal and his English dictionary, the swaddling clothes are the family's only treasure to survive the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards ransacked the house. The Doctor takes the baby and cradles him in his arms. ''I have plenty,'' he says, gesturing to the revelers in the courtyard. ''Six years ago I had nothing. But now I have plenty.'' His wife comes from the kitchen and stands beside him. And with her deep blue bonnet, and smile of tender resignation, she reminds us of Martha or Mary in a Florentine altarpiece. *^*
Their son, the father of three weeks' standing, is a young man of 27 in a neat blue Chinese suit. He is a self-taught teacher of English, and now also a student of medicine. Proudly, he shows us his wedding cup -a porcelain bowl painted with peacocks, on which the village calligrapher has added a couplet by the Tang poet Pai-ju-li: One only wishes that people will live forever/ And be in couples even at a distance of 1,000 li . *^*
Naxi Coming-Of-Age Ceremonies
The 'Putting on Skirts' ceremony is a Naxi coming-of-age ceremony for girls, usually around the age of 13. Mothers preside over the ceremony, which takes place on New Year's Day. The evening before, New Year's Eve, the girls participating in the ceremony get together to sing and dance and drink wine and tea, as a means to congratulate each other on their transition to adulthood. Early on New Year's Day morning itself, each mother helps her daughter to get into a beautiful new dress and put on jewelry and adorments. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Once dressed for the ceremony, the girl joins the rest of the family and guests. She sings the adult ceremony song in an antiphonal style together with the senior member of the family, through which the girl expresses gratitude for her family's sacrifices in rearing her and recognizes the memory of her happy childhood, while the senior congratulates her on her health, beauty and skills. At the end guests present gifts to the girl. After completing ceremony, the girl is allowed to participate in adult activities, and can court and meet with a boyfriend. \=/
The 'Putting on Trousers' ceremony, the corresponding Naxi coming-of-age ceremony for boys, takes place on the morning of New Year's Day. The boy is dressed in special clothes and the ceremony is presided over by the boy's uncle, or by a man blessed and appointed by a shaman for the occasion. During the ceremony, the boy stands at the "Male Rank", which conveys symbolic adulthood value, and plants one foot on a slab of pork meat and one foot on a rice bag while holding money in his left hand and a knife in his right hand—all symbols of a rich and powerful life. The uncle removes the boy's long gown and dresses him in a short gown with trousers, boots, a hat and a cape. After that the boy kowtows before the guests while serving them wine and expressing thanks for the gifts they have brought him. Finally, a shaman chants scriptures and offers sacrifices to the ancestor and to the kitchen god. After completing ceremony, the boy is allowed to participate in adult activities, and can court and meet with a girlfriend. There are some local variations in these coming-of-age ceremonies. For example, the Naxi people of Qiangsuo district in Sichuan Province require that the young males walk across a roof with a spear in his hand to prove their courage. \=/
Naxi Customs and Taboos
1) A person must wash one's feet in preparation for the Spring Festival Eve. It is forbidden to wash chopsticks or bowls after the feast of the Spring Festival Eve, because the left-overs in the dishes symbolize that there will always be an abundance of food in the family. On the first day of a lunar new year neither foreigners nor unknown persons are permitted to enter a Naxi home. 2) Married woman are forbidden from staying at their parents' home on the Spring Festival Eve, and women are not allowed to get up earlier than men on the first morning of a lunar new year. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
3) It is forbidden to walk over white stone in front of the entrance door to a Naxi home, and to sit on the left seat of the Chinese fireplace. 4) It is forbidden to wear a bamboo hat into a Naxi home or to shoulder a hoe into the kitchen. 5) It is forbidden to carry a torch into the living room at night. 6) On the occasion of a cremation, or of placing the deceased into the coffin, the unbeatable rival of the dead is forbidden to be present. A person wearing mourning apparel is forbidden access to the homes of neighbors. 7) Whistling at home is forbidden because it may attract devils. \=/
8) A pregnant woman is forbidden to climb a tree with fruits on it, or to climb a rope or to eat meat without blood. 9) It is forbidden to pollute headwaters or to cut down the forest, or to turn away any animals that enters the house without serving them milk or butter. It is also forbidden to hurt bees flying near your ear. 10) It is forbidden to serve guests rice or boiled water with the back of one's hand. It is forbidden to send used clothes to others, or to drink liquor used by others. 11) It is forbidden to beat the host's dog, or to enter the senior's room, the women's room, or a girl's room when you visit a Naxi home. 12) It is forbidden to beat bowls or chopsticks, or handle food continuously. 13) It's forbidden to sit on the threshold of a thing, or to chop things on it. 14) It's forbidden to kill farm cattle, pack horses or a cock heralding the break of day. 15) It's forbidden to eat dog meat.
