Naxi Ethnic Minority

Written by Matteo Updated Jun. 18, 2021

By far the largest grouping of Nakhi, or Naxi (pronounced Na-shi regardless of the spelling), an ethnic minority currently numbering roughly 300,000 individuals, live in Yunnan Province in southern China near the Tibetan and Burmese borders. The largest single concentration of Naxi people in Yunnan Province lives in Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County, while smaller enclaves of Naxi live scattered about in other counties of Yunnan Province such as Deqin, Heqing, Jianchuan, Lanping, Ninglang, Weixi, Yongsheng, and Zhongdian Counties. In neighboring Sichuan Province, Naxi enclaves can be found in Muli, Yanbia, and Yanyuan Counties.  Lastly, a small Naxi enclave is located inside the Tibet Autonomous Region, in Mangkang County.

A Short Historical Introduction to the Naxi Minority in China

The Naxi people are an ancient Chinese Ethnic Minority, and represent a sizeable ethnic minority in today's China. The forefathers of the Naxi were a nomadic clan of Qiang people from the northern part of China. During the Later Jin (CE 936-947) Dynasty of the Five Dynasties (CE 907-960) period, the Qiang people began to migrate southward to the upper reaches of the Min Jiang River, a tributary that feeds into the Yangtze River at Yibin, in Sichuan Province. Later the Naxi migrated farther southward and westward to the Yalong Jiang River, another tributary – the largest, in fact – to the mighty Yangtze River, where it feeds into the Yangtze River on the southern reaches of what is called the Tibetan Plateau on the border between Sichaun and Yunnan Provinces. The nomadic Naxi then migrated farther eastward to the Jinsha Jiang River in neighboring Guizhou Province.

During the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, the Naxi migrated to the Lijiang area in Yunnan Province just west of the Yangtze River. The area had been ruled from CE 680-703 by Tibetan chieftains who, from 703-750, recognized the suzerainty of the indigenous Nanzhao, but who thereafter retook the area from the Nanzhao and ruled it themselves until 794. In that year, the Tibetans definitively lost the area to the Chinese, when the Nanzhao aided the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty to overthrow the Tibetans. However, though the Tang Dynasty elsewhere in China was keen to reduce the influence of feudalism, it tolerated feudalism in the Nanzhao kingdoms. This practice continued on through the Ming (CE 1368-1644) to the Qing  (CE 1616-1911) Dynasties, with a strong feudal system in place in the Nanzhao kingdoms, which also included the Naxi peoples in the area, who thus had their own hereditary headmen.

Ethnic Identity

According to historical documents, the forefathers of the Naxi people were closely related to a tribe called "Maoniu Yi" in the Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty, also referred to as the "Mosha Yi" during the Jin (CE 265-420) Dynasty and the "Moxie Yi" durin the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty. But the designations they used to describe themselves as an ethnic group depended on the region in which they lived, i.e., to which enclave they belonged. The term used might be "Na", "Naxi", or "Mosuo", depending on this geographical distinction, though there is some debate over whether the people calling themselves Mosuo are indeed Naxi, or perhaps belong to a different nomadic tribe originating in Tibet (the Mosuo, in contrast to the other Naxi, form a matriarchal society).

Language and Alphabet

The Naxi language belongs to the Chinese-Tibetan language family, though it is more properly described as being Tibeto-Burman in its structure. Naxi consists of eastern and western dialects. The eastern dialects are influenced especially by the language of the Naxi people who live on the boundary between Yunnan Province and Sichuan Province, while the western dialect mainly refers to that spoken by the Naxi people of Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County, Yunnan Province. The Naxi language of the western dialects, especially of the Lijiang dialect of Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County, is much more standardized (uniform throughout the area) than the language(s) of the eastern dialects, as the latter are more local and thus less uniform languages.

The Naxi language has some 40-odd consonants, not all of which are voiced, and some 20-odd vowels. As indicated, consonants may either be voiced (the large majority are), or voiceless. Vowels include diphthongs and monophthongs and can be divided into 4 different tone groupings, making Naxi not only a pictographic language but also a language with a high degree of emphasis on its spoken component.

The Naxi ethnic minority embraced mainstream Chinese (Han) characters as its main script form during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, but some users of the older hieroglyphic script, Dongba, still exists, as well as the Geba script, which is the syllabic component of Naxi used to transcribe mantras and to annotate Dongba pictographs.

Hieroglyph is an old pictographic character, namely, serjelvje in Naxi language, meaning "wooden script and stone script". It is used by Dongba shamans, or priests, to record religious classics, and it is used in a secular capacity by some to keep records such as important social events, while still others use it to write personal letters.

