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Painted legends

Naxi literature is rich in form and content. Besides works by Naxi scholars and writers, there is a repository of oral folk literature. "Genesis," "The Rich Steal Oxen," "Revenge" and "Song of Elopement" are characterized by simple and fresh expressions, and distinctive national flavor. The "Dongba Scripture," a religious work, dates back to the Tang Dynasty. Written in the pictographic script, it describes the various aspects of life of the Naxi people during their long transition from slavery to feudalism. It is extremely important for the study of Naxi literature, history and religion. [Source: |]

Music, singing and dancing have generally been emphasized over other arts. Naxi musical groups with 16 to 18 members, with Persian lutes, play a type of Taoist temple music which reportedly is similar to music played during the Han, Song and Tang dynasties. Traditional motifs found in Naxi art and cloth making include dancing shaman, mountains, and strange, multicolored animals.

The Naxis are fond of singing and dancing, especially at weddings and funerals. The most popular songs are descriptive and short. They are sung at very high pitch and with strong rhythms, to the accompaniment of simple dances. The most common musical instruments are flutes, reed pipes and wind-string instruments. The ancient musical piece, "Baishaxiyue," which dates back to the Yuan Dynasty, was rediscovered and preserved. |

Naxi crafts include Dongba tapestries, woolen fabric carpets, Tibetan apron fabric and other woolen articles. The "Niuleiba" brand woolen fabric, made of spun, embroidered knitting wool, was conferred the title of "Product of Quality" by the National Panel of Judges under the Ministry of National Light Industry. The beautiful wax-printed costumes and ornaments as well as the handsome bags, handkerchiefs and scarves made by skilled Naxi craftsmen are very popular with tourists. [Source: \=/]

When Dongba offer sacrifices, they make supernatural figurines said to be so well made gods believe they are the real thing. Every time a family holds a sacrificial ceremony, the family molds dozens of supernatural figurines in dough, a painstaking process, but one which pays off, as the perfect model can be achieved in dough before it is carved in wood by a Dongba shaman. The facial features as well as the dress and the representations of jewelry of wood figurines can undoubtedly be made more perfectly that those that are made in dough, but those made in dough possess essential features that mark the Dongba-style statue. Such statues may not look very lifelike, and some may even look a bit comical – for example, the eyes may only be two holes pricked into the dough, while a horizontal line represents a mouth – but the resulting statue feels powerful in one's hand. \=/

Naxi architecture, sculpture and painting have reached fairly high standards. Moreover, they are mixed with the traditional styles of the Hans and Tibetans. Some famous buildings preserved in Lijiang, such as the "Dabao Palace," "Glazed Hall," "Dading Pavilion" and "Five-Phoenix Chamber," were all built during the Ming Dynasty. All the murals in these buildings have the concise and harmonious strokes of Tibetan painting, and the style of Taoist and Buddhist paintings of the Tang Dynasty. Modern Naxi painting has made fresh progress since 1949. |

Naxi Dongba Culture

Naxi culture and religion of shaman-sorcerers called Dongba are inseparably intertwined. Naxi writing, literature and art have traditionally been in the hands of Dongba. It is thought the Dongba religion was developed at the beginning of the Tang Dynasty as fusion of ancient Naxi shamanism and the Bon religion culture of pre-Buddhist Tibetans. Dongbas are not just seen as shaman they are also viewed a gifted writers, painters, singers and dancers in addition to being great spreaders and inheritors of the old Naxi culture. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~]

More than 1,000 years ago the Naxi people created pictographic characters called Dongba script, the only living pictographic writing system in the world today. The Donba shamans used it to record Dongba history and write scriptures, literature and verse. The Dongba script has strong characteristics of picture writing: the original Dongba script character stands for a thing, or a concept, not and agreed-upon symbols for sound or meaning phonemes although some influences of Chinese characters have been added. Even those who are able to recognize Dongba pictographic script characters are not able to chant the Dongba script unless they have studied under a Dongba shaman for long period of time. [Source: \=/]

