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The Naxi (often spelled Nakhi) are one of China's most interesting ethnic groups. Residing primarily around the Lijiang area of Yunnan, they are a Tibetan-related people with their own language and are darker and taller than the Chinese. The area where they live is filled with high mountains, some over 5,000 meters tall. Despite the isolation provided by their rugged homeland, they Naxi are regarded as one of most Chinese-influenced people in Yunnan, especially among those who live in the cities. The Naxi are also known as the Hlikhin, Luxi, Moxie, Muoshayi, Moxieman, Naheng, Malimasha,Yuanke, Bangxi, Muoxie, Moshu, Wuman and Nari. The Mosuo — of the Kingdom of Women fame — are regarded by many as a subgroup of the Naxi (see Mosuo). Naxi means “people of the black,” a reference to their traditional clothes, and is a name that Naxi are happy with calling themselves. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, 1994)]

The Naxi (pronounced Nah-shee and also spelled Nashi, Nakshi, Na-Khi)) are one of the best known Chinese ethnic groups and one of the most visited by tourists. Traditionally dressed Naxi women wear a blue or black-and-white cape and aprons on top of black or blue blouse and baggy pants. Symbolizing the heavens, the cape is embroidered with the circles representing the sun and the moon and the seven stars of the Pleiades.

Bruce Chatwin wrote in the New York Times, "The Nakhi are the descendants of Tibetan nomads who, many centuries ago, exchanged their tents for houses and settled in the Lijiang Valley, to grow rice and buckwheat at an altitude of over 8,000 feet. Their religion was - and surreptitiously still is - a combination of Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Taoism and a far, far older shamanistic belief: in the spirits of cloud and wind and pine." [Source: Bruce Chatwin, New York Times, March 16, 1986]

Pedro Ceinos Arcones, the author of a book on them, wrote: “Their pictographic Dongba script, the paradisiacal environment where they live, and the splendor of Lijiang, their main city, have lead thousands of travelers, from China and abroad to Naxi lands. The Naxi are the most charismatic ethnic group of China; their culture preserves a set of special characteristics that make them one of the more interesting peoples of our planet, including the preservation of the only pictographic script still in use, and the religion associated with it, the development of a philosophy that stresses the respect and conservation of nature, the matrilineal tendencies of their society, and the ability to preserve old cultural traditions already disappeared elsewhere." Some of their most famous places have suffered important changes, not always benefiting the local people. On the other side, an international interest for Naxi culture, make it a valuable treasury on the eyes of the Naxi themselves.[Source: Ethnic China]

Websites and Sources: Joseph Rock pictures ; Naxi Orchestra video YouTube ; Book Chinese Minorities ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities ; Minority Rights ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Ethnic China ;Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; Travel China Guide ; (government source) ; People’s Daily (government source) ; Paul Noll site: ; Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China Books: “Sons of Heaven, Brothers of Nature: The Naxi of Southwest China” by Pedro Ceinos Arcones; "Forgotten Kingdom” by Peter Goullart, a Russian emigrant to China, is a study of the Naxi published in 1955; “The Ancient Nakhi Kingdom of Southwest China” by Joseph Rock (Harvard University Press, 1947) is considered a classic work of anthropology. “The Na-khi Naga Cults and Related Ceremonies” (Rock, J.F. , Rome, 1952) is another of Rock's books. ; Ethnic Groups in China, Du Roufu and Vincent F. Yip, Science Press, Beijing, 1993; An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of China, Olson, James, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998; “China's Minority Nationalities,” Great Wall Books, Beijing, 1984

Naxi Population and Groups

Naxi with Joseph Rock

The Naxi are the 27th largest ethnic group and the 26th largest minority out of 55 in China. They numbered 326,295 in 2010 and made up 0.02 percent of the total population of China in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census. Naxi populations in China in the past: 309,477 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 278,009 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. A total of 143,453 were counted in 1953; 156,796 were counted in 1964; and 248,650 were, in 1982. There are about 275,000 Naxi living in the Yunnan Province, mostly in Lijiang Autonomous County, and about 40,000 in Sichuan. A few live in Tibet. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

Over two thirds of Naxi live in the Yulong Naxi Autonomous County (formerly Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County), which includes Lijiang Old City and Lijiang Municipality, and Baidi Township in Shangrila in northwest Yunnan Province. Smaller enclaves of Naxi live scattered about in other counties of Yunnan Province such as Deqin, Heqing, Jianchuan, Lanping, Ninglang, Weixi, Yongsheng, and Zhongdian Counties. Some are in neighboring Sichuan Province in Muli, Yanbia and Yanyuan Counties. A small Naxi group is located inside the Tibet Autonomous Region, in Mangkang County. Naxi mainly inhabit lowlands and the valleys among the mountain ridges. [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, ~;\=/]