Daily Life Among the Naxi
The Naxi are known for being diligent and hard-working, They say "people start working early in the morning and do not stop until late in the evening.” Bruce Chatwin wrote in the New York Times, “It is a cold, sunny Sunday in Yun-nan. On the plain below Jade Dragon Mountain, the villagers of Beisha are letting off firecrackers to celebrate the building of a house, and the village doctor is holding a feast in his upper room, in honor of his firstborn grandson. The sun filters through the lattices, bounces off rafters hung with corncobs and lights up everyone's faces. Apart from us, almost all the guests are members of the Nakhi tribe. The Doctor has seated us, with his four brothers, at the table of honor beside the east window. [Source: Bruce Chatwin, New York Times, March 16, 1986 *^*]
“Below, along the street, there are lines of weeping willows and a quickwater stream in which some pale brown ducks are playing. Led by the drake, they swim furiously against the current, whiz back down to the bridge and then begin all over again. The paneled housefronts are painted the color of ox blood. Their walls are of mud brick, flecked with chaff, and their tiled roofs stretch away, rising and sagging, in the direction of the old dynastic temple of the ancient kings of Mu. *^*
“None of the Doctor's brothers look the least bit alike. The most vigorous is a leathery, Mongol-eyed peasant, who keeps refilling my bowl of firewater. The second, with bristly gray hair and a face of smiling wrinkles, sits immobile as a meditating monk. The other two are a tiny man with a wandering gaze and a shadowy presence under a fur-lined hat. *^*
“Girls come up from the kitchen with the sweet course: apples preserved in honey, melon in ginger, sour plums in alcohol. More girls then come with the ''Nine Dishes'' - the ''Nine Dragons,'' as they've been called since the Chou dynasty: in this case, cubes of pork fat and winter sausage, water chestnuts, lotus root, carp, taros, bean tops, rice fritters, a fungus known as tree ears, and a heap of tripe and antique eggs that go, like sulfur bombs, straight to the gut. *^*
“From time to time, the Doctor himself appears at the head of the stairs, in a white clinician's mobcap and silver-gray cotton greatcoat. He surveys the company with the amused, slightly otherworldly air of a Taoist gentleman-scholar, and flicks his wispy beard from side to side. As soon as the meal is over, he appears again, hypodermic in hand, as if to remind us that healing, even on this ''Big Happy Day,'' is a work without end.” His cousin “has retired to his tiny house by the stream: to practice the arts of seal cutting, brushwork and the culture of orchids. On Tuesday, when we called on him, he showed us a lilac autumn crocus, with a label in Chinese reading ''Italian autumn narcissus.'' *^*
“The sun goes down behind the mountain, and we must, finally, say goodbye to the Doctor. He is anxious to give me from his pharmacy a plant with the windblown name of ''Saussurea gossipiphora,'' which only grows on the snow line. Soon, he hopes to leave his practice in the care of his son and be free to gather herbs in the mountains. He lifts his eyes to Jade Dragon Peak and, suddenly, in his silver greatcoat, becomes the living image of my favorite upland traveler, the poet Li Po>” *^*
Old City in Lijiang The Naxi people live in log cabins and wooden structures built without the use of nails or bricks. There are several basic types of Naxi house plans, or compounds, in the old town of Lijiang. The first type has an inner courtyard enclosed by three rooms and a wall called a Zhaobi. The second type has a big center courtyard enclosed by four rooms, with smaller courtyards located at each of the four corners of the house. The third type has a front and a back yard, while a fourth type has two, interconnected front yards. Regardless of kind of structure, Naxi houses are compactly constructed, well designed and often elaborately adorned. The wooden doors are often hand made and beautifully carved with intricate designs of plants and animals. The Naxi love plants. Their courtyards are often decorated with various kinds of as flowers and flowering trees such as plum trees, sweet-scented osmanthus, chrysanthemums and orchids. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
The interior of a Naxi house is marked by "lanes", each of which is made up of three rooms joined by a corridor, with doors at every entrance, in order to keep the house tidy and the rooms quiet. Most of the houses have two stories, with a courtyard in the center. The courtyard is large. It provides lots of fresh air to the rooms and sunshine to the courtyard, since Naxi houses are not very high. The main house usually faces the south or the east in accordance with feng shui principals and the belief that good luck that arrives from those directions. \=/