The Dongba culture is regarded as a rare treasures in Chinese national culture. The Dongba written language is comprised of the only pictographic character in use in the world today. Over 20,000 books—including Dongba Classics, myths, children stories, a multitude of books on natural science and social science, and "encyclopedias" handed down by the Naxis from ancient times—were written with it. Dongba literature was often written in verse in a style that has been described a romantic, realistic, succinct and beautiful. It is full of cadence and easy to read. ~

Naxi literatures covers a wide range of subjects, from social history to animal husbandry, religion, philosophy, linguistics, astronomy, geology, arts, literature, medical science, local customs and practices, food and beverages, family relations and relations between ethnic groups. The Dongba Jing consist of more than 2,000 volumes, of which 'The Creation of the World', a long epic, describes the origin of mankind and mankind's struggle against the elements and other adverse natural conditions. 'The Chart Route of God' is regarded as a rare treasure. “The Dongba Dance Manual” is one of the oldest dance manuals in existence. It records, in detail, about 60 different ways of dancing. \=/

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Naxi pictograms

Dongba: Naxi Pictographic Script

The Naxi have a pictographic script that has received international attention because it is the only living pictographic script in the world. It is commonly referred to as the Dongba script, a name chosen because it is primarily used by Dongba priests and shamans when they conduct their different ceremonies, rituals and exorcisms. Tourism has to some degree has brought about a revitalization of the Naxi Dongba script. Now you find it on a large number of objects, including shop’s names, T-shirts and souvenirs of various kinds as well as in academic journals. [Source: Ethnic China *]

According to the Chinese government: “More than 1,000 years ago, the Naxi people had already created pictographic characters called the "Dongba" script and a syllabic writing known as the "Geba" script. With these scripts they recorded a lot of beautiful folklore, legends, poems and religious classics. However, they were difficult to master, and in 1957 the government helped the Naxi design an alphabetic script.” [Source: |]

Pedro Ceinos Arcones wrote: “The Dongba script is believed to have arisen in approximately the 12th century, though some scholars have argued for a much later date. Although the Dongba religion is heavily influenced by the Bon Tibetan tradition, their writing doesn't seem to have Tibetan influences, at least in its purely formal aspect. The religious concepts defined in the pictograms, on the other side, are deeply influenced by the Bon religion, and by the Hindu cults that influenced both Bon and Tibetan Buddhism. The persistence of the Dongba spiritual tradition over more than eight centuries among the Naxi has created a staggering number of "Dongba Scriptures": The sacred writings of the Dongba religion amount, according to some scholars, at more than 50,000 volumes. These texts describe virtually every aspect of Naxi religion and culture, history, music, dances and medicines, and of course, of their myths and legends. When a Dongba leads a ceremony, he needs to narrate the origin of each one of the spirits or sacred objects that are summoned. /*/

Details of Dongba: Naxi Pictographic Script

Praised for their calligraphic and artistic value, the Naxi pictographs consist of phonetic loan characters to indicate sound as well as other characters that indicate meaning, with more pictographic characters than phonetic loan characters. Often a pictographic character permits a variety of sounds or meanings, and a few pictographs can convey the content of an entire phrase or a sentence. On top of this a single Naxi pictographic character has different sounds and interpretations, varying from person to person, and depending on the local dialect. Thus it is a difficult language to learn and translate. [Source: \=/]

Pedro Ceinos Arcones wrote: “The construction of the Dongba pictograms is really curious. The little more than one thousand pictographs commonly used are possibly derived from only a hundred basic pictographs. For instance, we see that a person is represented much as in the basic lines of a person in a comic strip. To represent a person of the different peoples who live in their vicinity: Tibetan, Chinese, Bai, Yi, Lisu or Pumi, they stress some of their characteristics. If they want to express some of a person's activities, the part of the body affected is emphasized: the mouth, hand, leg. Looking at this aspect of the Dongba script, it seems very simple, because it is possible to memorize the basic pictographs without great difficulty. But the reality is different. [Source: |]