There are interesting regional variations among the Naxi people, which could be roughly divided in five ethno-geographical areas: 1) Lijiang City and the central plains is the political, economical and cultural center of the Naxi. Lijiang is located approximately in the center of the biggest plains inhabited by the Naxi. Pedro Ceinos Arcones wrote: Baisha, a cluster of villages 10 kilometers north of Lijiang, was the ritual center of the Mu family kings. As Baisha was the ancestral home and first capital of the Mu Kings, their most important palaces and temples were built there. As the ritual center Baisha was the home where more and the most important Dongbas lived, the cultural center of the Naxi culture, and the place where their main artistic and musical traditions were created and preserved. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is a sacred mountain for the Naxi and a holy place of love. *\

“2) Baidi is the center of Dongba tradition. These villages, difficult to access until the 20th century, are considered the cradle of Dongba culture and the place where their traditional religion was nurtured and preserved uncontaminated by foreign influences. Baidi people dress, build their houses and marry following traditions already disappeared around Lijiang. They have retained also the original faith, traditional festivals and dances are performed in Baidi with a special local flavor. *\

3) The territories in the west to the Mekong River are far enough away and isolated the main Naxi populations that a unique Naxi culture—with different language, writing, customs—emerged as is most evident in language, marriage and funerary rituals. 4) The northern territories of Fengke and Baoshan are regarded as the strongholds of traditional Naxi culture as the rugged mountainous terrain in the area was difficult for the Han Chinese to penetrate. The rituals and customs her have many local features and agricultural and ritual cycle, and main ceremonies have a unique flavour. 5) Eya is home to the most isolated Naxi communities. For hundreds of years Eya’s Naxi were completely isolated from mainstream Naxi culture, preserving customs and traditions that disappeared elsewhere long ago. The houses, dress and social relations of Eya’s Naxi are quite original. *\

Naxi Area

Yulong Naxi Autonomous County

The Naxi live in an area of high mountain, plateaus, valleys. basins, and canyons, with an average height of 2,680 meters (8,800 feet). The Jinsha (Upper Yangtze), Lancang (Upper Mekong), and Yalong are three important rivers flowing through the region. Te climate varies considerably depending on altitude and season, but overall rainfall is plentiful and there is a lot of good agricultural land. The Tiger-Leaping Gorge of Jinsha River is one of the deepest gorges in the world. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

The Naxi region lies to the south of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and has a complex topography. The chief crops are rice, maize, wheat, potatoes, beans, hemp and cotton. The bend of the Jinsha River is heavily forested, and Yulong Mountain is known at home and abroad as a "flora storehouse." The extensive dense forests contain Chinese fir, Korean pine, Yunnan pine and other valuable trees, as well as many varieties of herbs including fritillary bulbs, Chinese caterpillar fungus and musk. There are rich reserves of such non-ferrous metals as gold, silver, copper, aluminum and manganese. Water resources are abundant. [Source: ]

Jade Dragon Mountain, north of Lijiang, and the Haba Snowy Mountain in the southeastern Zhongdian are covered by snow all year round. The upper reaches of the Jinsha River flow from north to south and becomes the Yangtze River at Shigu town. The Yangtze River then turns to the north surges downward through "Tiger Leaping Gorge"— between Yulong Snowy Mountain and the Haba Snowy Mountain—dropping 300 meters in 12 kilometers. The gorge is over 3000 meters deep and a famous traveling spot. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, ~ ; Ethnic China *]

The climate in the Naxi region varies altitude and geographical conditions, with three main types of climate: cold and temperate in the highlands to subtropical in the river valleys. Rainfall is plentiful in July and August. The mountains boast over 500 kinds of Chinese herbal medicine, in which snow tea is regarded as the rarest and most precious one. Rice, corn, wheat, cotton and flax are grown in the flat lands. The Lijiang horse is famous in China. The rich biodiversity in the Jade Dragon Mountain region has earned it the title of "world of flowers". There are over 40 kinds of azalea alone. The mountains and forests around Lijiang have been a natural reserve for many animal species. Tigers and leopards roamed freely on these mountains until the middle of the 20th century. Bears, wild boars, as well as local varieties of deer and goats can still be found there. ~*\

Origin of the Naxi

Originally of Tibetan descent, the Naxi are believed to have originated in eastern Tibet, western Sichuan or Qinghai Province and probably evolved from the same group as the Qiang people of western Sichuan. Between the 1st century and the 10th century, the migrated to Yunnan and settled there. The 2,000-year-old Records of the Historian mentions the Naxi.

