The Naxi in The Forgotten Kingdom of Peter Goullart

 
CHAPTER VII.- THE NAKHIS

The Nakhi had strange convictions that some localities were bad and others good. At first I did not believe in such sweeping opinions. Nevertheless, with the passage of time, I learned that their assertions were essentially true. For example, Shwowo was a 'good' village and Boashi was 'bad'. Both these villages were in the northern valley and Lashiba, the village with the lake which I passed on my way to Likiang, was definitely 'bad'. But all the villages down the main valley were 'good'. I asked my Nakhi friends how it was possible that the people in the whole village could all be uniformly bad. Wolves run to wolves and dogs to dogs, they told me, and bad men do not feel comfortable to stay with good ones: a paraphrase, in fact, of 'Birds of a feather flock together.' Collectively, Likiang was known as a 'good' town and Hoking and Chienchwang as 'bad' towns.

Somehow the bad reputation of Boashi village always distressed me. After all, the northern valley saw much of the Nakhi history and the great temple to the patron god of Likiang, Saddok, was in Boashi. The name itself, Boashi -Dead Boa — was heroic. It was here that the invaders from Yungning were defeated and annihilated. They were led by a renegade sister of a Nakhi king, who had been given in marriage to a prince of Yungning. The woman had been captured and interned in an iron cage on a tiny island in the neighbouring lake. She was permitted to eat all kinds of solid food to her heart's content, but was not given a drop of water to drink, although there was water all around her. She died of thirst, suffering horribly. Such was her brother's revenge.

It was probably through the passes near Shwowo and Boashi that the Nakhi invaded the Likiang plain from the north many centuries ago. There is a reference to them and to Likiang in the Han dynasty and even earlier chronicles, but they were not known then as the Nakhi and the name and site of the present Likiang was changed several times. Dr Joseph Rock dealt with these ancient records in his monumental work on Likiang and surrounding territories called The Ancient Nakhi Kingdom of South-west China, but they are too long and complicated to be quoted here even in part. One fact emerges clearly, the Nakhi did come down from Tibet. Their sacred literature, written in pictographs, refers to Lake Manasarowar, Mount Kailas, to the yaks and living in tents on alpine meadows. They call the Tibetans their elder brothers and the Minkia their younger brothers. Their ancestors are curiously linked with all the gods of the Indian pantheon and their claim that the majority of their ancestors and heroes came out of the eggs magically produced as a result of a series of copulations between the mountains and lakes, pines and stones, Nagarajas and human females.

The Nakhi, Burmese and Black Lolos, along with the Tibetans, belong to a racial subdivision called the Burmo-Tibetan stock. They do resemble each other to a degree, their languages and dialects have a common root and it is only in the manner of their dress and food that the difference becomes pronounced. The Nakhi, since the Tang dynasty, had begun the adoption of the Chinese civilization and culture of their own free will and the process is not yet over. In the matter of masculine dress it is practically impossible to distinguish between a Nakhi and a Chinese, but fortunately women have stuck to their picturesque Nakhi clothes and head-dress. The absorption of the Chinese etiquette and ceremonial was completed long ago and to advantage. With a correct approach, it is difficult to find a more polite and restrained people than the Nakhi. Secure in their knowledge of correct conduct, they judge strangers by their behaviour and judge very severely. Even during the visits to poorest homes in the village it is not meet for a person, however high his rank may be, to forget his good manners.

Of course, the Confucian ethics superseded and modified the original Nakhi customs, but a few of the latter still persist. Women may not sit in the presence of men or eat together with them. Also women never sleep in the upper rooms or remain there long. They are considered traditionally unclean creatures and it is not right for them to walk above men's heads. Local laws did little to protect women. Wives could be bought and sold by hundreds, and widows could be disposed of by the eldest son, although the latter practice occurred very rarely and was condemned as depravity. Continuous manual work was the women's lot. They did not revolt; they did not even protest. Instead, silently and persistently like the roots of growing trees, they slowly evolved themselves into a powerful race until they utterly enslaved their men. They learned all the intricacies of commerce and became merchants, land and exchange brokers, shopkeepers and traders. They encouraged their men to loaf, lounge and to look after the babies. It is they who reaped the golden harvest of their enterprise, and their husbands and sons had to beg them for money, even if only a few pennies to buy cigarettes. It was the women who started courting men and they held them fast by the power of their money. It was the girls who gave their lovers presents of clothes and cigarettes and paid for their drinks and meals. Nothing could be obtained or bought in Likiang without women's intervention and assistance. Men knew nothing about the stocks in their own shops or of the price at which their goods should be sold. To rent a house or buy land one had to go to those women brokers who knew about it. The owners would not negotiate direct for fear of losing money without the women brokers' expert advice. To change money you had to go to the rosy-cheeked girls — the pangchinmei. Tibetan caravans, on arrival, surrendered their merchandise to the women for disposal, otherwise they ran a risk of heavy losses.