Naxi pictographs number about 1000 characters that are also highly praised for their calligraphic and artistic value. They consist of phonetic loan characters to indicate sound as well as other characters that indicate meaning. In Naxi's pictographic language, there are more pictographic characters in contrast to phonetic loan characters and often a pictographic character permits a variety of sounds/ meanings, and, as well, a few pictographs can convey the content of an entire phrase or a senctence, making it a very compact language.

However since a single Naxi pictographic character has different sounds and meanings (different interpretations) from person to person, depending on the local dialect, it is difficult to record all of the language exactly. And so, a pictograph is a kind of transitional character from an original symbol to an ideography, an otherwise missing link, were it to be lost, between strictly spoken language and written language. Fortunately, the classical work, Dongba Jing, and other precious works written in the Naxi language (they consist of more than 2,000 volumes, spanning several genres), have been preserved for posterity.

In the history of extant ancient "alphabetic" characters, the pictograph is first on the list in the world, and is highly praised as the only surviving pictographic character in the world. It serves as an important link – a living fossil, as it were – in the origin and development of human language.

The Geba language is a kind of hybrid syllabic Naxi language created and used by certain later Dongba generations. It unites simplified pictographs with a large number of Han Chinese characters. The Geba language borrowed not only writing conventions of Han characters but also in many cases adopted their Han Chinese meanings where these did not previously exist in Naxi. However, the Geba language can only be found in a few villages in Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County, and even then only a limited number of individuals master this language well enough to write it and speak it.


Naxi dress and adornments are usually made of leather from cattle and sheep. In the "Welcome to God Dongge" of the classical Dongba Scriptures can be found the following lines: "The snake of the universe gave birth to a brother and a sister. They formed ties of mutual affection and married. They tended white sheep, making sheepskin into clothing, capes, hats and belts. From then on, the sheepskin cape became the insignia of Naxi dress and adornment."

The sheepskin cape is called a "You'er" in Naxi. It is made of pure black sheepskin which is prepared by washing it in a simple, yet effective detergent consisting of rice flour (this detergent derives its effectiveness from the fact that it works on the basis of enzymes), then drying it over Glauber's salt. The cape is then cut to measure and sewn, using black down or Pulu ("You'er Tong") to represent the sheep's neck, seven patches of colorful velvet embroidery as eyes, and seven bars of sheepskin leather as beard. The cape is finished off with long white straps on either side at the top, whose purpose is to secure the cape in a modified, reverse-suspenders, or back-to-front suspenders, fashion: each strap is brought forward over the nearest shoulder, the two straps meeting in front in an overhand knot at midpoint, where chest meets abdomen, with the loose ends of the straps continuing on downwards and around the waist, to be tied in back. The visual effect is to form an "X" of the white straps in front of the body.

The male costume is similar to the Han Chinese gown, replete with Mandarin-style jacket with buttons. However, the female costume has its own unique features. It consists of a long, unlined gown and a colorful, embroidered cape. The gown is slightly longer in back, reaching the calf of the leg, while it reaches the knee in the front. Underneath this gown, Naxi women wear trousers, and on their feet they wear the traditional boat-shaped shoes. A Naxi woman's dress is traditionally in one of three main colors – blue, white or black – and is trimmed with lace about the collar and on the sleeves. Married women wear their hair in a bun under a black gauze cap while unmarried women do up their hair in back, covering it with a scarf or with a black velvet skullcap.

What makes a Naxi woman's dress most distinctive is of course the special cape on her back. This cape is made of black sheepskin and has seven round designs embroidered on it. These seven round designs represent the stars. Hence it is named the "Seven-Star Sheepskin Cape". The cape consists of two main colors: white and black. The color white symbolizes the sky while black represents the earth. Together, the sky, earth and stars that are sewn onto the Naxi woman's cape thus symbolize the hard labor of the Naxi woman. According to legend, there once lived a beautiful, capable and hard-working girl named Yinggu who fought against the drought devil for nine days and finally perished of exhaustion. The supreme god Sanduo sent his Snow Spirit Dragon to conquer the drought devil and to pinch the seven cold suns, which were forever after swallowed by the drought devil, into seven stars and inlay them in Yinggu's sun cape. From then on, Naxi girls have followed this inherited tradition.

An alternative legend regarding the origin of the seven round designs on the Naxi cape belongs to the historical worship of the frog totem.  According to this legend, the Naxi admire the frog as the god of intelligence who can help people out of danger, and therefore the seven round designs on the Naxi cape depict frog eyes.

For everyday use, Naxi women wear wide-sleeved loose gowns topped with a jacket – usually with a piece of sheepskin slung over the shoulder – over long trousers tied with a richly decorated belt at the waist. However, Naxi women in Ninglang County wear short jackets over very long skirts that reach the ground with several folds. They also wear large black cotton turbans and adorn themselves with large silver earrings that contrast sharply with the black turbans. The costume of the Naxi men of Ninglang County, like the male Naxi costume elsewhere, is inspired by that of the Chinese.