It is thought that the Naxi descended from the old Qiang that lived in pre-dynastic times between Gansu and Shaanxi Provinces. The ancient Qiang people were nomads in valleys of the Huanghe River and the Huangshui River in Qinghai Province. The migrated southward to southwestern Sichuan and northwestern Yunnan and broke up into different nationalities, of which the Naxis are believed to be one. The Naxis were called "Mosha", "Moxie", "Mosuo" and other names in Chinese historical records mainly because of the same pronunciation with different writings. Beginning centuries ago, people in the west called themselves "Naxi", and people in the east called themselves "Nari", "Naheng". "Na" means "big" or "honorable", and "xi", "ri", "heng" mean human beings. [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, ~]

In ancient times Qiang migrated to the west and south to escape Chinese expansion. History books in the 3rd century mention a people called Moxie or Moxie Yi, possibly ancestors of the Naxi, who were living in the region to the east of where the Naxi live today. It is possible that the Naxi and the Mosuo had a common origin, but there are historical reports that place them in Lijiang and Yongning respectively during the 7th century. [Source: Ethnic China *]

Lijiang area

Early Naxi History

The Naxi are one of the oldest ethnic groups in Yunnan Province—and for that matter China— with a recognized history. According to historical documents, the forefathers of the Naxi people were closely related to a tribe called "Maoniu Yi" in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), "Mosha Yi" in the Jin Dynasty (265-420) and "Moxie Yi" in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). For a long time the terms the Naxi used to describe themselves depended on the region in which they lived. The main were "Na", "Naxi", or "Mosuo", depending on this geographical distinction, though there is some debate over whether the people calling themselves Mosuo are indeed Naxi, or perhaps belong to a different nomadic tribe originating in Tibet.

As early as the A.D. 4th century, ancestors of the Naxi resided around Yanyuan in south Sichuan. In ancient Chinese historical records they were called Muoshayi i. Later on, they migrated to the Upper Yangtze (Jinsha) River and Yalong River and gradually moved southwards to areas around Lijiang and Binchuan in northern Yunnan, where, they prospered and were called the Moxieman — and reside today. The Naxi established their own polity, Moxiezhao, which was absorbed into the Nanzhao Kingdom in the early 8th century. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

During the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), the Qiang-Naxi migrated to the Lijiang area in Yunnan Province just west of the Yangtze River. The area was ruled from 680-703 by Tibetan chieftains who. From 703-750 the Tibetans recognized the suzerainty of the indigenous Nanzhao, but after that they claimed the area from the Nanzhao and ruled it themselves until 794, when the were ousted by the Imperial Chinese with the help of the Nanzhao. The areas around Lijiang was the site of fierce fighting between Nanzhao and Tubo (the powerful ancient kingdom of the Tibetans).[Source: \=/]

During the Later Jin (A.D. 936-947) Dynasty of the Five Dynasties (A.D. 907-960) period, after the Tang Dynasty, the Qiang-Naxi people began to migrate southward to the upper reaches largest tributary of the Yangtze River, where it feeds into the Yangtze River on the edges of the Tibetan Plateau on the border between Sichaun and Yunnan Provinces. The nomadic Naxi then migrated farther eastward to the Jinsha River in neighboring Guizhou Province. \=/

Naxi Trade and Early Regional Powers

The Naxi lived at an important crossroads on the “Tea and Horses Route” and acted as intermediaries between Tibetans, Chinese, Burmese, Bai and other ethnic groups. Between the 6th and 12th centuries, the Naxis were part of the powerful Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms, centered around Erhai Lake, about 100 miles south of Lijiang.

While the Mosuo remained in a very isolated region, the Naxi, in Lijiang were conquered by the Dali-based Nanzhao Kingdom and become one of its vassal states. Naxi resistance forced the rulers of Nanzhao to deport some of Naxi to Kunchuan and Xicuan, where they mixed with the ancestors of the Bai. At the end of the Song Dynasty, the head of de Naxi in Lijiang, Zhang Maizong united several small in the Naxi area and they broke away from Dali Kingdom. In 1253, when the army of Kublai Khan passed through Naxi lands in his way to attack Dali Kingdom, the son of Maizong, Aliangzeng, provided assistance to Kublai Khan’s Mongol-Chinese forces.

Naxi manuscript

Between the early 10th century and the middle of the 13th century, production in the Lijiang area underwent marked changes, as agriculture replaced livestock breeding as the main occupation of the people. Scores of agricultural, handicraft, mineral and livestock products were turned out, and the county presented a picture of prosperity. During that period, a number of slave-owning groups in Ninglang, Lijiang and Weixi counties gradually grew into a feudal manorial lord caste. [Source:]

Naxi History Under Imperial China

In the mid-13th century, the army led by Mongolian aristocrats passed through the Lijiang area to attack the Dali Kingdom and were welcomed by the Mu clan, ancestors of the Naxi. After that the Naxi were under varying degrees of Chinese imperial control. Hereditary headmen of the Mu clan were appointed by the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Over the centuries the settled Naxi have been the target of raids by the more unsettled Tibetans, Yi and Pumi. The Naxi have fought with the Han Chinese against Tibetans and Hui Muslims.

