An Ancient Culture Survives

Naxi minority group in China has the world's only pictographic language

By: Graham Simmons

KUNMING, China At the Minorities Museum, in the capital of China’s Yunnan province, artist-in-residence, Zhang Yunling, hovered over an elaborate painting.

Zhang is a member of Yunnan’s Naxi minority, an ancient ethnic group that today has more than 250,000 members.

His art is highly stylized, with sticklike figures that resemble cartoon characters.

Is there a future for Naxi art on the world market?

“Sure,” he replied, “I’m the Oriental Picasso!”

True or not, Zhang has a long tradition to draw on.

The Naxi (NA’-shi), are the direct descendants of the ancient Mo Su tribe. Originally polytheistic, some Naxi converted to Lamaism when it was introduced to their culture in the 14th century. Many more adhered to the Dongba religion, which was a mixture of Lamaism, Buddhism and Taoism.

The Dongba Cultural Research Centre, in the World Heritage city of Lijiang, northwest of Kunming provides an insight into the complex evolution of religion in the region.

More than 1,000 years ago, the Naxi people began carving etchings of gods, men, mountains, and the heavens into soft bark to create what is today the world’s only living pictographic writing system.

Naxi pictographs differ from Chinese characters and may be compared to Egyptian or Mayan hieroglyphs. A simplified form of Naxi pictographic writing is still in use in Lijiang District of the Yunnan Province.

Historically, the Naxi always have been a matriarchal society, with dabu, or mother, as head of the family.

It is said that in ancient times, battles between ethnic groups would stop immediately if a mother stepped in and extended her hands toward the opposing forces.

Today, it is said, many Naxi women have distinguished themselves in commerce and the arts, including Zhao Yintang, the first Naxi woman to gain attention as a writer.

But the Naxi are just one of the 26 minority groups in Yunnan, the southwestern province that is China’s most ethnically diverse region. One of the best places to experience this cultural diversity is at the Minorities Museum in Kunming, and, a five-minute walk away, at the Nationalities Village.

The Minorities Museum features arts and crafts from many regions of Yunnan.

In the south, there are the Tai (or “Dai”) and Hani minorities of the jungles around Xishuangbanna; while in the north, the Yi people, with their unique fur hats and colorful cloaks, rub shoulders with Tibetan settlers.

Other groups include the Jinuo, also in the south, near the Laotian border; and the Wa, a group of some 350,000 people living in southwest Yunnan, near the Myanmar border.

The Nationalities Village is a huge complex of more than 370 acres, showcasing a scaled reproduction of Potala Palace in Lhasa. It has display villages devoted to the Naxi; the Lahu, who believe they are born from gourds; the Miao; the Li Su, and about a dozen other peoples.

Also worth visiting in Kunming is the Horticultural Park, the site of an immense 1999 horticultural exposition. The grounds are a popular spot for locals and tourists, who can walk through gardens planted in the style of each Chinese province and many foreign countries.

The entrance to the Beijing-style Eternal Spring garden is marked by a giant marble gateway; while the Hainan garden, in contrast, greets a visitor with primitive totem poles.

Snow Dragon Mountain, just outside Lijiang, is another place where Yunnan’s minority groups can be found.

The mountain’s chairlift ends in Spruce Meadow, an otherworldly place where ethnic dancers serenade the mountaintops; and a few rustic stalls offer Tibetan herbal medicines and woolen knits.

The Stone Forest, a surreal landscape of limestone formations east of Kunming, is also well worth a visit.

So pervasive is the minority presence in Yunnan, that it is hard to spot any original Han Chinese still living a traditional lifestyle. China in general, and Yunnan in particular, are changing so fast that no one can keep up.

“It’s frightening,” said a local tourist guide, Xu Wen Can. “I’ve lived in Kunming all my life, and still I can’t believe how fast things are changing.”

But, when he stops to visit a friend in a small village, east of Kunming, it’s like stepping back 600 years.

The village of Qixin Cun, or Seven Star Village, dates back to the Yuan Dynasty, which reached its apogee around A.D. 1550.

Dong Ke Xuan, head of one of the village’s 500 households, said his home is only 200 years old.

“But we’re already rebuilding,” he added cheerfully.