Today, traditional Naxi dress is rarely worn among the younger generation, since most of them prefer to wear mainstream Chinese dress, itself greatly influenced by the world at large. Traditional Naxi dress is now usually only worn at cultural events and on other special occasions.


Mainstay Naxi Dishes

The Naxi, like most people in even moderately developed countries today, enjoy "three square meals" per day. The main evening dish consists of rice, corn, potatoes and pork – and of course Baba, a kind of tasty and fragrant cake, is served. For breakfast, the Naxi usually have steamed bread and boiled cake. Lunch generally consists of two courses of fried dishes, salted vegetables and soup. Naxi people tend to be excellent cooks. Among the foreign kitchen utensils adopted by the Naxi people, one of the special favorites is the chafing dish, which was introduced to the Naxi via the Hui Ethnic Minority .

The Naxi typically prepare their dishes using both local ingredients and "outside" specialty ingredients. Popular fancier dishes include steamed duck with Chinese caterpillar fungus (cordyceps sinensis)*, chicken with the bulb of fritillary, a native plant whose stems bear a resemblance to the white lily, and chicken with the tuber of elevated gastrodia, a type of orchid. Whether living on the flatlands or in mountainous districts, the Naxi people have ample access to a variety of vegetables, including potatoes, turnips and beans, throughout the seasons. Of all the renowned traditional Naxi dishes, mushrooms with meat stuffing, usually served in connection with a sacrificial ceremony, is the most popular. The Naxi are also fond of buttered tea in the mornings, and a green tea after other meals. In general, spicy and tangy foods, as well as sweet foods, are Naxi favorites.


Baba – any way you care to make it – is THE local Naxi snack. Baba is a fragrant, flour cake that will make your mouth water. Here are the main ways Baba is served:

Stewed Baba
The flour cakes are simmered in the proper amount of water in a big covered pot over a slow fire until they appear golden and begin to release their irresistable fragrance.

Roasted Baba
Place the half-cooked (in water ) cake on a smooth, heated cobblestone at the edge of a fire and let it roast there until it becomes puffy and soft. It is delicious like this with thick chilli sauce.

Pot-Lid Baba
Place a wedge of cooked (in water) cake on the lid of a large pot while melons – or potatoes – are being cooked. When the melons, or potatoes, are ready, so is the Baba! The Baba reheated this way is very soft.

Special Feast Dishes

Sandieshui is a banquet held in honor of distinguished guests and consists of up to 40 odd dishes, though the dishes may vary with the seasonal offerings (usually local specialties are the mainstay, and some of these of course change with the seasons). "Mountain food", however, is a must for the Snowy Mountain Feast. For example, pipa meat, a dish made of salted pork that is pipe-shaped (i.e., roughly lute-, pear-, or chicken-drumstick shaped), is delicious, while multi-layered roast bread is fragrantly delicious.

Social Customs and Taboos

Social customs, or peculiarities, are an important part of Naxi culture and a symbol and source of ethnic pride. They form the backdrop for daily life, including the workplace, as well as for Naxi religious life, enriching both.

Naxi Housing-Construction Customs

Erecting A New House

In Ninglang, in Zhongdian, in Lijiang and in various other places, one or more central beams are erected early on in the construction of a home. In Zhongdian, only one beam is needed, but it must be thick and straight. When the tree that will form the beam is cut down, care must be taken that the tree's top point to the east as the tree falls. Moreover, the branches and leaves of the "beam" tree must be burned as prayers are said, such as prayers invoking good luck for the family and its livestock. In Ninglang, Mosuo folk traditionally erect two beams immediately after the supporting walls are built, the beam on the left representing the male and the beam on the right representing the female. Where two beams are used in this manner, both must be cut from the same tree, since in Naxi mythology, the male and the female originate from the same source.

Blessing A New House

The Mosuo, classified by Chinese state authorities as a subgroup of the Naxi ethnic minority in China, live near the shores of Lugu Lake. When Mosuo people move into a newly erected house, they usually hold a fire ceremony to bless the new house, so as to bring good luck to the house's future occupants.

Coming-Of-Age Social Customs

The 'Putting on Skirts' Ceremony

The 'Putting on Skirts' ceremony is a Naxi coming-of-age ceremony for girls. When a girl reaches the age of 13 she usually attends this special ceremony intended to signal the transition to adulthood. Mothers hold the ceremony, which takes place on New Year's Day. The evening before, New Year's Eve, the girls who will be participating in the ceremony get together to sing and dance and drink wine and tea, as a means to congratulate each other on having arrived at this stage in their lives. Early on the morning of New Year's Day itself, each mother will help her daughter to get into her beautiful new dress and put on the accompanying jewelry.