The Naxi played an important role as they dominated the strategic the juncture of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet, and held up Chinese interests in the region. Because of their close and lengthy contacts with various nationalities that lived in the area the economy and culture of the Naxi have been greatly influenced by Chinese, the Tibetans, the Yi, and the Bai. In 1278 the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) established Lijiang Prefecture representing the imperial court in Yunnan Province. This resulted in closer links between the Lijiang area and the center of the empire. In the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the leader of the Naxi people, named Mude, was made the hereditary chieftain of Lijiang Prefecture, exercising control over the Naxi people and other ethnic groups in the vicinity. Lijiang Prefecture was governed by Naxi local rulers called Tusi. All the Tusi belonged to the Mu family. Considered hereditary kings of Lijiang, their dynastic line kept the power until 1949.

During the Yuan and Ming dynasties Lijiang, Ninglang, Weixi, Yanyuan and Muli were under the tusi system. The descendant in fourth generation of Aliangzen, Mudeqin went in person to Nanjing, to give the Naxi tribute to the Ming emperor Hong Wu. He received the title of King of Mutian, which authorized his right to rule Lijiang and the area around it. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Lijiang Kings helped Chinese forces in their battles with Tibet over control of Yunnan. During the reign of the Ming Emperor Wanli, the Naxis defeated the Tibetans in a big battle, annexing to Lijiang Weixi County. [Source: Ethnic China *]

Naxi Stone Village

Throughout the Ming Dynasty, the hereditary chieftains from the Mu family kept taxes and tribute flowing to the Ming court in the form of silver and grain. The Ming, in turn, relied on the Mu family as the mainstay for the control of the people of various ethnic groups in northwestern Yunnan Province. Later, with the development of the productive forces, buying, selling and renting of land began to take place in the Naxi areas, marking the beginning of a landlord economy. From 1723, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), hereditary local chieftains in the Lijiang area began to be replaced by court officials and the hereditary chieftain surnamed Mu thus became the local administrator. [Source:]

The Naxi people have long had a tradition of raising fine horses and conducting trade. Their caravans remained prosperous over hundreds of years, reaching Dali, Kunming and even Lhasa. During the Ming (1368-1644) Dynasty, the feudal headman from Lijiang, Mude, made his annual tribute to the emperor in the form of Lijiang horses instead of currency. Since then, Lijiang horse have become well known. With the development of the modern trade economy, Lijiang horses have become a brand name and focus of the an annual horse and mule fair that still operates today. [Source: \=/]

Over the years the military importance of the Naxi diminished but Lijiang became the most important economic, commercial and cultural center in the trade routes from Dali (capital of Yunnan) to Lhasa. Chinese influence on the Naxi was significant. In 1418 the first Chinese style schools in Naxi areas were established in Baoshan, Tongan and Julu. The power of the China-dominated tusi increased and the development of agricultural techniques brought tenrichment to Naxi society as a whole but also created bigger social divisions. The Naxi and Mosuo in Ninglang, Yanyuan, Yanbian and Muli were isolated from the Chinese and the external world, and maintained their traditional society. *\

Later Naxi History

In 1874, a Hui Muslim named Du Wenxiu united the Bai, Naxi, Yi and Dai in a rebellion against the Qing dynasty. The rebellion was brutally put down in 1892. Missionaries arrived when the Burma Road was constructed nearby in 1937-38.

The Naxis were wary of outsiders who threatened their dominance in the region. To prevent unwanted cultural disturbances they halted an attempt by the Kuomintang to build a road to Lijiang. Peter Goullart wrote in “The Forgotten Kingdom”: “The Naxi did not want too much Western civilization just yet. They said the highway would bring more trouble than benefits into their peaceful land. The little town would be swamped by hordes of Chinese crooks and loafers, in the guise of small traders...Nature, business and industry would be ruined by keen competition and home life disrupted by evil influences.”

In the 1950s the Communist government began cracking down on the liberated aspects on Naxi culture. The Naxi suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution when their religious practices were banned and shamans were outlawed.

