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xEurasia Odyssey


CHINA | Monday, 14 October 2013 | Views [1003]



My first introduction to Lijiang Old Town was during the National Holiday week, when the town was packed with tourists.  I had thought it would be better after most people had gone back to work, but it was still crowded today. The Old Town consists of about 4x6 km of traditional houses built around canals with flowing water.  The city has been called the Venice of the East and Marco Polo even remarked on the similarities as well as on the skill of the embroidery craftswomen. The Old Town is remarkably well preserved and is surrounded by a very modern New Town. There was a fairly devastating earthquake in 1996 when most of the area was destroyed.  Somehow most of the old buildings survived and what was destroyed has been rebuilt in the traditional manner, but the New Town, really is new.

The earthquake also brought other changes.  Prior to 1996 Lijiang was the main hub for the Horse Tea Road, or Southern Silk Road between Kunming – Lhasa – Kalimpong and Burma, and as such was a center for different ethnic groups.  Since 1996, however, increasingly more Han have migrated to the area, so many in fact that of the 8,000 small shops in Old Town, only 30 are still run by old Naxi families.  All the others are run by people from Shanghai, Beijing or elsewhere in China. With the influx from the East, the diversity of languages has changed and now everyone speaks Mandarin rather than their native tongue.


While there are at least 22 different ethnic groups in Lijiang, the main culture is Naxi.  The Musuo of Lugu Lake, are officially considered a Naxi culture, but they speak an entirely different language and have different customs. There are essentially five distinguishing features of the Naxi culture: their language, their script, their ancient music (the oldest in China), their paintings and their dance, which imitates regional animal movements. There are some similarities in approach to their legends with the Musuo, although the Naxi have Dongba priests with a written pictograph script with about 1400 characters, while the Musuo do not have a written language.  According to the folks at the local Dongba Cultural Museum, the Dongba pictographs as the only pictographic script still in use.  I have not yet verified this statement, but at least it is one of only a very few even if it isn’t the only one. Their language is very picturesque.  How are you, for example ‘all la le’ translates directly as “Are you strong as a yak?” and ‘la le’ is “Yes, I am strong as a yak,” while “mal la le” means “No, I’m not that strong.” Good-bye is ‘le di do’ which means “tears fall from my eyes.” And my personal favorite is their word for ‘snow’ means ‘holy & pure.’


Similar to the depletion of the dabas in the Musuo culture, there are now only 28 Dongba priests left in the greater Lijiang region, which includes Lugu Lake. The Dongba priests are the only ones who can read and write the pictographic script.  For about the past decade there has been a concerted effort to preserve the tradition and copy all the remaining manuscripts so the legends will be available to future generations. During the Cultural Revolution it was illegal to have them and most of the manuscripts were destroyed.  Some miraculously survived and they are now in the museum. 


At the museum I met one of the remaining Dongba priests.  He told me it would take him 10 full days to recite the Naxi creation story, so I asked for just a few segments.  He shared that that they have Father Sky and Mother Earth, but also that there were nine brothers who cut open the sky with an axe and seven sisters who opened the earth with an axe. The sky’s opening let the deities protect the people, while the opening in the earth allowed agriculture to develop.  After the sky and earth were opened spirits came out in threes, which then morphed into nine, which then became a chicken, which hatched an egg (now we know, the chicken came first!), which changed nine times, finally becoming the Naxi male ancestor.  When he grew up, he married a monkey as woman had not yet been created (this is similar to the Tibetan creation story). Once they were married the monkey changed into a beautiful woman, but she only gave birth to animals, which then populated the earth, but First Man was disappointed that there were no human offspring.  He left his monkey wife and went to a different region where he saw a lovely girl not realizing that she was actually a goddess.  Heavenly Father didn’t want her to marry a mortal, but she had fallen in love with First Man.  First Man found a bird who was able to send his message to Heavenly Father and negotiate his case.  The goddess was finally allowed to marry First Man and they had three sons, one who became the founder of Tibetan people and language, one who founded the Bai people and language, and one who was the ancestor of the Naxi.

Everything in nature has a spirit, so there are no temples or shrines, as the deities are everywhere and in everything. The four corners of the world are designated by pearls, turquoise, gold, a white conch and in the center, which is the middle of the earth, copper.  Similar to this is their divination system that uses a ‘Bage Oracle’ that has a frog in the middle as it is their symbol of giving birth to the earth which surrounds the frog.  Around the earth are the directions, West is gold, East is wood, North is water, and South is fire; the directions are surrounded by the Chinese zodiac signs.  The explanation from a plaque at the museum is: “… a large golden frog was shot dead by a golden arrow, and its spirit entered into wood, fire, metal, water, earth and the five elements into the five cardinal directions.  Combining these elements with the four ancillary directions, (NE, NW, SE, SW) and the 12 Chinese heavenly stems (Shengxiao), it (the Bage Oracle) is used to calculate the calendar,  human fortunes, and divine personal names.”


Some of the Naxi traditions that are no longer in vogue include:

-       when a Naxi boy and girl fall in love, he would give her a needle so that she can sew both their wedding outfits. Now they simply buy them.

-       Naxi men were traders and would be gone for over months on the journey south to India or Burma or north to Tibet. While they were gone the women did everything and when they returned the women would greet their husbands at the city gate, put them in a basket and walk around the city three times in thanks for their safe return. When I asked why, I was told that the women didn’t have any use for a tired husband….hmmm.

-       When the men returned, they didn’t do anything constructive as the trip was dangerous enough.  They just hung out, drank, played cards etc. Nowadays, they need to have a job.

-       Something that changed when the Qing Dynasty took control of the region in the 1723, was the freedom to choose one’s partner.  Before the Qing, the Naxi could marry whomever they fell in love with.  It was a very egalitarian society.  After the Qing, the rich only married the rich, and the poor the poor; they brought a very hierarchical structure with them.  One of the consequences of this was the practice of double suicide.  When couples were in love, but weren’t allowed to marry, they would go to a special spot by the lake and jump, committing double suicide so that their souls would be together, even if their lives couldn’t be.  This actually became institutionalized. The Mu family was the traditional rulers of the Naxi who had supported the egalitarian society, but after the Qing conquest, they became their puppets.


Lijiang means a beautiful place. ‘Li’ means ‘beautiful’ and ‘jiang’ means ‘peace.’ The landscape is spectacular.  It sits in a valley below the Jade Snow Dragon Mountain with its 13 peaks, many of which are glaciers. The setting reminded me of the Tetons, and the central peak is very similar to the Grand.  But it is the Matterhorn that is the ‘sister mountain,’ and there is a building with a model of the Swiss mountain in the park by the entrance to the Lijiang protector. It also sits near the first bend of the Yangtze River, which is the longest river in China and the third longest in the world after the Nile and Amazon.  The first bend turns the river back towards central China rather than having it flow towards India, so the setting is fairly important.

Nonetheless, the Yangtze is too far from town to help with the water supply. While the canals still have water from the glacier flowing through them, there is no longer any water in the famous Black Dragon Pool.  The ‘pool’ is now a field.  The region has experienced a multi-year drought. The impact of the drought is not noticeable in the agricultural production from the region, which seems to be abundant, but only in some of these scenic areas.


Lijiang was an interesting town, and I loved the mountain.  The Old Town was a bit over – touristy, but the Naxi people and culture are fascinating. 


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