In this example we see the explanation of the title of a Dongba ceremony extracted from the book of the explorer and foremost proponent of Naxi culture, Joseph F. Rock. The manuscript is called "To relate the history of Do-sau-ngo-t'u". The reading of the symbols of this title is as follows: "The first upper symbol is an ideogram and denotes the action of seeing = (do), the second is read ssaw = breath; both are used phonetically in the name of the Naxi whose history is counted. The syllables ngo= I and t'u =a trough which would be used ordinarily for the two other phonetics in the name are not written. Instead we have the figure of a man wearing a large hat, such as the Tibetan nomads still wear in the grasslands of the northeastern Tibet, especially in the region of the headwaters of the Yellow River. The last read dzo to record, to relate; dso ba means to speak about a man (behind his back), as well as to speak for a man." *\

“From this example we can see that the Dongba script is much more complicated. It was not a writing system used for administration or literature, but only for ritual and religious activities. As the only people who could read them were the Dongba priests that had been trained in the foundations of the traditions, their ceremonies, and the use of the sacred books, these became in their hands, a mnemonic device intended not as narrative, but as a prompt to the Dongba towards a fuller, more embellished and undoubtedly personalized telling of the stories, the meanings of the rituals, as well as the rituals themselves. *\

“Examine this fragment of "The War between Dong and Shu", one of the most important myths in the Naxi. Its first paragraph is translated into Chinese by the Naxi scholar He Limin: "In the old times, when the sky and the earth had not still been formed, the sun and moon had still not been created, the stars had still not arisen, mountains and ravines had not still been formed, trees and stones had not still arisen… " *\

Geba and Other Naxi Writing Systems

The Naxi also have a syllabic written language called "Geba", used by a very small number of people mainly in writing classics. According to to “Geba is a kind of hybrid syllabic Naxi language created and used by certain later Dongba generations. It unites simplified pictographs with a large number of Han Chinese characters. The Geba language borrowed not only writing conventions of Han characters but also in many cases adopted their Han Chinese meanings where these did not previously exist in Naxi. However, the Geba language can only be found in a few villages in Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County, and even then only a limited number of individuals master this language well enough to write it and speak it.” [Source: \=/]

Pedro Ceinos Arcones wrote: “The Naxi don't think it is enough to have the most original writing system on the planet. They still use among them another writing system, the called Geba characters; a phonetic form of writing considered by the Naxi to be a little brother of the Dongba script, although they possibly have the same antiquity. The Geba system has 686 characters with a great potential complexity, due to the numerous homophonies of the Naxi language. In spite of its complexity, there are several hundreds books extant written in Geba characters. The origins of these characters are the Dongba pictographs mixed with Chinese characters. [Source: Ethnic China *]

According to one of the last encyclopedic works published in Chinese on the Naxi, there are still two others types of writing: The Ruanke characters, used by the Ruanke branch of the Naxi, that live in the Eya region. Their culture is very similar to that of the other Naxi, but after the death of a person, it should be a Ruanke Dongba who conducts the funeral in the Ruanke dialect. For that they have 35 sacred books. Here we show a sample of their writing. Nevertheless, the Masha writing system best demonstrates the Naxi people's love and appreciation of culture, because it was developed by a community of scarcely 100 families that arrived 200 years ago in the proximities of Weixi, from Dongba characters that a shaman taught them. *\

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Sacred Naxi statues

Descent of Man: the Main Naxi Myth

The Descent of Man—also known as the Creation of the World, or The Migration— is the main myth of the Naxi people. This myth is usually told in important ceremonies presided over by Dongba, especially in their Sacrifice to Heaven, the annual ceremony to honor the heavenly gods. Myth and ceremony are central to Naxi traditional culture and keys to understand the Naxi’s ethnic characteristics. This particular myth is a heroic history of the ancestors of the Naxi people and of their Tu Kings. [Source: Ethnic China *]

The myth begins with sound and breath transforming themselves into a pair of eggs—one white and one black— which in turn transform themselves also in the ancestors of human beings and demons. After human beings have occupied the world for several generations, Congrenlien and his five brothers and six sisters pair up between themselves, annoying the gods. Congrenlien learns of a coming world-destroying flood and figures out how to avoid it, becoming the only human being to survives it. He wanders alone looking for a woman to marry. After a while, he encounters two goddesses. Against the advice of the gods, he chooses the good looking one that is unable to bear human children. He then resumes his wandering until he meets Cunhongbaobai, the daughter of the Heavenly god, Zhilao Apu. She has been promised to a family of deities she dislikes. Love quickly blooms between and Cunhongbaobai and Congrenlien and she takes him to her heavenly home where, despite efforts to him, she is discovered by her father.

