Yunnan's Naxi People: Locked in Time Yet Enjoying the Fruits of Globalization

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: July 19th, 2011 | Updated: August 13th, 2014 | Comments
Yunnan, naxi ethnic minority, naxi dress

The Naxi (Nàxī, 纳西) are mountain people that wandered to the edge of the Tibetan plateau and found a place to call home, wedged between the lowland and highland civilizations. That place is, for most of the 300,000 or so Naxi in China today, the county of Lijiang in northern Yunnan Province. The Naxi are better known than their more numerous cousins the Yi minority or the Bai minority due solely to the popularity of Lijiang and its environs . Lijiang became famous after an earthquake in 1996 leveled the old Tea Horse Road outpost, leading UNESCO  to lend a hand with reconstruction and designating the old town, Dayan, as a Tibetan, Yi, Mosuo and Han neighbors. Now that Lijiang is a world-class tourist destination, the architecture, music, language and dress of the Naxi people has been "globalized" in an interesting mix of exploitation and preservation that strives to keep the Naxi in their quaint villages, while at the same time introducing them to iPhones and shopping trips to Hong Kong. Depending on your own viewpoints, Lijiang and the Naxi might be a deplorable circus or a beautiful, traditional Naxi village caught in time.

The Matrilineal Society of the Naxi

Everyone in China makes a big deal out of the matrilineal societies of southwest China. The truth is, in East Asia matrilineal is often mistaken to mean "promiscuous societies in which marriage is a loose institution"; this false characterization takes a phrase such as 

matrilineal society southwest china, Yunnan

Naxi, Mosuo and Yi societies all traditionally practice matrilineal ownership. What this means is that property is inherited through the mother's line, not the father's and therefore women had as much, if not more, say in how a society was governed than the men. With such freedom from civilized institutions like foot binding and the taking of concubines, men and women developed relationships that took their natural course. What does that mean? Well it means that a woman might "divorce" if she wanted to and a man could just as easily disappear with his buddies when he wanted to.

It does not mean that Naxi, Yi and Mosuo girls are easy. And it doesn't matter much anyway because in a globalized world, these types of institutions undergo change and transformation. Naxi women are still a powerful force in society and property does often still go though the mother's line (makes more sense when you think about it doesn't it?), but patriarchal traditions learned from other cultures have managed to establish a foothold in today's Naxi society. The true extent of the power struggle between Man and Woman among the Naxi however, will most likely always remain a mostly private affair, so let's move on.

Music of the Naxi

Baisha, just outside of Dayan (the old town everyone visits and calls Lijiang, although Lijiang is actually the county) was once the capital of a flourishing Naxi Kingdom under the rule of the Mu clan. When the Mongols rode through and annexed everything, a Mu chieftain supposedly helped the Mongol army cross a strategic river. In return, the Mongol commander (some say Kublai Khan himself) left behind an orchestra and a few scores.

That small act helped preserve 13th century Mongol music until the present day, in the form of Baisha Xiyue (Báishā Xìyuè, 白沙细乐), a lively musical style that uses traditional Naxi and Taoist-influenced melodies and instruments. Another form of ancient music preserved in Lijiang is the Dongjing (Dòngjīng yīnyuè, 洞经音乐) style, based on old Taoist and Buddhist chants. This style derived from Taoist associations up and down the Horse and Tea Trade Route that worshipped Wenchang, the Taoist God of writing and literature. Many of these associations died out as the years went on—especially during the 50 years post-Liberation (after the Chinese Communists took control of the country)—but are enjoying a revival today, as can be seen in this video clip of a dongjing performance.

Dongba and Dresses

Naxi Minority Dongba script

The Naxi also have their own script and religion, both called Dongba. The script is pictographic and was used by Tibetan Bon shamans who settled in amongst the Naxi, practicing their arcane arts until they were accepted as (or assumed the roles of) local Naxi shamans. The religion is a mixture of natural spiritualism and animism with old Bon deities and a bit of Buddhism and Taoism thrown in for good measure. All along the Dayan old street are trinket sellers who also carry wooden carvings featuring many Dongba characters. The Naxi (or at least the Naxi women) are also well known for their traditional dress, which look a lot like the Miao or Yi minority traditional dress, but is in fact slightly different.

The major differences are the massive black turbans worn by the women and the sheepskin cape thrown over the shoulders. Naxi women also like big hoop earrings and gold bracelets, with a fat ring and maybe some jade to round it all out. Young women tend to wear brighter white and blue capes with deep crimson belts and a black turban; the older women lean toward darker colors—but nothing is static in terms of fashion.

The Naxi Minority Today

The modern-day Naxi are doing quite well thank you very much. For some visitors to Dayan, the throngs of tourists and the accompanying kitsch might send the message that the Naxi have been overrun. But the truth might be more complex. A lot of storefronts in Dayan are owned by Naxi, but run by outsiders. Many Naxi have built massive homes outside of the old town (or elsewhere) and are enjoying a relatively traditional lifestyle (with surround sound and the world wide web). But there are also those families that never got in on the action and remain in adobe buildings deep in the hills—the development and spread of wealth is always quite uneven. I do know this though. When I went in 2001, I met one old Naxi man who said,"There was a time when I didn't have socks, now I have a full belly and television."

Development, exploitation and happiness are all in the eye of the beholder. The Naxi may have turned their town into a tourist site, but there is no doubt that their religion, their written language, their dress, their music and also their tendency to give women power will definitely survive deep into this century. Beyond that? No-one knows.

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