Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Lijiang and the Naxi People


My apologies to those who have may have taken an interest in this blog site in terms of the lack of more current affairs content to date. Up until now, I have been going over some of my old writings and translations to try to build up a base of content. Nevertheless, I thought this article that I wrote fifteen years ago might be of interest to those who wanted to get a glimpse of some of the ethnic richness that pervades this huge nation. The preamble to the article describes some of my own thoughts about the China of the time, and to my delight, is somewhat prescient vis-à-vis trends in China’s recent development.

Lijiang: Remote and Traditional (1994)
Written by Chris Harry

Long before travelling to the remote city of Lijiang, I had already learned to avoid forming idealistic expectations of the places I intended to visit. Although I had gradually learned to reconcile such expectations, I had always dreamed of visiting a place where I would be able to experience traditional Chinese culture firsthand. The ideal vision of China at once mysterious, ornate, and profound, however, did not mesh with a truly accurate description of the real China. The China of the nineties may be described as a high speed train surging ahead at breakneck speed, with a largely untested braking system, along an unfinished track. In relative terms, the casual observer may be tempted to look upon urban China as being hugely overcrowded, dirty, and in many respects drab and full of noise and pollution. In spite of this, the unique character of China’s cultures and peoples (56 ethnic groups), the intricately woven tapestry of its history, and the breathtaking scope, beauty, and diversity of its landscape still shine through if you scratch beneath this dull veneer. It is not a place for the casual observer. It is a country that demands intensive study, yet often defies explanation; a nation an outsider must strive to appreciate, and by having done so can never forget, nor completely avoid being shaped by.

At many points during my stay in China, and after much reflection and discussions with Chinese friends, I discovered a great dichotomy in the thinking of tourists and travellers from industrialised nations in China and the Chinese attitudes toward themselves and their past. While Europeans, Japanese, and North Americans often look to a mystical past to fill a spiritual void, Chinese are now enthralled with wealth, luxury, and modernity for the same reason. Westerners crave to rediscover a feeling of magic and philosophic contentment by projecting such yearnings upon ancient civilizations and exotic destinations. By the same token, Chinese people from all levels of society are bent on eliminating poverty, outdated traditions, feudal superstitions, and any other impediments to the transformation of their nation into an advanced, industrialized superpower. Essentially, westerners are striving, vicariously, to regain traditional culture through more ancient nations while the Chinese realise they must forgo many aspects of such traditional culture in order to achieve their dreams of enjoying the same sort of lifestyle we take for granted in the industrialized world.

In fact, westerners must begin to modify their feelings of superiority toward what we consider as quaint but backward nations such as China. While westerners bide their time waiting for the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party the Chinese are busy making money and modernizing. Whether it be fifty to seventy years or quite possibly even twenty to thirty years from now, the Chinese will catch up with us. At that time, neither their people nor their government will hold a humble and deferent attitude toward the great western powers, as the balance of power will have already been altered. At that time, westerners may also come to the realisation that their cultural and political pre-eminence has been maintained in large part by their supremacy in the economic and military spheres and not by any intrinsic superiority.

By the sheer fact of its huge population and size, China will always pose a potential challenge and therefore a threat to the global dominance of the United States, Western European powers, and Japan. Given the means, Chinese will opt for a position of strength rather than weakness.
The best example of this complete divergence in thinking may be seen in the attitudes of people from affluent nations and that of the Chinese toward that enigmatic and age-old land called Tibet. While we marvel at the distinctiveness of an exotic and remote culture that has been astonishingly well preserved, the Chinese see this cultural heritage as a hindrance to the development of education, medicine, technology, and the economy of Tibet.

Lijiang is a place embodying much of this diverse and fascinating cultural heritage; a place with a traditional air inhabited by an open-minded and cultured people. Comparatively little pollution, beautiful scenery, and a very relaxed pace of life, coupled with the well-preserved Ming dynasty architecture of the old core of the city make Lijiang a haven for those in search of the seemingly ineffable --- traditional Chinese culture. Apart from the inviting, and in some cases spectacular scenery surrounding this relatively small, isolated city, many customs and elements of traditional culture have also been preserved along with its Ming architecture, making the long and arduous trip here well worthwhile.
Within the walls of the ancient city, the older generation still follow traditional ways, which reflect their openness toward Han, Tibetan and other cultures and their adherence to Naxi ways. Lijiang is the centre of Naxi culture; a culture characterized by, among other things, its matriarchal roots.