Before approving the marriage of a heavenly princess and a human being, Zilao Apu decides to test Congrenlien, asking him to set a fire in a field, cut the trees, sow the seeds, and harvest the grain, tasks that he only able to complete with the magic help of Cunhongbaobai. When he thinks his tests are over, he must survive a dangerous hunting expedition and a fishing evening. His final task is securing three drops of tiger's milk—which he does. Zilao Apu allows the marriage and the couple descend to earth with the five grains and domestic animals as dowry. For a while they are harassed by the weather deity to whom Cunhongbaobai had previously promised to marry, but he is appeased with some offerings. After some time in the earth they have three sons, which can not speak until their father make the Sacrifice to Heaven to honor their heavenly ancestors. These three sons are the ancestors of the Tibetan, Naxi and Bai peoples.

Naxi Painting and the Baisha Frescos

Dongba painting includes board painting, bamboo pen painting, card painting, rod painting, and huge cloth scroll painting. The painting skills are distinctive: some have rough lines and simple patterns and mostly black and white; others and are colorful and bright with delicate technique and a unique style. The"God's Road Painting"— a colorful cloth scroll painting over 10 meters long is an especially rare treasure. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, ~]

The Baisha Frescos, a set of the Ming era religious paintings that decorate the walls of the main temples of Baisha Village, are another rare treasure. Baisha is a small village situated 10 kilometers from Lijiang. It is one of the earlier places where the Naxi people established themselves when they migrated to the Lijiang region, and is considered one of the cradles of Naxi culture. Baisha was also the birthplace of the Mu family, who ruled Lijiang for many centuries. [Source: Ethnic China *]

The Mu family consolidated their rule in the first years of the Ming Dynasty. They were strongly influenced by Chinese culture and even invited some famous Ming court painters to decorate the temples of Baisha. The oldest frescoes were painted in 1385. They continued to be made in a similar style for the next 200 years. Today, 53 frescos, covering a total area of 171 square meters are preserved. They are found inside some of the older temples in Baisha Village: Liuli Hall, Babaoji Palace and Dading Pavillion. In the Dajue Palace of Longquan there are also some frescos preserved. Among those who contributed were the famous Taoist painter Ma Xiaoxian. from Jiangxi, and the Tibetan Lamaist painter Gu Chang from Tibet, and local Naxi artists.

Naxi Music and Dance

The classical large musical composition "Naxi Old Music" (divided into two parts: "White Sand Fine Music" and "Dongjing Music") is famous in musical circles in China and all over the world. The Dongba dance—a dance associated with Dongba shaman— is the Naxi people's classic dance. “The Dongba Dance Manual” is one of the oldest dance manuals in existence. It records, in detail, about 60 different ways of dancing. Also known as the "Cuoma", it describes types and methods of ancient Naxi dances in a systematic way. It also describes scientifically the rhythm, positions, changes, and intents and these dances and their accompanying music. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, ~]

The Naxi are fond of singing and dancing at weddings and funerals. The most popular songs are descriptive and short. They are sung at very high pitch, with strong rhythms and accompanied by simple dances. The most common musical instruments are flutes, reed pipes, wind instruments such as the sheng and string instruments made of kouxuan (a kind of string) and calabash, a gourd that can be dried and used as a type of wood. Classic old folk songs include Guqi, Wo Rere, Wo Menda, Zaiyang Tune (Transplant Rice Seedlings Tune), Jianu Tune (Marry Off a Daughter Tune), The Moon Mother Tune, The Calabash Sheng Tune, Bili Tun and Kouxuan Tune. Among the most ancient Naxi dances are the Dongba Dance, Leba Dance and Ancient Music Dance. [Source: \=/]

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Naxi Classical Music Orchestra

Naxi Classical Music Orchestra and Ancient Naxi Music

The Naxi Classical Music Orchestra still plays 1,000-year-old music from the Tang and Song dynasties in Lijiang. During the Cultural Revolution, members of the orchestra buried their instruments to keep them from being destroyed by the Red Guards. The group was founded by Xian Ke, a musician who spent 21 years it prison for his love of Western classical music. He launched the orchestra when he was released from prison in 1978. Many of the musicians had also spent time in prison.