Once dressed for the ceremony, the girl joins the rest of the family and guests, where she sings the adult ceremony song in antiphonal style together with the senior member of the family, through which the girl shows gratitude and respect for the family's sacrifices in rearing her, and through which she recognizes the memory of her happy childhood, while the senior congratulates the young adult-in-the-making on her health, her beauty and her capabilities. Finally, all guests present gifts to the girl. Having completed the ceremony, the young adult-in-the-making is thereafter welcome to participate in adult activities, and to choose and meet with a boyfriend.

The 'Putting on Trousers' Ceremony

The 'Putting on Trousers' ceremony is a corresponding Naxi coming-of-age ceremony for boys. Like the 'Putting on Skirts' ceremony, the boys' ceremony takes place early on the morning of New Year's Day. The ceremony itself, i.e., once the adult-in-the-making has been kitted out in his official dress, is officiated by the boy's uncle, or by a man blessed and appointed by a shaman for the occasion. During the ceremony, the boy stands at the "Male Rank", which conveys symbolic adulthood value: the boy plants one foot on a slab of pork meat and one foot on a rice bag while in his left hand he holds money and in his right hand, a knife – altogether, the symbols of a rich and powerful life.

The uncle, or the shaman-appointed substitute, removes the boy's long gown and dresses him in a short gown with trousers, boots, a hat and a cape. After that the boy kowtows before the guests while serving them wine and expressing thanks for the gifts they have brought him. Finally, a shaman chants scriptures and serves sacrifices to the ancestor and to the kitchen god. Following the completion of the ceremony, the young adult-in-the-making male, like his female counterpart, is thereafter allowed to attend all adult activities and to choose and meet with a sweetheart.

Some local variations on the adult ceremony is practiced by local enclaves of Naxi. For example, the Naxi people of Qiangsuo district in Sichuan Province require that the young adult-in-the-making male walk across the roof with a spear in his hand in order to demonstrate his fearlessness.

The Wedding Ceremony

In Naxi culture, young people usually get acquainted with each other on public occasions such as festivals. After an initial acquaintance, the two will ask a third party to act as a go-between, or matchmaker. Then both families will consult the horoscope of the young couple. If the horoscope bodes well, the boy's family will ask of the matchmaker that 2 tubes of tea, 4-6 boxes of sugar (in some place 2 pieces of salt are added to show a solemn pledge of love, suggesting perhaps that the suitor is prepared to accept the less-sweet with the sweet), and 2 liters of rice be delivered to the girl's family as an engagement gift.

During the wedding ceremony, a shaman recites scriptures for the happiness and prosperity of the new couple, and he draws 4 pictures as a special gift to the bridegroom. The pictures are of tiger, a conch, a vase and a bronze basin. The picture of the tiger depicts a tiger's body with a human's head. This picture is identical to that seen on the tiger totem in ancient Naxi culture.

On the occasion of an engagement, a banquet is a must, and when the wedding itself takes place, it lasts 3 to 5 days. The participants will include members of the extended family on both sides, as well as invited guests. At the wedding ceremony, when the bride asks those present to take their seat for the meal, a kowtow of humility must be made by the couple. After this has been received by those assembled, music will begin as the dishes are served. At the commencement of the third course of the meal, the person who presides over the wedding ceremony proposes a toast to those assembled, and at the fifth course, the bride and bridegroom drink a double toast to those assembled.

After the feast, the couple and their extended families gather outside to say good-bye as the guests depart.

The Agricultural Ceremony

In the seasons of spring and autumn, Naxi people hold a special ceremony to offer a sacrifice to the god of the 5 cereals (rice, 2 kinds of millet, wheat and beans) and the 6 domestic animals (the pig, ox, goat, horse, fowl and the dog). They invite a Dongba shaman to fix a propitious date for the ceremony. Usually all the families in a village or the families who pasture on the same grazing land hold a public memorial ceremony together. They participate in the ceremony by jointly buying a pig and a chicken as sacrificial animals. Sometimes this ceremony is also held on an individual, or family, basis.

Before the ceremony, all the participating families drive their domestic animals to the mountains. After that the villagers build a stage with stone and earth. They strew pine needles – or spread out a Dongba shaman cloak – on the stage, then scatter the 5 cereals as well as some wine and meat on the prepared stage. They place 3 sacred stones beside the stage, then plant branches of pine, cypress and chestnut tree beside the sacred stones. After that the pig and the chicken are slaughtered, and their blood is sprinkled on the sacred stones, while the 5 internal organs of the animals, i.e., the heart, liver, spleen, lungs and the kidneys, are cut off to hang on the branches. Meanwhile the Dongba shaman recites "The Five Cereals and the Six Domestic Animals God Scriptures" and performs various other rites as he offers a sacrifice to the ancestors and to the god of the 5 cereals and the 6 domestic animals, praying for the prosperity of the livestock and that the land might yield good harvests and its people enjoy good health.