Naxi Language

Naxi speak a Sino-Tibetan language similar to Tibetan and the languages of the Yi, Lisu, and Pumis. The Naxi language is broken into dialects: the western dialect spoken by those in the Lijiang area; and the eastern dialect spoken by those in the Yongning region, namely the Mosuo. Many Naxi also speak Chinese.The Naxi have their own unique written language with an unusual system of pictograms, which was conceived over a 1,000 year ago. The most famous Naxi written work is a 500-volume religious text called the Dongba, named after Naxi shaman who took care of the Naxi written language. The Naxi mainly use the Han language for writing. The Chinese government helped them standardize their written language into Chinese characters. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

Dongba pictograph

The Naxi language belongs to the Yi Language Branch of the Tibetan-Burmese family in the Sino-Tibetan Family. Because they had close connection with the Hans, they began to use Chinese after the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Pedro Ceinos Arcones wrote: “The Naxi considered as a transition language between the Qiangic and Burman languages, with some Loloish influences. Naxi language has four tones, 31 consonants and 21 vowels. The word order in the elementary sentence is subject –object – predicate. Traditionally Naxi language has been divided into two main dialects: Eastern and Western, each in turn with three local speeches. The Western dialect is the language spoken by the Naxi proper; its three main local variations reflect their past history, presenting only slight differences. The Eastern dialect would correspond to the languages spoken by the Mosuo minority and related peoples.” [Source: Ethnic China]

The eastern dialect is spoken mainly by Naxi who live on the boundary between Yunnan Province and Sichuan Province, while the western dialect is spoken by Naxi people in the Lijiang area. The western dialect, especially that spoken in Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County, is much more standardized (uniform throughout the area) than the subdialects of the eastern dialects, as the latter are more local and thus less uniform languages. Some say the Naxi language has 40-odd consonants, not all of which are voiced. The 20-odd vowels include diphthongs and monophthongs. [Source:]

Naxi Religion

The Naxi practice of a mix of Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism and traditional animist and shamanist beliefs. Some are outright followers of Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism), Chinese-style Buddhism and Taoism. Since the 19th century a small number have converted to Christianity. The Naxi recognize several thousands gods, many of whom are found in the Tibetan pantheon of deities. Tibetan lamas and Taoist priests are sometimes called in to preside over certain rituals, particularly funerals. The Naxi used to have a number of ceremonies that followed their agriculture cycles but these have mainly been replaced with Han Chinese holidays.

The traditional Naxi religion has it origins in the ancient Bon religion practiced by Tibetans before they became Buddhists. The religion revolved around shaman called dongbas who performed rituals and were the only people who could read the ancient Naxi pictograph written language. In articles in National Geographic in the 1920s, Joseph Rock (See Below) described dongbas leaping into bonfires, walking barefoot on burning hot plowshares, and dipping their hands into burning oil to cast evil spirits out of sick people.

The Naxi have incorporated Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation and the afterlife and Han folk beliefs about ghosts with their own ideas about the soul traveling backwards on path defined by their ancestors. They have also incorporated elements from Taoism and even Islam in their belief system.

Naxi Dongba Religion

The Naxi people have traditionally been followers of the "Dongba" religion, a form of shamanism. Shaman called "Dongba," chant scriptures at weddings, funerals, the New Year Day and other festivals. The Dongba religion is the indigenous of the Naxis. Naxi culture and Dongba religion are inseparably intertwined yet Dongba doesn't have systematic doctrines, united organizations and temple. Dongba is reputedly named after its founder, Dongba Shiluo who is said to have been a precocious child, endowed with many supernatural gifts. He killed an ogress and a number of malevolent ghosts, delivering the people from many evils. Many scholars believe it has it its roots in “Bon”, the traditional animist folk religion that preceded Buddhism in Tibet. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

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Naxi drummer-shaman
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,”The Naxi believe that the innumerable spirits that fill the world are ambivalent, having the power to bring disaster upon them and to grant them good fortune. They ascribe spirits to the sky, earth, sun, moon, mountain, water, fire, wind, rain, thunder, lightning, wood, snow, etc., and believe that the spirits never die. Therefore, they hold frequent offerings to various gods, even the Livestock God and Crop God. Images of gods appear on the instruments of the shaman (called dongba), including drums, bells, swords, chains, forks, bows, arrows, and conch. The religious activities involve almost every aspect of the Naxi's life, such as offering sacrifices to spirits and ancestors, marriage, birth, naming, burial, festival, divination, selection of dates for important events, exorcising ghosts, curing disease, praying for a good harvest, expiating the sins of the dead, etc. *\

The Dongba religion is especially pronounced in the Lijiang area and comprises several sects, including the Baidi Sect, the Baoshan Sect, the Baisha Sect, the Tai'anludian Sect and the Ben Sect—each named after a master interpreter-chanter of the Dongba scripture. Worship of the master interpreter-chanter (called an "ancestor") is part of the Dongba religion. The oldest master sect is the Ben Sect. 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. Others say Dongba evolved from a relatively obscure sect, rooted in the ancient Di’s and the Qiang’s nature worship and shamanism and highlighting worship of heaven, earth, the sun, moon, stars, wind, rain, thunder, lightning, water, fire, mountains, rivers and stones. The Dongba religion are embraces ideas of the soul, and of ghosts and gods. [Source: \=/]