Because of their manifold activities and of the heavy loads of merchandise they transported on their backs from house to shop or from one market to another, the race of Likiang women had developed superior physical characteristics. The women became tall and husky, with great bosoms and strong arms. They were self-assured, assertive and bold. They were the brains of the family and the only foundation of prosperity in the household. To marry a Nakhi woman was to acquire a life insurance, and the ability to be idle for the rest of one's days. Therefore, the market value of a Nakhi bride was very high, and as the Nakhi men outnumbered women by five to four, a man was lucky to find a wife at all. A single woman of almost any age would do; there were youngsters of eighteen married to women of thirty-five. What did it matter, the boy was secure for life? She was his wife and mother and, moreover, she kept him in clover. What more could a man want? There was not a single woman or girl in Likiang who was idle. They were all in business from early morning till night. No family could possibly have a female servant. It was utterly unthinkable. Why should a woman slave for somebody at a few dollars a month when every day of her time was worth so much more? The wives and daughters of the Nakhi magistrates and other high officials, of the wealthy merchants and landowners, worked as hard as any humble village woman. Either they specialized in selling the Tibetans' merchandise at the local market or went down to weekly markets in Hoking, carrying the goods in baskets on their backs. Or, perhaps, they heard that some villages had cheaper potatoes or pigs, and off they would go, bringing the loads back and making a tidy little profit. Many a time I met Madame Hsi, the magistrate's wife, carrying on her back a heavy basket of potatoes or a sack of grain. Among the 'society' leaders of the West this concept of work would provoke a sensation perhaps greater than an invasion of the Martians. Imagine a Mrs Astor or a Mrs Vanderbilt lugging a sack of potatoes on her back through Fifth Avenue! Yet it is a fair comparison; for, in Likiang, the following day you might meet Madame Hsi at a wedding reception at some general's house, gorgeously bedecked in brocades and silks and festooned with costly jewels.

Thus the women in the little Nakhi world were despised creatures in theory but powerful and respected in practice. Men were the privileged beings, but weak and of little account in the economic life. Even in physique they seldom appeared the equals of their husky mates. When young, they sponged on their mothers and sisters and spent the time in picnicking, gambling and dalliance. When old, they stayed at home, looking after the children, talking to cronies and smoking opium. Like drones, they would have quickly died of starvation had their wives stopped the money-making.

In extolling the physical strength and business acumen of Nakhi women I do not wish to imply that Nakhi men were effeminate or cowardly. Since the earliest days of their history they have been renowned for their bravery, courage and loyalty. It certainly needed pluck and resource to come down all the way from Tibet and defeat the aboriginal tribes which dwelt at the time in the Likiang plain. The contingents of Nakhi soldiers have always been the mainstay of the Yunnan Provincial Army, and when called upon they fought to the death. It was through the participation of the Nakhi troops that the famous Taierhchwang victory over the Japanese was won. They never turned their back on the enemy and .very few survivors were left. They are intrepid horsemen, tireless walkers, and can exist for months on a meagre and monotonous diet.

In appearance the Nakhi men are as a rule handsome and well built. Many are of average height and a few are quite tall, although they seldom approached the gigantic stature of the Kham Tibetans. The complexion of both men and women on the whole is somewhat darker than that of the Chinese, but there are many exceptions. In some cases they may be as white as South Europeans. Other characteristics destroy any illusion that they have connections with the Chinese racial stock. Although the cheek-bones may be high, the face is essentially European in its contour. The nose is long, well shaped and has a prominent ridge. Unlike the Chinese, a Nakhi gentleman could wear a pince-nez if he wanted to. The eyes are light brown and only in rare cases greenish; they are not almond-shaped, but wide and liquid. The hair may be dark but it always has a reddish sheen; in most cases it is chatain fonce and it is soft and curly. All in all, a Nakhi reminds one strongly of a farmer from South Italy or Spain.