Strictures & Taboos

1. It is a must to wash one's feet in preparation for the Spring Festival Eve. It is forbidden to wash chopsticks or bowls after the feast of the Spring Festival Eve, because the left-overs in the dishes symbolize that there will always be an abundance of food in the family. On the first day of a lunar new year neither foreigners nor unknown persons are permitted to enter a Naxi home.

2. A married woman is forbidden to stay at her parents' home on the Spring Festival Eve, and women are not allowed to get up earlier than men on the first morning of a lunar new year.

3. It is forbidden to bestride the white stone in front of the entrance door to a Naxi home, and to sit on the left seat of the Chinese fireplace.

4. It is forbidden to wear a bamboo hat into a Naxi home or to shoulder a hoe into the kitchen.

5. It is forbidden to carry a torch into the living room at night.

6. On the occasion of a cremation, or of placing the deceased into the coffin, the unbeatable rival of the dead is forbidden to be present. A person wearing mourning apparel is forbidden access to the homes of neighbors.

7. Whistling at home is forbidden because it may attract devils.

8. A pregnant woman is forbidden to climb a tree with fruits on it, or to climb a rope or to eat meat without blood.

9. It is forbidden to pollute headwaters or to cut down the forest, or to turn away any animals that enters the house without serving them milk or butter. It is also forbidden to hurt bees flying near your ear.

10. It is forbidden to serve guests rice or boiled water with the back of one's hand. It is forbidden to send used clothes to others, or to drink liquor used by others.

11. It is forbidden to beat the host's dog, or to enter the senior's room, the women's room, or a girl's room when you visit a Naxi home.

12. It is forbidden to beat bowls or chopsticks, or handle food continuously.

13. It's forbidden to sit on the threshold of a thing, or to chop things on it.

14. It's forbidden to kill farm cattle, pack horses or a cock heralding the break of day.

15. It's forbidden to eat dog meat.

Traditional Festivals

Beiyue Temple Fair

The Beiyue Temple Fair is also called the Sanduo Festival and is observed each year on February 8th of the lunar calendar. This date originated with the first Beiyue Temple Fair. The Naxi people regard the god Sanduo as their supreme, or protector, god. To honor Sanduo, the local people built a temple on Jade Dragon Mountain in honor of him. Additionally, since, according to Dongba mythology, Sanduo was born in the year of the goat, the Naxi sacrifice a goat to Sanduo on every goat year, which occurs once every 12 years.

March Fair

This is an annual event held on the 15th of March of the lunar calendar, and which lasts about 3 to 5 days. It is not only a festival to offer sacrifices to the King Dragon, but also an occasion for all minorities to exchange gifts.

Mule and Horse Fair, July

The Naxi people have long had a tradition of raising fine horses. Their caravans have remained prosperous over hundreds of years, reaching Dali, Kunming and even Lhasa. During the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, the feudal headman from Lijiang, Mude, was even permitted to pay his annual tribute to the emperor in the form of Lijiang horses instead of currency. Since then, Lijiang horse have become well known. With the development of the modern trade economy, Lijiang horses have become a brand name, and therefore an annual horse and mule fair has been formed.

Now, not only do the Naxi people participate in this annual Mule and Horse Fair in Lijiang, but neighboring peoples from the Lisu, the Pumi, the Han, the Bai, the Tibetan, and the Yi nationalities come to the Mule and Horse Fair to buy, sell – and just see – horses and mules. With the development of China's economic reform and its open trade policy, many other activities add to the content of the Mule and Horse Fair in Lijiang. For example, there are national sports games, national style song-and-dance performances, painting and calligraphy exhibitions, Lijiang ancient music performances, and so on. All these initiatives promote the development of the local economy and its culture while enriching the content of the festival.

Holy Mountain Festival

This festival is the grandest of the grandest for the Naxi people living in Yongnin Prefecture.** On the eastern shore of Lugu Lake in Yongnin Prefecture lies Lion Mountain, also called Gemu Mountian by the local Naxi, since legend has it that this mountain is the physical transformation in this world of the Dongba mythological goddess Gemu.

The goddess Gemu, according to Dongba mythology, ensures happiness for her people, providing them with cattle and livestock in abundance, and with a cornucopia of crops to harvest. Accordingly, on the 15th of July each year, the Naxi gather at the foot of Gemu Mountain to worship the goddess. They dress up, then gather together at the foot of the mountain to burn incense and offer meat, wine and fruit as a sacrifice to the goddess. On this occasion a kowtow to the goddess is required, and the Lama chants scriptures. Afterwards, ritual components follow such as singing in antiphonal style, dancing, horse racing, bow-&-arrow shooting – and even swinging, as it is held to make people happy.