Dongba: Naxi Shaman

Naxi still consult and participate in rituals led by shaman-sorcerers called Dongba. "Dongba" means "the wise" in the Naxi language. Naxi writing, literature and art have traditionally been in the hands of Dongba. Dongbas are not only seen as a shaman, they are also viewed versatile scholars , experts subjects ranging from agriculture to astronomy, from medicine to history. Among their main duties are chanting and translating the Naxi pictographic writing, painting, singing and dancing. Dongbas are seen as gifted writers, artists and musicians 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]

There are different rankings, or grades of competency, among the Dongba According to the Lijiang area there are Common Dongba, Big Dongba and a King Dongba, each level relying on its separate learning, skills and prestige. The Common Dongba usually chant scripture and host common religious ceremonies while the Big Dongba, who is said to have been to Baidi (the Holy Land of Dongba Sect) to receive the ceremony of sect entrance, is an expert at chanting scripture, at drawing, at molding/ carving a statue, and at performing the sorcerer's dance in a trance. Big Dongba enjoy high prestige and are also believed to have supernatural power with which they can conquer demons and ghosts. He usually serves as the master of the altar during important religious ceremonies. In addition, the Big Dongba has the right to teach students, or aspirants to the Dongba priesthood, and to propagate the doctrines of the ancient sages. The King Dongba – there is only one, of course – possesses the highest religious authority and he commands the highest prestige not only among the ordinary followers of the Dongba religion, i.e., lay folk, but also among other Dongbas. [Source: \=/]

Pedro Ceinos Arcones wrote: “Now, as in the past, Dongba priests, do not abandon their productive activities. They cultivate their lands like other members of the community. Only when some member of the community requires their service, to expel the demons that cause an illness or misfortunes for a family, or to conduct a funeral or some other ceremony, they take up their sacred books, dress in their ceremonial robes, and they perform their responsibilities as religious specialists, usually rewarded with gifts of meat, alcohol and, nowadays, cigarettes. [Source: Ethnic China]

Naxi Spirits and The Environment

20080306-Naxi sacred palce and offerings.jpg
Offering left at Naxi sacred place

Pedro Ceinos Arcones wrote:“According to Naxi myths the ancestors of men and Shu nature spirits were brothers from the same mother and different fathers. They separated the realms of their dominions, but latter men continuously trespassed to the Shu dominions, and enmity surged. Dingba Shilo was called to descent from heaven and restore peace and harmony between man and Shu nature spirits. To remember the need to preserve this harmony Sugv ceremony is performed every year on one dragon or serpent day of the second lunar month. During the three days that last this ceremony, that is celebrated with the village as unit and presided in turn for members of the different families, the people pray the Shu spirits to forgive all their transgressions and to provide good fortune. [Source: Ethnic China *]

“The first day the Dongba that has been invited to perform it by the annual president, will arrange the ceremonial ground, he will set up the tress and branches that would represent the nature spirits and will draw the more than 100 pictures needed. The main activity of the second day is to expel the impurities. Later the Shu spirits are welcomed and locked in a room to not been disturbed. Then the people go to have their meals to the ceremonial ground. On the third day, when the proper ceremony is carried on, the people go to the ceremonial ground carrying their offerings, usually some grains of wheat, a hen that would not be sacrificed. When all the offerings are ready the Dongba will narrate again the origin of the Shu nature spirits and their relationship with the human beings, he will remember the taboos associated with them and will ask them to provide good winds and rain, and a good harvest for the coming year. Then the ceremony ends. Some times, if some people or their domestic animals are sick, a minor ceremony would be performed. *\

“The myths and ceremonies related with the worship of Shu nature spirits show that the Naxi people knew for long time the need to keep the equilibrium between man and nature to ensure the sustainability of the agricultural production in a region. As the Naxi myths emphasize man and nature are two brothers; that is, if men harm their Shu nature brother, they are harming themselves. A call for a moderate use of the natural resources, of not pollute their sources of water, of not fell trees indiscriminately, and not hunt in excess. The ceremony, called in their language "ceremony of the relation with Shu nature spirits" serves to reinforce in every person the need to keep the ecological balance, and to show to nature spirits the community compromise to this goal. It serves also to reinforce the will to preserve the nature before every other member of the community. As every time the ceremony is performed, their main myths and taboos related with nature are chanted, it serves as a collective compromise to protect the ecological balance. *\

