A History and Anthropological Study of the Ancient Kingdoms of the Sino-Tibetan Borderland - Naxi and Mosuo


Mathieu, Christine.- A History and Anthropological Study of the Ancient Kingdoms of the Sino-Tibetan Borderland - Naxi and Mosuo. Edwin Mellen Press. 2003

Though there is now more than one hundred years that the western people have been fascinated by the Naxi culture, few books have provided to the western reader an overall picture of the Naxi life and culture. This book not being aimed to fill this gap, as its own title remembers, the anthropological studies included in it, however, provide one of the most comprehensive descriptions of the Naxi history, religion, pictographic writing, wedding and family life.

In the first chapter Mathieu describes the most important researches by foreign and Chinese anthropologists about the Naxi, their historical identification with the Moso, and make a case of the consideration of the Moso as a specific ethnic entity.

The second chapter introduces the three chronicles and two genealogies known of Mu family; the rulers of the Naxi people during more than 300 tears. Mathieu points the differences between the chronicles. After a painstaking analysis of the time when they where written, the author, and the information contained in imperial histories as the Yuan Shi, Mattheu suggests that the chronicles mix the historic time and the mythic time in the construction of the heroic history of the Mu family; that some inconsistencies are due to their desire to blur the succession from the Ye clan, original Naxi rulers of Lijiang, and the Mu clan, historic rulers, as this succession was on the matriline. Other inconsistencies surge from the attempts of the writers to make disappear all tracks of matrilineal succession from the genealogies, to fit the Confucian ideal and to diminish the importance of their links to the Mongol rulers, archenemies of these Ming emperors in which time the chronicles were written.

In the third chapter Mathieu researches on the history of the Bon religion among the Naxi. As usual she departs from the conventional theories, and taking materials from both Chinese and Tibetan royal and ritual traditions, as well as some of the minorities living around the Naxi she reaches important conclusions. The origin of the Mu family is connected with similar names (and the symbolism of the tree that communicates earth with heaven). The Dongbas, so poorly organized in twenty century chronicles, where in the past the royal cult of the Mu Kings that considered Dingba Shilo their own connection to Heaven. The Dongba religion, though indigenous in its origin, is full of Bon concepts. The Bon are decisive in the transformation of the Dongbas, and live inside their tradition. The liberation of the Dongbas from their palatial duties after 1723 caused their fast growing in rituals and ceremonies performed for the common people.

In the fourth chapter, dealing with the Dongba and Geba scripts, Mathieu sums up the most important theories regarding the origin of Naxi scripts, but she finds that all them have many faults. Without evidences to ascertain a fixed date, she suggests that the presence of Mongol concepts in Dongba writing must point to a time when Mongol influences were patent; the fact that the Dongba books are found only in the political domain of Lijiang, points to its origin at a time when Lijiang and Yongning were ruled as different political entities, that is, in the first years of the 14th century.

As for the Geba script, she thinks it shares origin with the Yi's scripts and can be dated to the times of Nanzhao Kingdom, antedating so the Dongba script.

In the fifth chapter Mathieu links the origin of Dongba pictograms to the rock art discovered by He Limin in recent years, in the periphery of Lijiang. She remembers the reader that "Mu conquered by force and ruled by ritual" and explores the contradiction of Baidi being the origin place of the Dongba traditions, and at the same time the place where the fiercest opposition to the Mu rulers took place.

She proposes that the original inhabitants of these lands were Lisu, and that the Dongba ritual, with the aim of paying the original spirits of the land, the Naga or leesi, evolved from the magic which was embedded in the rock art, and became a ritual tool to incorporate the wild domains of the periphery on the civilized sphere of the Mu kings.

In the sixth chapter the suicide among the Naxi is studied. Mathieu begins framing the sexual and matrimonial customs of the Naxi from Lijiang in the sexual and wedding moors of other Tibetan Burman peoples related to them, showing in the Labei Moso and Fengke Naxi a field to make some interesting reflections.

The function of the suicide as a way to enforce the social rules and the fact, usually not stressed, that the people which failed in their suicide attempt would be killed by their our parents, shows that is a way to enforce the patrilineal cross-cousin marriage among the Naxi without an important relation with Chinese influence, as Jackson and Emily Chao suggest.

The seventh deals with the theory that the Naxi can have been organized into a four-section system based on two moities of patrilineal descent. This argument is supported by the Mu chiefs' genealogies. The Sacrifice to Heaven, in this context, will be related to the incorporation of the Naxi to the Chinese realm, with whom rituals share strong similarities, and their territory to Chinese territory.

Deepening her study of the love suicide among the Naxi Mathieu finds it a rather old custom that is more related with the establishment of the feudal order than to the Confucian ethics. First she shows that among peoples living around the Naxi marriage politics are a common cause of tribal warfare; the establishment of patrilineal cross-cousin marriage, with the continuous wedding among the same families, is seem less dangerous, less prone to warfare and a factor of stability to the Mu kings' rule. Being the suicide part of this system, the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants during the Ming dynasty converted this marriage form in a way of slowly assimilate the Han population, that thus would become Naxi. After 1723 and the increase of the Han migration, the Naxi hardened their rules, and the suicides increased also, as a way of keep the Naxi girls for the Naxi boys.

About the origin of the Naxi and The Moso Mathieu rejects all the theories that try to track a kind of continuity from ethnic groups not clearly defined 2.000 years ago to the national minorities of the present; she considers that "they are descended from various peoples that settled in northern Yunnan at different periods and under different circumstances." She stresses also the importance of the Pumi, as original inhabitants, and shows a long and protruded conflict between the Pu or Pumi aligned with Nanzhao Kingdom and the Mu or Mo, more in the Tibetan sphere. The Pumi or peoples related with them must have had an important role in the Mongol conquest, providing princesses that can make the origin of the Naxi and Moso ruling families, and as representatives of the order established by the Mongols after their conquests, in whose troops they were found. The relationship between the Moso and the legendary or historical Nuguo or Kingdom of Women of the Tang and Sui times is also developed.

Not being a book easy to read, provides the reader however with a carefully built frame where the most important characteristics of the Naxi culture are well fitted.

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