The Torch Festival & Other Sacrificial Ceremonies

Like the Yi and the Bai nationalities, the Naxi national Ethnic Minority ity holds a Torch Festival on the 15th of June of each lunar year. Tradition has it that god was jealous of the happiness in man's world, which seemed to be better even than that in heaven, so god sent the prince of fire to burn down man's world. But the prince of fire betrayed god and arranged for the people to light torches in front of their houses, thus faking the fire he was sent to light. When god discovered this duplicity, he had the prince of fire beheaded. In commemoration of the sacrifice of the prince of fire, Naxi families light a torch in front of their houses on the 15th of June every lunar year.

There are other sacrificial ceremonies in the Naxi ceremonial calendar, among these the "Naxi Offer Sacrifice to Tianda" ceremony is the grandest. This ceremony often happens sometime during the first 10-day period of the month, or sometimes up to the midpoint of the month. When the time for the ceremony arrives, people select an ideal place to hold it, and the local Dongba shaman acts as the host. On the day of the ceremony, a pig – fattened in turns by the families of the village (every family donates wheat to make wine as bait to lure the pig to the home of the next family) – is slaughtered as a sacrifice. After the religious ceremony, a kind of pig blood sausage is made, and the pig's head and internal organs will be cooked for the villagers to share.

The Beiyue Temple Fair, or Sanduo Festival (also known more pictorially as the "Offering Sacrifice to Sanduo" ceremony), described above is of course a sacrificial ceremony. Many Naxi people of the Lijiang area who do not participate directly in the Sanduo Festival often participate indirectly by attending outdoor picnics in honor of the "Offering Sacrifice to Sanduo" ceremony.

Dongba Literature and Other Naxi Art Forms

Dongba Literature

More than 1,000 years ago the Naxi people created pictographic characters called Dongba script, the only living pictographic writing system in the world today. The Donba shamans used it to record Dongba history, and to write scriptures. The Dongba script has strong characteristics of picture writing: the original Dongba script character stands for a thing, or a concept, not by means of references to agreed-upon symbols for sound or meaning phonemes – though many of these have been added since, representing sound-and-meaning borrowings from the Han Chinese especially – but simply by means of brush strokes intended as images to represent things, or concepts. Even those who are able to recognize Dongba pictographic script characters are not able to chant the Dongba script unless they have studied under a Dongba shaman from early childhood.

The Naxi people have created a brilliant civilization during their long history. The Dongba scripture (Dongba Jing), a religious work written in the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty in pictographic script, is their masterpiece. It describes the various aspects of the culture of the Naxi during their long transition from slavery to feudalism, and covers an amazing amount of knowledge on a wide range of subjects, from social history to animal husbandry, religion, philosophy, linguistics, astronomy, geology, arts, literature, medical science, local customs and practices, food and beverages, family relations and relations between ethnic groups. It is a veritable encyclopedia of ancient Naxi culture and society.

The Dongba Jing consist of more than 2,000 volumes, of which 'The Creation of the World', a long epic, describes the origin of mankind and mankind's struggle against the elements and other adverse natural conditions. It sings high praise for the labor and the love of the Naxi people. 'The Chart Route of God' may be rated as a rare gem in this world, while 'The Dongba Dance Manual', one of the oldest dance manuals that exists and which records, in detail, about 60 different ways of dancing, is nothing short of an art treasure. 'The Dongba Dance Manual' is a unique monograph in the history of man on the art of dancing, as practiced by this ancient ethnic Chinese minority, and as such is a source of Chinese pride as well.

National Songs and Dances

The Naxi are fond of singing and dancing, especially at weddings and funerals. The most popular songs are descriptive and short. They are sung at very high pitch and with strong rhythms, to be accompanied by simple dances. The most common musical instruments are flutes, reed pipes and wind-string instruments. The most ancient national songs are represented by the following titles: Guqi, Wo Rere, Wo Menda, Zaiyang Tune (Transplant Rice Seedlings Tune), Jianu Tune (Marry Off a Daughter Tune), The Moon Mother Tune, The Calabash Sheng Tune (the sheng is a wind instrument while calabash is a gourd that can be dried and used as a type of wood), Bili Tune, Kouxuan Tune (a kouxuan is the string of a musical instrument), and so on. The most ancient national dances are represented by the following: Dongba Dance, Leba Dance, and Ancient Music Dance.

Ancient Naxi Music

The two most famous Naxi classical musical compositions are Baishaxile (Baisha Soft Music) and Dongjing Yingyue (Dongjing Music).

Baishaxile (Baisha Soft Music) is praised as the most ancient symphonic musical work known to mankind. It is a large-scale classical music composition that shows the deep attachment, especially during times of separation, including during the throes of death, between loved ones. It is often played at funeral arrangements, accompanied by songs and dances. There are about eight movements that have been passed down. They include Du (flute solo), Shao Shi (A Letter), Shansi Ji (Shansi River), Ar Li Guo Jin Pa (Beautiful White Cloud) and others. Only a few folk artists are able to play Baisha Soft Music because of its complex tonal registry.