1) The Zhaobi Wall Compound has a courtyard enclosed by three wings (rooms) and a wall called a Zhaobi. To the north lies the main room facing the courtyard, or facing southward. Further southward, beyond the courtyard, stands the Zhaobi wall. The main room and the Zaobi wall are thus flanked by the east and west rooms. 2) The Siheyuan Compound is built in the style of a traditional Chinese courtyard home. It is an enclosed compound with four wings, namely the wing containing the owner's room, a wing containing the servants' lodgings at the opposite end, both flanked by the east and west wings-rooms on either side. Besides the center courtyard, there is an additional small "external" yard at each of the house's four corners. Usually there is a lower side room on the outer side of each of the four main rooms. These rooms face the outer wall of the main room next to it, but with a yard in between the two. \=/
3) The Zhaobi-Siheyuan Mixed Compound is a sort of reduced-size hybrid of the two styles mentioned above. It is a small civilian residence with a flower hall in the center connecting the front yard with the back yard. In the front yard are small pavilions that cohere with the adjacent garden. 4) The Double-Siheyuan Hybrid Compound is a compound consisting of two sets of four wings, set around two courtyards, with an entrance and a passageway connecting the two sets of wings, each with its own inner courtyard. Surrounding each courtyard, the rooms are distributed in the fashion similar to one of the styles mentioned above, but with the rooms of each courtyard being joined with the other rooms of the other courtyard by a flower hall passageway. \=/
In Ninglang, Zhongdian, Lijiang and various other places, one or more central beams are erected early on in the construction of a home. In Zhongdian, only one beam is needed, but it must be thick and straight. When the tree that forms the beam is cut down, care must be taken so that the tree's top point to the east as the tree falls. Moreover, the branches and leaves of the "beam" tree must be burned as prayers are said to invoke good luck for the family and its livestock. In Ninglang, Mosuo folk traditionally erect two beams immediately after the supporting walls are built, the beam on the left representing the male and the beam on the right representing the female. Where two beams are used in this manner, both must be cut from the same tree, since in Naxi mythology, the male and the female originate from the same source. When Mosuo people move into a newly erected house, they usually hold a fire ceremony to bless the new house and bring good luck to the house's occupants. \=/
The Naxi like spicy and tangy foods, and sweets. The main evening dish consists of rice, corn, potatoes and pork – and Baba, a kind of tasty and fragrant cake. For breakfast, the Naxi usually have steamed bread and boiled cake. Lunch generally consists of two courses of fried dishes, salted vegetables and soup. Popular fancy dishes with medicinal aspects include steamed duck with caterpillar fungus, chicken with the fritillary bulb, a native plant whose stems bear a resemblance to the white lily, and chicken with the tuber of elevated gastrodia, a type of orchid. Among the commonly eaten vegetables are potatoes, turnips and beans. During important events such as sacrifices mushrooms with meat stuffing is often served. The Naxi like to drink buttered tea in the mornings, and a green tea after other meals. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Baba — fragrant, flour cakes— served in various ways are the most popular Naxi snakes. Among these are 1) stewed baba, simmered in the proper amount of water in a big covered pot over a slow fire until they appear golden brown; 2) roasted baba, half-cooked in water a smooth, heated cobblestone until it becomes puffy and soft, served thick chilli sauce; 3) Pot-Lid Baba, cooked in water cake on the lid of a large pot while melons or potatoes. \=/
Sandieshui (Snowy Mountain Feast) is a special banquet held in honor of distinguished guests that consists of up to 40 odd dishes. Though the dishes may vary with the seasonal offerings, they usually feature "mountain food" specialities such as pipa meat, a dish made of salted pork that is shaped like a pipa (a kind of lute) and multi-layered roast bread. \=/
Naxi Agriculture and Economics
Economic life often depends on where people live. Those in the lowlands have traditionally grown wetland rice, citrus trees and variety of vegetables while those in the highlands have grown maize, wheat, legumes, fewer types of vegetables and temperate fruits such as apples and pears. Those in the highest elevation live mostly off potatoes and turnips and rely more heavily on pastoral animals.