Almost all of the Lijiang residents with the last names Mu and He are ethnically Naxi (pronounced Na-khee in Naxi language). The ancestors of Naxi people bearing the surname Mu were once aristocrats during the Tang dynasty while their counterparts with the surname of He were originally labourers.

Only the elderly women still wear traditional garb. The exact pattern and style of ethnic male dress has long been forgotten, yet it is known that it primarily consisted of several pieces of animal hide, in addition to a red sash tied around the waist.

Among the older generation, the women in this distinctive society undertake most of the heavy labour while the men are responsible for the preservation of Naxi cultural traditions such as music, painting, and calligraphy, and for assuming the role of educators. Because of this, the women tend to spend more time outside of the house, often gathering together in groups to sit and chat, or to take strolls together, while the men have more leisure time and tend to stick closer to home. Once a month, the women of each household within a circle of friends, take turns hosting a party where only women attend to enjoy food and dishes that are prepared by the given host. At such gatherings they will talk and play cards. The fact that men and women often spend much of their day segregated from members of the opposite sex is an indication of how traditional and unique their culture remains.

Xuan Ke, the leader of a local traditional music ensemble, gave a Naxi interpretation of the relationship between women and men in Naxi society by saying that while Han (Chinese) males regarded women as property, Naxi males looked upon women as their mothers. In all fairness, in my experience the Han majority in is as much or more respectful of women’s rights than any of China’s 56 ethnic groups. In some respects, however, the Naxi women take on leading roles in the community, but this status is also likely borne of the fact that they have more responsibilities and heavier burdens than their male counterparts, at least among the older more traditional members of society. As far as I could tell, Naxi men did not display any outward sign of physical aggression or disrespect toward women.

The seven disc-shaped patterns and the sun and moon embroidered on the back of traditional female dress expresses the idea that the Naxi women work diligently both day and night. Since the women in traditional families do most of the work in, and outside of the home, they are also in charge of the finances. Nowadays, however, in some families the women no longer have absolute control of the purse strings.

For the most part, elderly men stay at home and often watch over their grandchildren. As distinct from areas primarily populated by Han Chinese, it is common to see men carrying children on their backs. This seems to suggest that there is a less pronounced delineation of the kinds of distinctive male and female codes of conduct within Naxi society which are common in many cultures. Elderly women tend to separate themselves from the men and children more, although it is also possible to see some women carrying babies on their back.

One family, my wife and I spent an afternoon with while in Lijiang, embodied many aspects of the different traditional roles that men and women take on in Lijiang. This was the family of Zhou Lin, a famous Naxi painter and poet, who was also the former head of Lijiang’s traditional Dongjing music ensemble. His two sons, Zhou Fuding and his younger brother, are both accomplished painters. Their extended family includes the two brothers’ families, along with their mother.

The family lives within the “old city” inside a complex of walled residences much like traditional Beijing Hutongs (quadrangles) or the traditional long houses of Hanoi. All three styles of architecture are characterized by a monolithic structure that is divided into square walled units with an open courtyard in the middle. Each square unit represent one family home, each of which appears the same from the outside, as there are only high, straight walls usually with no windows or open sections facing the street. In effect, they are sealed off from the surrounding area. Lijiang’s walled compounds differ from Hutongs, or long houses, because they are two-storey, as opposed to one-storey structures. In addition, these structures are built in groups of seven-family units. In between these buildings are a series of narrow stone lanes (granite). Some houses have up to 20 family members living together under one roof. A small river has been diverted to run through these neighbourhoods to provide drinking water and irrigation for the inhabitants of this Ming style architectural city complex.

In fact, part of a canal near a stone bridge, in an open square located in the heart of the city, becomes the scene for an annual festival where the locals begin setting afloat handcrafted and hand painted paper boats with lit candles about one hour before sunset. The candles are believed to act as beacons for the ghosts of their ancestors who are allowed to return from a Chinese version of Hades to find their families and visit them for a few days each year. This is originally a Han Chinese festival that has been adopted and preserved by the Naxi but which is now rarely, if ever, practised by the Han themselves.

