Research on Naxi Dongba culture


Research on Naxi Dongba culture.

One of the basics works about the Naxi in Chinese language is a compilation of articles with a broad thematic that includes all the aspects of the Dongba culture. The fifty articles included in this book were written by the leading specialists on the Dongba culture. We include a brief description of some the most interesting among them.

In “The Constitutions of Dongba Culture” Guo Dalie introduces the relationship between the Dongba and the Mu Kings genealogies, the evolution of Naxi old society as discovered in the Dongba script, their economic development, and the stages of their religious development. Different aspects of Naxi life described in Dongba manuscripts are considered by the author a probe of the evolutionary path of the Naxi society, from hunter gatherers to herders to agricultural settle life, in the writing systems from the drawings of pictographs to Geba syllabic writing, and in their religious life from simpler to complexes forms of cult.
In “Yan, Huang, Ancient Qiang and Dongba Culture of the Naxi”, He Zhiwu analyzes the main common points between the Ancient Qiang and Naxi cultures, specially language, history, funerary customs, tiger cults, etc., finding that there are many common points between the culture of the Naxi and that of other Tibeto Burman speaking peoples and the Old Chinese, calling all them “Sons of the Yellow and the Red Emperors.”

In “The character of Dongba religion” He Limin makes a debatable characterization of what is an “original religion” and he tries to probe that Dongba religion can not be considered a pure “original religion.”

In “Is Dongba religion a branch of Bon?” Liu Xiangxiao researches three of their main resemblances: their ancestral master, (Dingba Shiluo for the Naxi and Dongba Sherab for the Bon), their main deities and their priests. However the relationship that seems evident in the names of their ancestral masters, he shows that their character, birth and magical feats are different, and their names reflect their religious tittles, tittles that have been transmitted from the Bon to the Dongba. He considers that both religions are original religions, but their main deities are different. Though in both religions the God of Heaven is the most important deity, his character is different, as are different other main deities (the god of Sun and of War for the Bon and the Good of Sun and Moon (yang-yin) for the Dongba), and the abundance of goddess among the Bon that can not be compared with that of the Dongba. Only in the protector deities of the Dongbas see Mr. Liu a Bon influence. Their priests also show remarkable differences.  

In “Divination in Dongba Religion” Li Lincan stresses the importance of the divinatory practices for the Naxi that are need to know which spirit is causing a sickness. The white bat is credited to bring divinations techniques to human beings, after get them from heaven. 18 divinatory techniques are briefly described.

In “Baidi, the sacred place of the Naxi Dongba” Yang Zhenwen considers that there are three reasons that make Baidi the sacred place of the Dongba: its spectacular sceneries, with the Yangtze river, three high mountains and the Baishuitai terraces; the influence of the aboriginal populations and their art, and the border character of these lands, continuously contested by both Naxi and Tibetan rulers. He thinks that the splendor of the Dongba religion in Baidi reached its peak during the 17th century. The importance of the Baidi Dongba is established also considering the following facts: In Baidi there is a great number of Dongbas, every village have several of them; each family has his own Dongba to perform in marriages and funerals. In the first years of 20th century there were more than one hundred Dongbas in Baidi (for a Naxi population of about 6.000), and they possessed about 3.000 Dongba books; in Baidi can be found a great number of pictographs, painted in a simpler and purer way, read also in a different way than in other places. In Baidi are found many big Dongba priests, able to read and perform the main ceremonies, to write and paint their books, to model their figurines and dance their repertoire, to divine and expel spirits, and to make some spectacular feats as licking a hot iron or eating fire; they wear their whole set of ritual cloths and instruments, they celebrate more ceremonies, veneer more sacred places and revere nature, spirits and art in a major degree than in other places. All these reasons made Baidi the study and ritual center of the Naxi. A branch of the Naxi that call themselves Na-han, and Ruoge, whose language stand in the middle of Yongning and Lijiang dialects: Muli-Yongning-Ruoge-Baidi-Lijiang-Ludian.

In “A Brief Account of the Social Status of Dongba” Mu Lichun describes the Dongba religion as a religion without temples nor organization, attended by Dongba priests that, without giving up their productive activities, respond to the call of the common people and perform for them their religious ceremonies, but myth and historical records suggest that in the past the Dongba had a higher status in the society, leading the Naxi people along with their political and military leaders. Mu Lichun considers that the fall of the Dongba priests was part of the political movements of the Mu Kings to consolidate their dominion over the Naxi people. As holders of a hereditary powerful post in each of the Naxi villages, the Donga were stripped of all their power, becoming peasants among peasants and herders among herders. The Mu kings transformed Naxi myth and ritual to become the heirs of the post-flood first ancestor Congrenlien, and introduced changes in the sacrifice to Heaven, the most important Naxi ceremony. In the past the sacrifice was presided by two trees representing the heavenly father and mother, and in the center the heavenly uncle, the most important. The heavenly uncle later was changed by the emperor, whose sons were the Mu kings. In this way every year when the Naxi clans made their ceremonies to heaven they were worshipping also the Mu lineage kings.