The Nakhi are passionate, frank almost to a fault and choleric. The latter characteristic was undoubtedly due to high altitudes. All the people staying above 8,000 feet, I observed, were irritable. This irritability was ever present and it was utterly unreasonable. The rarefied atmosphere was not conducive to good sleep and probably this factor was, to some extent, responsible for hot tempers. Otherwise the Nakhi, like the Tibetans, were one of the most cheerful people on earth. They smiled, laughed and joked all day long, talked and shouted, and, at every opportunity, danced in the evening.

They were born gossips, both men and women. They simply could not keep their mouths shut. There was not a secret, whether a family one or political, that would not be known to the whole town within a matter of days or even hours. Especially enjoyable were the family scandals, and they were frequent. The more piquant a scandal the more it was discussed, with gusto and delight, in all wine-shops and on the market. Likiang was not, after all, such a small town and it always astonished me to observe how intimately its inhabitants knew each other. In time, I and my household came to be included in this happy community. Everybody called me by my first name, stopped to chat or greeted me with a smile; and, strangely enough, I seemed to know everybody too. Even the people from nearby villages seemed to be known to everyone in the town and were affectionately greeted when coming to the market.

The Nakhi, like the Tibetans, were the despair of missionaries. Like the proverbial bad pennies, they were inconvertible. For years the Roman Catholics and other denominations have vainly tried to establish themselves in the district, although one of the British sectarian missions managed to retain a precarious foothold in the city for a short while. It was in the charge of an English couple. They had a comfortable house and a small church with a corner-stone bearing the legend 'Lot No. 1 until He cometh.' They wrote communications on special letterheads overprinted with the title: 'President — Lord God Sabaoth; Vice President — Lord Jesus Christ; Treasurer — Mr X (the missionary).' Business was poor and they had only a few converts among the Chinese emigrants from Szechuan. However, they used to make trips into the mountains up the Yangtze River, where they were compensated with some success among the primitive White Lissu tribes.

The failure to convert the Nakhi, one of whose religions was Lamaism, to Christianity, is inextricably bound up with the failure to evangelize the Tibetans. The reason for this lack of success in the spreading of the Gospel, undertaken by the missionaries from the western and eastern borders of Tibet, becomes clear if properly assessed. The Tibetan Church is just as well organized and powerful as the Roman Catholic Church. Its tenets are rooted in Buddhism — a great and highly philosophical religion. It is controlled by the lamas and is headed by the Dalai Lama who, like the Pope, is both spiritual and temporal ruler. In the West the word lama is applied indiscriminately to all Tibetan monks. In Tibet and among the Nakhi it is an honorary title when addressing an ecclesiastic, but actually it takes an ordinary monk (commonly called trapa) diligence, learning and much of his lifetime to reach the status of a lama, if he ever does. All the real lamas are thus highly educated men, profoundly versed in Buddhistic philosophy and theology. They may or may not be saintly, but certainly they are always shrewd and, as a rule, they are good administrators and organizers. For comparison, it would not be inappropriate to liken the lower ranks of the lamas to the deacons and archdeacons, and higher ranks to the bishops, archbishops, patriarchs and cardinals. The lamas may or may not be the Incarnations or Living Buddhas (trulkus, also called hutuktus), but every Incarnation is a lama and the Church sees to it that he is properly educated to live up to the title. Each lamasery of note must have at least a few real lamas to give it direction and prestige and to train the novices who, later on, may go to the great monastic colleges near Lhasa where they have a chance to pass the examinations and become lamas.