Another truly fascinating aspect of Naxi culture is their written language known in Chinese as Dongbawen or Shaman Script. The Dongba script, invented 1100 years ago by a Dongba or Naxi Shaman, is said to be a “living fossil” among languages because it is considered to be the only pictographic writing system still in use today. In fact, Chinese scholars describe it as being even more primitive, in terms of comparative linguistic development, than Chinese writing was at the time of the Shang dynasty (2200-1100 B.C.). This is due to the remoteness of the Naxi people’s homeland and to their strong sense of tradition. One hundred and fifty years after the script first came into use, it ceased to undergo any further development or changes to its written form.

A school for the promotion of preserving Dongba script has now been established and there are about 40 students presently enrolled. He Zhiwu, a Naxi scholar, devoted his life to collecting Dongba classics. There are about 20 000 still in existence, many of which are now in Japan, Germany, and the United States.

A Dongba we met at a local tourist attraction, which acts as both a museum and a showcase of Naxi culture, took out some scrolls he had written in Dongba script. Most of the writings in the Naxi script appear to be records of historical events and legends. One scroll that he translated into Chinese for us described a world in which man, heaven, and beasts communicated with one another. It told of how a crow flew up to heaven and flew back down to relate what it knew of heaven to a human. In a very general sense, this legend, at least, appears to resemble the animist mythology of Amerindian and Northeast Asian Shamanist cultures.
Only three Dongba or Naxi Shaman are still living today. Two are in their mid-seventies and the third is 85. They still perform ceremonies, but only for the rural community. One Dongba we met, aged 74, said he started studying for this role at age 12. Sadly though, the younger generation, just as in many parts of the world, does not seem to be too interested in carrying on the Dongba tradition.

There are nine traditional Naxi orchestras in the Lijiang area. The most famous band, led by Xuan Ke, has performed in Sichuan, Kunming, Beijing, as well as in various cities in Europe and America. In September of 1995, the same orchestra was invited to perform in ten countries across Europe. One of the stops on their tour included a concert at Cambridge University. This ensemble, along with others in Lijiang, has preserved a form of ancient music from the Tang dynasty. It is referred to as Dongjing music, a kind of ceremonial Daoist music dating back 900 to 1000 years. This local musical tradition represents the only surviving continuous link to Tang era Daoist musical arrangements. Such music was played during palace ceremonies. Many of the instruments they use or have collected are over one hundred to four hundred years old. The band members’ ages range from 16 to 86. The older musicians are training young musicians to continue the tradition. Some of the pieces they have preserved, including a composition written by the Tang Emperor, Xuanzong, had been presumed lost by musicologists. When Xuan Ke’s orchestra performed in Beijing, and that it became evident that many of the ancient musical pieces thought to be lost had, in fact, been preserved and passed down, tears ran down the faces of many old professors in the audience.

Naxi musical instruments include the Naxi-style erhu (Chinese two-stringed violin) as well as two types of instruments similar to the Jew’s harp and which are played in the same manner. One type is made out of wood, and has only one movable piece, while another type is made out of brass and has three movable parts, each having its own tone.

Xuan Ke, the leader of Lijiang’s famous orchestra, was without a doubt the most flamboyant and interesting individual I met in Lijiang, and I would guess he could easily be in the running for one of China’s most fascinating personages. Despite the fact that he had spent 19 years in jail for criticizing the government, he continued his tirades against the government and against what he considered to be Han chauvinism toward his people. He was also outspoken and unapologetic about the devastation brought about by the Japanese army decades earlier and made a point of educating every listener before he would allow the ensemble to play. The evening I decided to see a performance, the largest single group in this international backpacking rabble of music lovers happened to be Japanese tourists. The other members of the orchestra quietly waited for him to finish. Although they seemed impatient, their leader appeared to have a tight grip on power over the group. Interestingly enough, these lectures were delivered in fairly fluent and clear English, as he had attended a Christian missionary school as a child. He enjoyed listening to himself and he knew that he was, in fact, an interesting personality.

Near Lijiang is a place called Luguhu or Lugu Lake, where the Mosuo people live in a matrilineal society to this day. One branch of the Mosuo still live in a primitive mountaintop settlement in caves and use carved stones for their tools and furniture. It is believed that the Naxi are descended from the Mosuo.

