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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
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
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
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
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
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.