Goats, sheep, cattle, horses, and in the highlands, yaks, are all raised by the Naxi and utilized for milk, meat, wool and leather. Farmland animals include water buffalo, hogs, ducks and oxen.
Prior to Communist rule, land was owned by individual families and divided among sons. Under the Communists, land was taken over by the state, agriculture was collectivized and some light industries were generated. After 1979, there was movement away from collectivization to a contract system in which farmers cultivated land owned by the state in return for turning over part of their harvest as a kind tax payments.
Many Naxi have made their living as craftsmen, carpenters, shopkeepers and traders. The Lijiang area is noted for its copper and brass crafts. Some families market cheese and bean curd. Many women are involved in spinning and weaving cloth and making traditional clothes In recent years, Chinese migrants have muscled the Naxi out of many businesses involving tourism, which is now big in the Lijiang area.
Chinese-Marxist View of Naxi Development
According to the Chinese government: “The Naxi communities had reached the stage of feudal society long before the nationwide liberation in 1949, though the stages of development were not the same. In Lijiang, southern Weixi and Yongsheng counties where a feudal landlord economy was prevalent, certain factors of capitalism began to take shape. In Jinjiang and Sanba in Zhongdian County the remnants of manorial economy could still be found. In northern Weixi and part of Ninglang counties in Yunnan Province and Yanyuan County in Sichuan Province, the main form of economy was manorial. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
“The level of agricultural production was higher in the landlord economy areas. The landlords and rich peasants, who accounted for 10 per cent of the population, owned 60 to 70 per cent of the land. They exploited the peasants through land rent, usury and hiring them as farmhands. The rates of the rent ranged from 50 to 80 per cent of the crops harvested and the annual interest rates of the usury reached as much as 300 per cent. They also exploited the peasants through their privileges, with the backing of reactionary political rulers. They forced the peasants to work for them without pay, to present them with gifts, and to render various kinds of corvee labor. *|*
“In the manorial economy areas, the manorial lords owned almost all the land, water resources, grasslands and forests. In some places, each peasant had to do as many as 150 days of unpaid labor a year. The manorial lords in the Yongning area invented 35 pretexts to exploit the peasants. They included the so-called fish tax, water tax, firewood tax, death tax, and passer-by tax. Under the manorial lord, the commoners were second-class citizens. Generally, the commoners did not own any land, and only after they had accepted merciless exploitation, such as heavy taxes and corvees, were they given a small piece of land. In this way they actually became serfs tied to the land of the lords. If they failed to pay their debts or committed crimes, they could be reduced to the status of household slaves. Completely under their masters' disposal, they could be sold, bought, exchanged or given as presents. *|*
“During the War of Resistance Against Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, foreign trade in China's southeastern coastal area came to a standstill and transport between China and Myanmar was blockaded by Japan. This resulted in an unprecedented boosting of Sino-Indian trade, and Lijiang became a trading center for India, Tibet and China's interior. Millionaire businessmen (some being Naxis) began to appear. *|*
“Lijiang County had a more developed handicraft industry than the other Naxi areas where landlord economy predominated. It covered iron, copper, carpentry, tanning, textiles, papermaking, tailoring, construction and sculpture. Copper articles and leather products were particularly famous.” *|*
Image Sources: Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , autef.com; Joho maps; Betsy goes to China blog; CNTO
Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated July 2015