Describing the music, Maggie Farely wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "The sound is rich and resonant, an interplay of a high-pitched bamboo flute with an array of chiming gongs, stringed instruments that are bowed or plucked, even an old Persian lute now only used in Naxi music. Many of the musicians are in their 80s and few young people are learning the music even though a school has been launched. There is a danger that music will die when the musicians die.

The two most famous Naxi classical musical compositions are Baishaxile (Baisha Soft Music) and Dongjing Yingyue (Dongjing Music). Baishaxile (Baisha Soft Music) is praised as the most ancient symphonic musical work known to mankind. It is a large-scale classical music composition that shows the deep attachment, especially during times of separation, including during the throes of death, between loved ones. It is often played at funeral arrangements, accompanied by songs and dances. There are about eight movements that have been passed down. They include Du (flute solo), Shao Shi (A Letter), Shansi Ji (Shansi River), Ar Li Guo Jin and Pa (Beautiful White Cloud). Only a few folk artists are able to play Baisha Soft Music because of its complex tonal registry. [Source: \=/]

Dongjing Yingyue (Dongjing Music) originated from the Taoist music of the Han Chinese, but became widespread among the Naxi. Its name stems from the Taoist scriptures. The tunes involved in Dongjing Music are simple, elegant and unsophisticated. Dongjing Music consists of Scripture Tune, Qupai (the name of the tunes to which Qu are composed) and percussion music. The tune and the cantus of the original Han Chinese music was altered somewhat by the Naxi, putting it in a more somber, liturgical category, since the Naxi are fond of self-introspection and the admiration of excellence in other cultures. Moreover, the notational medium, called Gongchepu (a traditional Chinese musical notation) used to pass on and hand down the Dongjing Music also contributes to a loss of translation. Pieces such as Waves Washing the Sands, The Sheep on the Hill, Song of Water (Shui Long Yin) and The Eight Diagrams are over 400 years old.

Naxi Clothes

The men's clothes of the Naxis in Lijiang are basically the same as the Hans'. Young men and men between thirty and fifty in countryside wear clothes with a line of cloth buttons down the front when working in the fields. They also wear a sheepskin sleeveless jacket, long trousers, local and cloth shoes. The sometimes tie a belt around their waists and wear a scarf (commonly called "Datou") or nothing on their head. When going to market, they usually wear a long cloth robe with a felt hat. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, ~]

Naxi women's clothing is more distinct. Naxi women wear an undershirt and big smock-like garment, which opens on the right side with wide waist and big sleeves, and with the front part reaching the knees and the back reaching the shins. Sometimes a woolen or cloth sleeveless jacket is worn over the smock garment. Long trousers—whose ankle hems are not sewed up—and worn ) and wrap their lower legs with girdles. A plaited apron is tied round the waist. Some Naxi women wear embroidered boat-shaped shoes. The have traditionally worn socks or wrapped bandages on their legs only on New Year's Day or other festivals. ~

Blue is a favored color but Naxi women also wear clothes white or black with embroidered decorative borders at collar, sleeve and front. Married women comb their hair into a coil and wear round yarn kerchief ("Gujing"); Girls coil their braid at the back of the head and wear cloth scarf or black velveteen hat. ~

A small number of women in mountain region wear flax clothes. Nowadays the clothes by many Naxi is the same as those worn by Han Chinese. Traditional Naxi dress is mainly worn by old people. It is rarely worn among the younger generation. In the Old Town of Lijiang you see more traditional style clothes because it appeals to tourists. Sometimes Han Chinese wear them. In remote areas where more Naxi cling to the old ways you may also see them. ~

Naxi “Cape with Seven Stars"

