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The Naxi of Southwest China

"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."

The Naxi ethnic minority has a population of about 280,000. Most of them live in the northwest of Yunnan Province, in Yulong Naxi Autonomous County and Lijiang Old City. They inhabit mainly but not exclusively the lowlands and the valleys among the mountain ridges.

The Naxi territory can be defined by the continuous presence of the Yangtze River, which open its way cutting trough impressing mountain ranges, of which the Jade Dragon Mountain is the most outstanding. Climate experiences seasonal variations with differences that reflect altitude and geographical conditions; it varies from cold and temperate in the highlands to subtropical in the river valleys. Rainfall is plentiful in July and August. The mountains and forests around Lijiang have been a natural reserve for many animal species. Tigers, leopards, bears, wild boars, as well as local varieties of deer and goats, roamed freely on these mountains until the middle of the 20th century.

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.The political, economical and cultural center of the Naxi is Lijiang. An old city lying under the shadow of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, located approximately in the center of the biggest plains inhabited by them.  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: 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: In this area the Naxi culture experienced almost imperceptible changes that gradually transformed some of their main characteristics, with language, writing, customs and ceremonies clearly differentiated. They show differences in language, marriage and funerary rituals.

4. The northern territories: Fengke, Baoshan are characterized as strongholds of traditional Naxi culture. There, a mountain terrain not suitable for wet rice agriculture and difficult communications were an insurmountable barrier to Chinese influence. In the mountain villages Naxi traditional culture, rituals and customs have many local features, with production, ritual cycle, and main ceremonies with a unique flavour.

5. Isolated communities of Eya. During hundreds of years Eya’s Naxi have been completely isolated from the mainstream of their culture, preserving customs and traditions already disappeared elsewhere. Eya’s Naxi culture is unique in its main features: houses, dress and social relations, are quite original.

The Naxi language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family, Tibeto-Burman branch, but it is 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 Moso minority and related peoples.

Pedro Ceinos Arcones.

This information have been extracted from my book "Sons of Heaven, Brothers of Nature: The Naxi of Southwest China", available as ebook for Kindle in www. amazon.com. And as a printed book in www.lulu,com


Dongba priests in a ceremony
naxi headdress
Headdress of the Naxi women in Baishuitai

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