Dongjing Yingyue (Dongjing Music) originated from the Taoist music of the Han Chinese, but became widespread among the Naxi. Its name stems from the Taoist scriptures. The tunes involved in Dongjing Music are simple, elegant and unsophisticated. Dongjing Music consists of Scripture Tune, Qupai (the name of the tunes to which Qu are composed) and percussion music. The tune and the cantus of the original Han Chinese music was altered somewhat by the Naxi, putting it in a more somber, liturgical category, since the Naxi are fond of self-introspection and the admiration of excellence in other cultures. Moreover, the notational medium, called Gongchepu (a traditional Chinese musical notation) used to pass on/ hand down the Dongjing Music also contributes to a loss of translation, as it were. The following music pieces are passed down, having survived for 400 years: Waves Washing the Sands, The Sheep on the Hill, Song of Water (Shui Long Yin) and The Eight Diagrams.

The Naxi Building Style

The Naxi people live in log cabins. These log cabins are all-wooden structures, without the use of nails, and have no brick or other man-made fundament. As described in more detail below, there are several basic types of Naxi house plans, or compounds, in the old town of Lijiang. The first type has an inner courtyard enclosed by three rooms and a wall called a Zhaobi. The second type has a big center courtyard enclosed by four rooms, with smaller courtyards located at each of the four corners of the house. The third type of Naxi house plan has a front and a back yard, while a fourth type has two, interconnected front yards.

The interior of a Naxi house is marked by "lanes". Each "lane" is made up of three rooms joined by a corridor, with doors at every entrance, both internal and external, in order to keep the house tidy and the rooms quiet. Most of the houses are built in two stories, with a courtyard in the center. The courtyard is large, providing lots of fresh air to the rooms and sunshine to the courtyard, since a Naxi house is of moderate height. The main house usually faces the south or the east in the belief that this will trap the good luck that arrives from these quarters, providing the house's occupants with a bright and promising future.

The Zhaobi Wall Compound

The first type has a courtyard enclosed by three wings (rooms) and a wall called a Zhaobi. To the north lies the main room facing the courtyard, or facing southward. Further southward, beyond the courtyard, stands the Zhaobi wall. The main room and the Zaobi wall are thus flanked by the east and west rooms.

The Siheyuan Compound

The second type is the enclosed Siheyuan compound with four wings, namely the wing containing the owner's room, a wing containing the servants' lodgings at the opposite end, both flanked by the east and west wings/ rooms on either side. Besides the center courtyard, there is an additional small "external" yard at each of the house's four corners. Usually there is a lower side room on the outer side of each of the four main rooms. These rooms face the outer wall of the main room next to it, but with a yard in between the two.

he Zhaobi-Siheyuan Mixed Compound

The third type might be considered as a reduced-size hybrid of the two styles mentioned immediately above. It is a small civilian residence with a flower hall in the center connecting the front yard with the back yard. In the front yard are located small pavilions that cohere with the adjacent garden.

The Double-Siheyuan Hybrid Compound

A fourth type is a compound consisting of two sets of 4 wings (i.e., 2 courts) with an entrance and a passageway connecting the two sets of wings, each with its own inner courtyard. Surrounding each courtyard, the rooms are distributed in the fashion similar to one of the styles mentioned above, but with the rooms of each court being joined with the other rooms of the court by a flower hall, the 2 courts being connected, as indicated, via a passageway.

Regardless of the scheme of the housing plan – and the third and fourth types of plans described above are neither meant to be representative nor exhaustive, the variations instead being endless – the whole edifice is compactly constructed, well designed and often elaborately adorned. The wooden doors of each house are all hand made and are beautifully carved with intricate designs of plants and animals. The Naxi love plants, hence their courtyards are decorated with all kinds of verdure as well as flowers that blossom such as the plum tree, the sweet-scented osmanthus, the chrysanthemum, and orchids.


Knitting and Other Wool Work

One might say that the Naxi people have clever hands and a good sense of artistic proportion. They make fine wool into Dongba tapestry, woolen fabric carpets, Tibetan apron fabric and other woolen articles. Such handicrafts today may bear newfangled designs embodying good luck, but the designs themselves can stand wear and tear. The "Niuleiba" brand woolen fabric, made of spun, embroidered knitting wool, was even conferred the title of "Product of Quality" by the National Panel of Judges under the Ministry of National Light Industry. The beautiful wax-printed costumes and ornaments as well as the handsome bags, handkerchiefs and scarves made by deft Naxi craftsmen are also very popular with tourists from around the world.