Naxi Ceremonies and Funerals

The "Naxi Offering Sacrifice to Tianda" ceremony is another sacrificial ceremony. It happens sometime during the first 10-day period of the month, or sometimes in the middle of the month. On the selected day of the ceremony, a pig is slaughtered as a sacrifice. The pig has been fattened with donations of wheat and wine made by every family in the village. After a religious ceremony, a kind of pig blood sausage is made, and the pig's head and internal organs are cooked and shared by villagers. [Source: \=/]

In the spring and autumn, Naxi hold a special sacrifice to the god of the five cereals (rice, two kinds of millet, wheat and beans) and the six domestic animals (the pig, ox, goat, horse, fowl and dog). Usually all the families in a village or the families who pasture on the same grazing land hold the ceremony together. They jointly buying a pig and a chicken as sacrificial animals. Sometimes this ceremony is also held on an individual, or family, basis. A Dongba shaman fix a an auspicious date and presides over the ceremony. \=/

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Naxi folk dancers
Before the ceremony, all the participating families drive their domestic animals to the mountains. After that the villagers build a stage with stones and earth. They strew pine needles – or spread out a Dongba shaman cloak – on the stage, and on top of that they scatter the five cereals as well as some wine and meat. Three sacred stones are placed beside the stage, then plant branches of pine, cypress and chestnut tree beside the sacred stones. After that the pig and the chicken are slaughtered, and their blood is sprinkled on the sacred stones, while the five internal organs of the animals—the heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys—are cut off and hung on the branches. The Dongba shaman recites "The Five Cereals and the Six Domestic Animals God Scriptures" and performs various other rites as he offers a sacrifice to the ancestors and to the god of the five cereals and the six domestic animals, praying for the prosperity of the livestock, good harvests and good health of the villagers. \=/

Sometimes there is a flurry of sacrificial activities, especially when natural disasters strike the village. Then the whole village will hold a meeting where each family vies for the honor of hosting the sacrificial ceremony. When a wide-scale infectious disease arouses much fear, the villagers ask Dongba for permission to make a sacrifice, so that they may be protected from the disease. \=/

Naxi burial customs vary somewhat from place to place. Mostly the Naxi follow Han burial and funeral customs. The Mosuo practice a kind of fire burial (See MOSUO ETHNIC GROUP ). Cremation has been a tradition since ancient times, but in some of the Naxi areas the custom of burying the dead was adopted in the late Qing Dynasty. It was common in the past to chant scriptures at the funeral ceremony to expiate the sins of the dead. The Naxi in Lijiang practice ground burial. There are four or five successive rituals during the funeral, which is organized mainly by the dongba. [Source:; C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

Naxi Festivals and Fairs

Traditional Naxi festivals include the "Farm-Tool Fair" in January, "God of the Rain Festival" in March, and "Mule and Horse Fair" in July. There are also the Lunar New Year, the Pure Brightness Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Torch Festival — all being the same as those of the Han.

The Spring Festival ( between January 21 and February 20) is a grand holiday held at the same time as Chinese New Year. The New Year's Eve is the most eventful time. The traditional customs include is cooking a pig's head and sacrificing chickens to honoring the Kitchen God and welcome ancestor ghosts to return to home celebrate the New Year together with the family. Various festive dishes are prepared. A bowl and a pair of chopsticks is placed at the table for family members who can't make it home, symbolizing their presence. That way the whole family is reunited. On Chinese New Year day sacrifices are offered for boys and girls who have reached 13 years of age. Dogs are fed rice and meat and forecasts about the production and prices of rice and pigs are based on how much the dog eats. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

The Farm Tools Festival starts on the 20th day of the first lunar month (between February 11 and March 9 on the Western calendar) and lasts for five days. Originating from a temple fair in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it is a fair of farm tools, featuring a large array of them made of iron, wood, and bamboo. A wide variety of other things like children's toys are exhibited on the square in front of temples and on side streets. this events is also called "Dangmeikongpu", which means "White Sand Temple Fair" in the Naxi language. According to legend, it was established by a local Mu headman in the Ming dynasty. Today, Taibaoji Palace, the Glazed Hall and the Dading Pavilion in Baisha village are all open for people to offer incense and enjoy the sight of murals. Stores in the street sell crafts made from steel, iron, bamboo and wood. People bustle about and vie with each other in buying objects. "Dangmeikongpu" has traditionally been a time when people bought commodities before spring ploughing in the local Naxis. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