Naxi clothes and adornments have traditionally highlighted cow leather and sheepskin. A verse from "Welcome to God Dongge" in the classical Dongba Scriptures goes: "The snake of the universe gave birth to a brother and a sister. They formed ties of mutual affection and married. They tended white sheep, making sheepskin into clothing, capes, hats and belts. From then on, the sheepskin cape became the insignia of Naxi dress and adornment." The traditional Naxi sheepskin cape, called a "You'er" in the Naxi language, is made of pure black sheepskin, prepared by washing in a detergent of rice flour and dried with Glauber's salt. The cape is then cut and sewn, using black wool or Pulu ("You'er Tong") to represent the sheep's neck, seven patches of colorful velvet embroidery as eyes, and seven bars of sheepskin leather as a beard. The cape has long white straps on either side at the top, whose purpose is to secure the cape like back-to-front suspenders, forming an "X" in front of the body. [Source: \=/]

Women wear a sheepskin cape when going to work in fields or visiting relatives or friends. The cape is delicately made: the back is lined with black velveteen or woolen cloth, and seven pairs of leather tassels are sewed into seven embroidered little rings at the lower edge. In the old days, there were two big embroidered cloth rings at the shoulders of women's cape which stood for the sun and the moon. This kind of "wearing stars and moon" cape symbolizes diligence of the Naxi women. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, ~]

Bruce Chatwin wrote in the New York Times, “Looking across to the ladies' table, we are amazed by the full-fleshed, dimpled beauty of the young girls and the quiet dignity of the older women. They are all in traditional costume, in the celestial colors - blue and white. Some, it is true, are wearing Mao caps, but most are in a curved blue bonnet, rather like a Flemish coif. Our Shanghai friend, Tsong-Zong, says we might well be guests at Bruegel's ''Peasant Wedding.'' Apart from the bonnet, the women's costume consists of a blue bodice, a pleated white apron and a stiff, quilted cape secured with crossbands. Every Nakhi woman carries the cosmos on her back: the upper part of the cape is a band of indigo representing the night sky; the lower, a lobe of creamy silk or sheepskin that stands for the light of day. The two halves are separated by a row of seven disks that symbolize the stars.” [Source: Bruce Chatwin, New York Times, March 16, 1986]

Keeping Naxi Culture Alive

Pedro Ceinos Arcones wrote: “The love of the Naxi for their culture is evident as, despite intense governmental pressure in the past, the Dongba religion and script continued to be embraced in the more remote Naxi areas. Now, following the advent and phenomenal growth of tourism in Lijiang, accompanied by a significant shift in governmental policy, the Dongba shamanic tradition and the rituals associated with it are now actively encouraged and taught to the younger generation. To whatever one chooses to ascribe the motives behind this, this intrinsic hallmark of Naxi culture is beyond doubt on the rebound, not only saved from near oblivion, but thriving. The Naxi pictographic script, deservedly famous, is by far the best known feature of this unique culture. [Source: Ethnic China *]

The China Daily reported: “Zhang Jiangtao, 29, is a young man has been away from his home in Lijiang for 11 years. Zhang pointed out that the Naxi minority comprises just about 300,000 people. "We can easily be inundated by other cultures. So I feel an obligation to work for our own people." He is worried about the increasing impact of tourism on Lijiang. But he says: "Economic development has positive effects: While more people outside come to appreciate Lijiang and the Naxi culture, the local people also widen their horizons and realize the uniqueness of their own culture." [Source: China Daily, March 5, 2006]

“Yang Huayun, 27, is also a native of Lijiang. She graduated from Peking University and now works in a digital television company. Yang remembers following her grandparents and parents to the Beiyue Temple at the foot of the Yulong Snow Mountain where the Sanduo God is enshrined during the Sanduo Festival and paying homage to the Naxi people's ancestors. She has been participating enthusiastically in the gatherings of Naxi folk in Beijing. He Ling, also 27, has been working in the media since graduation from the Central University for Nationalities She said although living in a big city such as Beijing means missing out on the cultural atmosphere of Lijiang, she cherishes the traditions. "We all persist in speaking our mother tongue, which is very important to maintain our identity," she said. She has been to other small old towns such as Fenghuang in Central China's Hunan Province and Pingyao in North China's Shanxi Province, but finds her hometown the most charming. At this year's Sanduo Festival, she will join her friends to watch the special cultural performance. "What is most important for me is not seeing the programmes, but enjoying being part of a big family," she said.