In articles dealing with Dongba and Geba script, Wang Yuanlu stresses that the Dongba script can not be considered part of the Chinese scripts. His article introduces some Naxi myths that suggest an indigenous creation of their script, and a short comparative analysis of the Naxi script with other scripts that show a clear Chinese influence. In “The Character of Naxi Geba script” Li Jingsheng reproduces two tables that show the etymology of about 200 Geba characters. In half of then a marked Dongba influence can be shown, a tendency to simplification so evident that these Geba characters could be called simplified Dongba characters. In the other half the reader can distinguish Chinese influences. The influence of Tibetan religion on Dongba religion is studied by Xi Yuhua and Yang Yitian, that focus their research in four of the main words of both religions: Dingbashilo, the first Dongba, Dongba, sacred caves and the sacred mountain Junuruolou.

After three papers dealing with the sacrifice to heaven, in “Ggawbpo” ritual and its connotations and significance, He Fayuan describes a ceremony to honor the victorious ancestors that is preserved only in the remotest villages of the Naxi world. Usually performed in the third moon, with the clan as ritual unit, it has several steps: 1. Arrange a sacred altar with trees and stones, the place where the ancestors would be honored. While the people are building this simple structure they are narrating again their heroic feats and are thanked because the present prosperity of their descendants is considered their merit. 2. A pig is purified and sacrificed to them. 3. Water is sprinkled with an azalea branch while the ancestors are summoned to perform the purification. 4. A ritual to avoid disasters is read. 5. A battle performed as a celebration of their ancestors past battles, is danced. 6. Fortune is requested to the ancestors, while each family offers a new branch of a tree to them. 7. Ritual banquet. When everybody share the offerings and wine is drunk to honor the boys born after the last ceremony. 8. Ancestors are thanked again before the trees and stones and the altar’s components are removed.

A comparative analysis of the ancestor’s ceremony and the sacrifice to heaven shows so remarkable similarities that the author considers that Sacrifice to heaven is a worship ancestor’s ritual with some elements of nature cult included. The myth “To receive the migrants” chanted in both ceremonies could symbolize the moment when the leader of the Naxi nomad herders, Congrenlien, is received by the daughter of the local tribal headman, Cunhongbaobai (p. 224). Other Naxi myths that stress the nomad character of Congrenlien and the agricultural knowledge of Cunhongbaobai also point that this foundational myth of the Naxi could tell the history of the transformation of the Naxi forefathers, from their nomadic way of life to one of settled agriculturalists. The trees and stones in the ceremony reflect their former nature cults. 

In “Ssugv” ritual and its social function Li Jingsheng introduces the main myths that explore the relationship between human beings and the Shu nature spirits (some of them with interesting versions of the flood story) and the way these myths emphasize the need to keep the balance in the men use of natural resources, stressing that man and nature are brothers, that when the people harm the nature are harming to themselves, calling for a moderate use of the natural resources. His description of the Naxi annual ceremonies to worship Shu nature spirits show the compromise of the whole community to preserve this equilibrium; the myths and taboos regarding the relationship of men with nature are remembered, and the importance of this equilibrium to human beings survival are stressed.

In “Wood and stone worship in Dongba culture” He Baolin first introduces the basic symbolism of the stone and the wood. Relying in the myth that explain how the different objects and living beings got their longevity he thinks that the basic symbolism of stone is longevity, and that the big trees, growing and flourishing, are a model to the ideal development of the family. Studying the ritual grounds arranged for the most important Dongba ceremonies, he sees in the fences that encircle the realms of the human beings and the different kind of demons, the importance of the trees to establish boundaries. In the main myths of the Naxi stone and trees are markers of tribal territorial boundaries. As the area inside these boundaries is vital to the survival of the tribe, the boundaries acquire a sacred meaning becoming a symbol of the existence of the tribe. Later, heroes to whom the whole tribe is identified with are also symbolized by the stone and trees, as can be seen in the Sacrifice to Heaven ceremony, when the Celestial god Zhilao Apu and the post-flood ancestors Congrenlien and Cunhongbaobai are represented for a branch and a stone each.