The Sandou Festival in Lijiang is held on the eighth day of the second lunar month (ussually in March accroding to the Western calendar). Also known as the The Beiyue Temple Fair, it honors the Naxi hero and god Sandou by sending candleit boats down the Old Town’s canals. The Naxi people regard the god Sanduo as their supreme, or protector, god. To honor him, local people built a temple on Jade Dragon Mountain. According to Dongba mythology, Sanduo was born in the year of the goat, the Naxi sacrifice a goat to Sanduo on every goat year, which occurs once every 12 years. According to the China Daily: “People in Lijiang hold grand celebrations to mark the Sanduo Festival. The elderly go to the hot springs near the Beiyue Temple to take a bath, while the young go to the old town to buy things and seek love through song and dance. Before supper, families lay out the dishes in front of the wooden plates carved with their ancestors' names. "We believe that our ancestors come home to enjoy the meal. We Naxi people are special." [Source: Source: China Daily, March 5, 2006]

March Fair is held on the 15th day of third lunar month (between April 7 and May 5 on the Western calendar) and lasts about three to five days. Also known as the Dragon King Festival, it was a time to make a sacrificial offering to the Dragon King and now is a fair that attracts different nationalities to trade.

The Guanyin Fair is a traditional festival celebrated on the 5th to 20th day of the 3rd lunar month in late March or April at Taoist temples all over China that honors Guanyin (the Goddess of Mercy). The festival is a particularly big event in the Yunnan Province, where the Bai, Yi and Naxi people commemorate the arrival of Guanyin on Mount Cangshan and her victory of over the evil King Luocha. This fair attracts people from all over Yunnan. The Bai, Yi and Naxi people dress up in their beautiful ethnic costumes. In Lijiang, there is a livestock and medicinal market in which horses and oxen are sold along with Chinese medicines such as bear's gall bladder, fuzzy antler, Chinese caterpillar fungus and the root of the hairy Asia bell. Lantern shows and operas are also performed, and people watch horse races.

The Mule and Horse Trade Fair in July is another traditional festival for the Naxis. Held on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month (between August 9 and September 7 on the Western calendar), it is a colorful event with man large animals, among which the Lijiang and Yongning horses account for the greater part of the business (bidding). The Naxis have had a fine tradition of raising horses since ancient times and horse caravans operated for centuries between Dali, Lijiang and Lhasa, Tibet. In addition to the Naxis, Lisus, Pumis, and Hans, Bais, Tibetans and Yi from nearby counties come to take part. Events include sports meetings, singing contests, dancing and drama, painting and calligraphy exhibitions and Lijiang old music show and antiphonal singing (alternate singing by two choirs or singers) of folk songs. ~

Holy Mountain Festival is held on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month (between August 9 and September 7 on the Western calendar). It is the biggest event of the year for the Naxi people and Mosuo living in Yongnin Prefecture. On the eastern shore of Lugu Lake in lies Lion Mountain, also called Gemu Mountian by the local Naxi. According to legend this mountain is the physical transformation in this world of the Dongba mythological goddess Gemu. Gemu, according to Dongba mythology, ensures happiness for her people and provides them with plentiful cattle and livestock and rich harvests. Naxi dress in their best clothes and gather at the foot of Gemu Mountain to worship the goddess: burning incense, offering meat, wine and fruit as sacrifices, kowtowing, and chanting Tibetan Buddhist scriptures. Afterwards there is antiphonal singing, dancing, horse racing, bow-and-arrow shooting and swinging. [Source:]

Naxi Torch Festival

The Torch Festival is held on 15th day of the sixth lunar month year (between June 22 and August 22 on the Western calendar) features wrestling and buffalo fights. Antiphonal singing events are held in the daytime. In the evening, each household places a big torch on a nearby tree and many small ones in the courtyard. Ten-meter-tall "torches" — made from pine and cypress timbers stuffed with smaller branches — are set alight in heir village squares. Children hold torches while dancing to music from a lüsheng (a reed-pipe wind instrument). This festival is celebrated by the Yi and the Bai and other ethnic groups in Yunnan Province. The Bulang, Wa, Lisu, Lahu, Hani and Jinuo minorities hold similar festivals but on different dates.

The festival honors a woman who leaped into a fire rather make love with a king. Before the village torch is lit people gather around it and drink rice wine. The village elders use a ladder to climb to the top of the torch as they distribute fruit and food to the villagers while they boisterously sing the "Torch Festival Song." The torch is then solemnly lit. The villagers light their torches off the village torch and sing and dance and eventually make their ways to their homes and light the torches there.

According to Naxi legend the tradition began when the gods became jealous by the happiness they saw in man's world, which seemed to be better even than that in heaven, so they sent the prince of fire to burn down man's world. But the prince of fire betrayed god and arranged for the people to light torches in front of their houses, faking the conflagration. When the gods discovered they had been duped they ordered the beheading of the prince of fire beheaded. Thus, the Torch Festival honors the sacrifice of the prince of fire.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China website,; 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, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site | New York Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, National Geographic, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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