When Dongba people offer sacrifices, they mould a certain type of dough into supernatural figurines so compellingly crafted that they could convince the gods. Sometimes there may be a flurry of sacrificial activities, especially when natural disasters strike the village. Then the whole village will hold a meeting where each family vies for the honor of hosting the sacrificial ceremony. When a wide-scale infectious disease arouses much fear, the villagers ask Dongba for permission to make a sacrifice, so that they may be protected from the disease. Every time a family wins the honor of holding the sacrificial ceremony, the family moulds dozens of supernatural figurines in dough, a painstaking process, but one which pays off, as the perfect model can be achieved in dough before it is carved in wood by a Dongba shaman. In this way, an excellent likeness of the god can be made with little waste of the precious wood.

The facial features, as well as the dress and the representations of jewelry of the figurine, can undoubtedly be made more perfectly that those that are made in dough, but those made in dough can nonetheless capture the essential features that mark the Dongba-style statue. Such statues may not look very lifelike, and some may even look a bit comical – for example, the eyes may only be two holes pricked into the dough, while a horizontal line represents a mouth – but the resulting wooden statue still feels sleek and powerful in one's hand.


Most Naxi people are followers of the "Dongba" religion. The Dongba religion is especially pronounced in the Lijiang area and comprises several sects, including the Baidi Sect, the Baoshan Sect, the Baisha Sect, the Tai'anludian Sect and the Ben Sect. Each of these various sects earned its name from the name of the respective master interpreter/ chanter of the Dongba scripture. Worship of the master interpreter/ chanter (called an "ancestor") is part of the Dongba religion. The earliest ancestral master interpreter/ chanter worshipped by Dongba followers is the master interpreter/ chanter of the Ben Sect. Dongba began as a relatively obscure sect, inherited practices from the Di and the Qiang [Chiang] nationalities' nature worship, then formed what is termed a shamanism, and finally, it developed into the Dongba religion, which can be dated back to the original followers' worship of heaven and earth, of the sun and the moon, of the stars, of the wind and the rain, of thunder and lightning, of water, fire, mountains, rivers and stones. The Dongba religion is based on the idea of soul, and of ghosts and gods. Its period of greatest bloom was during the 4th and 5th centuries CE.

The Dongba

A "Dongba" is a proverb of the Confucian classics teacher according to the scriptures, which is handed down from family to family, or by way of a series of teachers. The term also means "wise man", and thus the Dongbas, or shamans, of the Dongba religion are versatile scholars, expert in the natural sciences (agriculture, astronomy, geography, medicine), in the social sciences (philosophy and history) and in art and literature as well, but first and foremost, Dongbas are masters at the components closest to their religion: pictographic writing, painting, chanting, singing and dancing. They play the role of developing and transmitting and, above all, of inheriting the Naxi people's ancient Dongba culture. Generally, a Dongba will not give up his poorly remunerated scholarly activities even when he can obtain a higher income by more frequently performing religious ceremonies. There are also rankings, or grades of competency, among the Dongba.

In the Lijiang area there are Common Dongba, Big Dongba and a King Dongba, each level relying on its separate learning, skills and prestige. The Common Dongba usually chant scripture and host common religious ceremonies while the Big Dongba, who is said to have been to Baidi (the Holy Land of Dongba Sect) to receive the ceremony of sect entrance, is an expert at chanting scripture, at drawing, at molding/ carving a statue, and at performing the sorcerer's dance in a trance. Big Dongba enjoy high prestige and are also believed to have supernatural power with which they can conquer demons and ghosts. He usually serves as the master of the altar during important religious ceremonies. In addition, the Big Dongba has the right to teach students, or aspirants to the Dongba priesthood, and to propagate the doctrines of the ancient sages. The King Dongba – there is only one, of course – possesses the highest religious authority and he commands the highest prestige not only among the ordinary followers of the Dongba religion, i.e., lay folk, but also among other Dongbas.

The caterpillar in question, the larvae of the thitarodes, a moth of the hepialidae family, exists only in the high climes of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau at an altitude of 3000-5000 meters. The thitarodes caterpillar lives 5 years underground, where it feeds on roots, before pupating. During this phase, the caterpillar's body is invaded by the fungus, which eventually fills the host's entire body cavity with its mycelium, killing it. From spring to early summer, the brownish-blackish fruit of the mushroom sprouts from the ground – in fact, from the forehead of the caterpillar – in a 5-15cm long vertical column that releases spores upon maturity. [NB: This footnote is a rehash of the online Wikipedia description for "caterpillar fungus".]

Not surprisingly, the administrative and political divisions of China have changed greatly through time, especially in more recent times. The constitution of the People's Republic of China provides for three de jure levels of government. Currently, however, there are five practical, i.e., de facto, levels of local government in the People's Republic of China: the province, the prefecture, the county, the township, and the village. [NB: This footnote is a rehash of the online Wikipedia description for "administrative divisions of China".

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