In “On the worship of sex and reproduction in the Dongba religion” Yang Fuquan explains that the dualism of the Dongba culture is a symbol of the sexual interaction the masculine and feminine principles, considered necessary to the creation of the world and all its living creatures. This process of change by sexual intercourse is sometimes symbolized by the frog, and sometimes by the innumerable stars in heaven and herbs on the earth, as a wish of unending prosperity to the family or clan to whom a ceremony is performed. Stones and trees are potent sexual and reproductive symbols among the Naxi. White stones representing the male generative power can be found before the door of most of the Naxi houses, and before the images of their gods and ancestors, as a symbol of their power. Trees are worshipped in ceremonies related to the reproductive powers and the continuity of the family and lineages. It is interesting to note that the Naxi people worship male stones while the Moso worship female ones, a fact that reveals that the Dongba religion developed when the patriarchal society was already well established among the Naxi. In some Dongba ceremonies the desire of the people to increase their population, the main richness in their society, is shown. As they consider that the devils can block the generative powers of men and women, the request to unblock them is frequently found in their main manuscripts.

In “Two perspectives on the origin of the Naxi people: The genealogical records of the Mu Kings and the Dongba “T’sombert’u” He Baolin shows that the opening lines of the genealogical narrative are heavily influenced by the cosmogony of the Dongba myth. Both them reflect an interesting relationship between the first human beings and their animals brothers. 

In “Study of the Naxi conception of Black and White in Dongba Scripture” Yang Fuguan shows that in the most important Naxi myths “white” is symbol of good and “black” symbolizes evil. In the ritual grounds, dresses and instruments of the Dongba the white symbolizes sacredness and auspiciousness while the black represents all the bad things. So the white colour is usually found in the ritual clothes of the Dongba, and in the stones and tress that demarcate the sacred grounds. White is also the sacred colour to the Qiang people, to whom the ancestors of the Naxi are related, and to the Tibetan peoples living in Sichuan, especially to the Baima Tibetan that follow the Bon religion. White is sacred to this religion that heavily influenced Naxi Dongba religion. Many nomad herders worship also the white colour. Mr Yang considers that the cult to the white is related to be the symbol of the light and clarity, of this sun that gives light and heat to the human beings, the black colour is a symbolism of the darkness of the night, when unknown dangers lurk.

Bai Gengshen in “What is symbolized by the “Battle between Black and White” informs the reader of the many differences that can be found in the main five translations of this myth, and he warns that any attempt to extract some conclusions regarding Naxi old culture interpreting this myth must be aware of these great variations. Among the common points shared by all the versions of the myth are the dichotomy between black and white, the enmity between them, the war fought and the resulting victory of the white. In this myth, and others Naxi myths, the white is usually associated with the light and clarity, and the black with the evil and darkness. But Mr Bai sees in this narrative a contradiction, as in the Naxi language, black=na, means not only “black”, but also, big, noble, vast. Amng the Yi, Nu and old Qiang peoples the black was also the most loved colour. He thinks that black was the favorite colour of the ancient Naxi, but that due to the influence of the Tibetan Bon religion, that was influenced by the Buddhist cult to the white, the white began to get preeminence and later became the most auspicious colour to the Naxi. The war between black and white symbolizes the change of the Naxi people from a life style based in the nomadic herding to one of settled agriculture, in can reflect also a Chinese influence and its theory of the five elements, and signal the end of their migrations from the north (black), to the western (white) part of the Chinese empire.

In “The religious thought as seen in “The Battle between Black and White” Zhao Lu explores the different religious influences than can be seen in the narrative of this myth, finding that most of their ideas are influenced by the Tibetan Buddhism and the Daoism that arrived from Han China. Embodied in this Daoism can be Manichean influences, whose fight between light and darkness shows a great similarity with the thematic of this myth. The supernatural victory of the white, possible only with the help of powerful deities, over the black, whose defense is based in the power of animals, and the final remarks of the narration make the writer suggest that the main theme of this myth is the victory of the white school of the Tibetan Buddhism over the black nature cults of the primitive Naxi Dongba.

In “A study of Naxi manuscript “The origin of Sseiq Mei Dance” Xuan Ke introduces the real meaning of a dance also known as Remeicuo or Worere as an instrument to expel the evil spirits during the Naxi funerals. Xuan Ke thinks that this is a very ancient dance that reflects the panic of the human beings, a feeling common to early stages of human development, and their search for a secure environment.
Guo Dalie and Yang Shiguang. Research on Naxi Dongba Culture (Dongba wenhua lun). Yunnan Peoples Press. Kunming, 1991

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