“Li Ling, 30, regrets that she did not learn to play the kouxian, a plucked bamboo instrument, from her mother Li Xiuxiang, who will come to Beijing and perform in next week's show. Her grandmother had been a famous folk singer in Lashihai, about 8 kilometers from the old town of Lijiang. But Li said both folk songs and the kouxian are difficult to learn. Although the songs have set tunes, a good singer is expected to improvise with lively lyrics. "Without a deep understanding of Naxi culture, such improvisation is almost impossible," said Li, who has a master's degree in minorities' literature from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.While playing the kouxian with the hands, one needs to sing in a certain, peculiar way, which makes the kouxian very hard to learn.”

Book: Spensley, Alys, article “Under the Snow Mountain: Development in Lijiang and Its Effects on Naxi Culture”, in Mitchell, Sam, “Tourism and Development in Yunnan,” Kunming. 2003

Efforts by Young Naxi to Keep Their Culture Alive

In 2006, the China Daily reported: “He Xiangguang has been living in Beijing ever since he left Lijiang, Yunnan, to study in the Central University for Nationalities 17 years ago. Four years back, He, 35, and a few Naxi friends started a website which has grown into a virtual community of the Naxi people. From just about 40 people in the beginning, the website ( now has more than 500 registered members. [Source: China Daily, March 5, 2006]

“According to the Lijiang city government, some 600 people of Naxi ethnicity, working in different professions, have made their home in Beijing. Many of them are just in their 20s and 30s, but they cherish their ethnic identity and maintain links with their hometown, thousands of kilometers away. When the website was first started, "there were very few Naxi students in Beijing and the online community could provide us much needed help and support," said He, who works in the Alcatel Shanghai Bell Co Ltd in Beijing. "We call it the 'spiritual home of the Naxi people'," said Qiu Yuhua, 26, one of the earliest participants in the website. "I will always have a soft spot for Lijiang."

“Qiu was born and raised in the old town of Lijiang. She earned a master's degree in ethnology from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences last July and now works at the China Tibetan Studies Institute. She is working on a project on the history of Tibet. "I'm learning the Tibetan language to better understand the Tibetan people, who share many similarities with my own in terms of origin," she said.

“The website has become a platform for Naxi and other people interested in this minority group to discuss topical issues such as the impact of tourism and the latest news in Lijiang. "We don't want to see our ethnic culture blossoming and withering quickly like a flower," said He. He and his friends have invited some scholars from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to talk about the ancient Dongba hieroglyphs on their website. The website also serves to help Naxis living away from their hometown."We talk about buying a house, getting a car, or finding a job. Economy and daily life are as important as culture," said He. Every year, during the Sanduo Festival, He and Qiu organize the Naxi people in Beijing for a celebration. Besides students, there are also scholars, artists, journalists and people from other fields among the Naxis in Beijing. Everyone prepares some cultural programme and all conversation is in the Naxi language. The celebrations conclude with all of them holding hands in a circle and performing the Naxi group dance.

“In the past two years, the Naxis have held ceremonies to commemorate the Naxi ancestors at the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park in northern Beijing. Apart from the Sanduo Festival, the Naxis also meet for other occasions such as the Torch Festival (in the sixth month of the lunar calendar) and the Ghost Festival (seventh lunar month). They hold painting exhibitions and seminars on Naxi culture.

Pedro Ceinos Arcones wrote: “Edongba software, developed by the Naxi Yang Xiaohui, enables the writer to input the complex Dongba pictograms in any text of drawing, making easy in the writings related to Naxi religion, life and culture to include their interesting pictographs without the need to continuously insert images. As the Dongba pictographs provided in the Edongba software are highly standardized, it will allow a uniform presentation of the text, difficult to obtain to writers that are not good calligraphers in Dongba, improving academic and educational presentations, as well as texts related with Lijjiang or Yunnan, in which the presence of Dongba pictographs would be an elegant visual motif. [Source: Ethnic China *]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 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, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site | 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

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