Many foreign tourists and scholars are attracted by this unique and distant city. One American professor even spent 27 years of his life here.
In terms of keeping the peace, one local resident said that the police were not effective enough. Groups of military police carrying sticks while patrolling the streets are a common sight in Lijiang. Yesterday evening, a policeman knocked on our hotel room door. Two young girls were standing in the hallway while at least one other policeman was also present. I opened the door, asked what was wrong, and he immediately left without asking any questions. Some of the locals intimated that there is a certain degree of violence in Lijiang, such as drunken brawls, due to an underdeveloped economy and lower levels of education. In general, it seems that the drug trade affects most communities in Yunnan province.

I saw only one beggar over the span of my ten-day visit here and he was severely crippled. When I asked about this situation, I was told that there were a certain number of beggars, many of whom were farmers accustomed to begging, even though they already had enough to eat. Strangely enough, this kind of social phenomenon seemed to be fairly common in one form or another throughout China. I have heard of farmers on the outskirts of Beijing who encourage their kids to beg food from strangers. Perhaps in this way they can make a few extra yuan selling more of the produce they would have otherwise set aside for their family.
About 80 percent of Lijiang’s population are Naxi. The remaining 20 percent include 10 percent Han and 10 percent Yi, Bai, and Zang (Tibetan) minorities. The Naxi language is a branch of the Yi language under the Tibeto-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Here, Han and other ethnic groups speak Naxi while Naxi also speak Mandarin Chinese.
The Naxi are a fairly culturally advanced people, who have been strongly influenced by other nationalities, but have not assimilated with Han culture, as have their neighbours the Bai minority. The Naxi have been absorbing Han culture since the Tang dynasty, and were also heavily influenced by the Bai people since the period of the Southern Zhao (748-902) and Dali Kingdoms (937-1253). At that time, Lijiang was a vassal state under the successive Bai kingdoms. In addition to these influences, Zang (Tibetan) religion and handicrafts have also helped to mould and shape their culture. This openness and cultural adaptability is due, in part, to the fact that the Naxi people have always been a kind of ‘little brother’ to their more powerful neighbours such as the Bai, Zang, Han, and Yi peoples. Their flexibility has allowed them to be on good terms with other minority groups, which by contrast, have not always been able to get along well with each other. During the Ming dynasty, the leader of the Naxi people was versed in Chinese, Tibetan, and Dongba script. Tibetan religious banners (in Chinese, known as Jingfan) and Tibetan calligraphy can be seen in Lamaist temples in the rural areas just outside of Lijiang. On our visit to the Baisha murals, located in the outlying areas of Lijiang, we came across an elderly calligrapher displaying his works in Chinese, Naxi, and Tibetan scripts.

One of the last remaining Dongba did not describe Naxi culture in exclusive terms, as is so common with many cultures. Rather, he pointed to the parallels between Naxi culture and other cultures. Certainly, the impression one gets from the Naxi in Lijiang is that they have nothing to hide and that they are willing to invite you into their homes and share their experiences with you.

Chinese-style Buddhism is the predominant religion among the Naxi, but they have also embraced Lamaist Buddhism, Daoism, and to a lesser extent, Islam and even Christianity.

Traditional carpentry and smithing products are sold widely. Copper and brass pots, as well as Tibetan silver bracelets and Tibetan cowbone necklaces are common. Wooden plates, cups, and bowls are very simple in design but are often carved, sanded, and polished quite beautifully by the local craftsmen.

In the larger context of Chinese history, Lijiang was often a haven for political refugees. Some of the Chinese descendants of imperial families and aristocrats from the Tang to the Ming dynasties still live in Lijiang today. One of the musicians in the traditional music ensemble is an eleventh generation descendant of Nanjing courtiers (the capital of China at the time) in the Ming dynasty. Another local resident told us that his family was directly descended from the Ming dynasty’s founding emperor Zhao Kuangyi. After the collapse of the Ming dynasty, the emperor’s relatives had to flee to the far-flung regions of China to avoid certain death.

All in and all, Lijiang is a place of diverse cultural and historical influences surrounded by some stunning natural scenery. No doubt many changes have taken place since my wife and I visited the remote city some fifteen years ago, and I have heard tell from others of the commercialisation brought about by tourism over the years. Still, if I were to hazard a guess, I would say that it remains a unique and rewarding experience for any travellers wishing to visit there.

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