It was with this type of opposition that missionaries had to deal. It was easy to declare to the people that the statues of the Buddhas and saints in the lamaseries were idols and that the lamas led men into superstition and to perdition with the bright fires of hell as the ultimate destination, but it was very difficult to prove that it was so. The type of missionary who went to the Tibetan borders to show the true light of salvation to the ignorant 'savages' was, with a few exceptions, a poor sort. They all claimed the 'call of the spirit', but had little education or knowledge with which to give it practical effect, and as often as not they were members of the less educated strata of European society. Not even knowing their own language well enough, they had great difficulty in learning Tibetan or local dialects, and it was seldom that they acquired enough fluency in the language to preach clearly and coherently. Perhaps unconsciously they did everything to maintain that superiority which was so resented on the border. They lived comfortably in European style and went forth only once in a while to distribute tracts and talk to the people. They invited to their meals the local elite, leaving the other people to gape at the gate. There was a widespread joke among the natives on the border that the missionaries reserved the first-class heaven to themselves and promised only the third-class paradise to the heathens. Theological contests between the lamas and missionaries tended only to enhance the prestige of the lamas with their greater knowledge of the theological and metaphysical aspects of both religions. Also it must be admitted the Tibetan Church was no more willing to permit the conversion of its adherents to Christianity than the Roman Catholic Church was willing to permit the Protestant missionaries in Spain and Colombia to seduce people from Catholicism. Any Tibetan who embraced Christianity became automatically an outcast, was driven away from his home and his very life was in jeopardy. The only possible Tibetan converts were the bastard children of Tibetan mothers and itinerant Chinese fathers whom nobody wanted and who could be picked up and reared in the missions.

With the Nakhi the matter of adherence to the Christian religion was somewhat different. They were in many ways similar to the Chinese who are not a religious people per se, in the Western sense of the word. The Chinese believe simultaneously and sincerely in Buddhism, Taoism, Ancestral Worship (Confucianism), Animism and willingly accept Christianity if need be. The Nakhi, likewise, had accepted Lamaism (Tantric Buddhism), Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism in addition to their ancient religion of Animism and Shamanism. To coin a phrase, they had a departmentalized belief, with each religion serving some particular need. Buddhism was useful in connection with the funerals and prayers for the repose of the dead. Taoism satisfied mystic and aesthetic cravings. Ancestor worship was proper and necessary to keep up the contact with the departed. Animism was the recognition and definition of the unseen powers and intelligences in Nature and provided a method of dealing with them. Shamanism was indispensable for the protection of the living and dead from the evil spirits. On top of these religious beliefs they had inherited from their ancestors a deep-rooted and eminently practical Epicurean philosophy. It taught them that this was, indeed, a transient plane of existence but nevertheless very material and substantial. It was not perfect or free from sorrows but, on the whole, it was not a bad place and, while life lasted, it was the bounden duty of every Nakhi to make the best of it. Although the tradition and scriptures asserted that the next world was a blissful and restful place, there were certain doubts about it, and there was little enlightenment about the conditions there from the few people who returned for a brief while through mediums. It was best not to take chances on future joys but to enjoy oneself to the hilt whilst on this plane. The happiness, which every Nakhi should strive after, was described as the possession of plenty of good fields and fruit orchards, cattle and horses, a spacious house, an attractive wife, lots of male and female children, barns chock full of grain, yak butter and other edibles, multitudes of jars with wine, abundant sexual strength and good health and a succession of picnics and dances with congenial companions on flower-strewn alpine meadows.

We must remember that the Nakhi were simple people and to them these rustic pleasures have always been the acme of existence. Looking at it from this angle, it must be admitted that the tribe, as a whole, has indeed attained the objectives charted in their philosophy. There was no area for hundreds of miles around which attained such prosperity and well-being as the Likiang valley or where the people enjoyed life more. What could the missionaries, of the sect which had established itself in Likiang, give these people? They insisted on the abandonment of all that was near and dear to the heart of a Nakhi; wine and tobacco were prohibited: so were the dances and dalliance with pretty girls during interminable picnics. All the seances and intercourse with the dear and helpful spirits were taboo. Ancestor worship was under interdict and so were all relations with the beautiful lamaseries and temples. 'What is left to us then?' the Nakhi asked. This is nothing but a living death, argued these fun-loving and life-loving people. Thus no Nakhi has become a Christian.

The complete book can be read in: http://pratyeka.org/books/forgotten_kingdom/

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