Naxi: Between Gods, Humanity and Nature
A long, long time ago, Humanity and Nature became sworn comrades and signed a non-aggression treaty. But soon, the humans who had pledged never to invade their ally realized that without Nature's offerings, they could not survive. Cautiously, they started to clear the land and cut trees, and then began to sow and harvest. Would Nature be angry at their actions and punish them? The Naxi people devised ceremonies to appease Nature. During the ceremonies, the humans apologized to Nature, so as to maintain the initial pact of peace.
- Naxi legend
This story, told to 44-year-old filmmaker Zhang Xu by a dongba (Naxi shaman), elucidates the ethnic group's intimate connection to nature. Zhang believes this bond is what accounts for the tranquility of the Naxi (pronounced na-shee) people in the face of great adversity.
The First Journey
In 1990, Zhang, a Beijing native, embarked on a five-month journey that would forever change her life. She traveled to southwest China's Yunnan province to interview and research the Naxi people, living with them in the mountain redoubt of Lijiang for almost half a year.
Zhang was enchanted by the natural scenery surrounding Lijiang - the snowcapped Dragon Jade Mountain, the cold and crystal clear Lugu Lake, the dramatic Tiger Leaping Gorge at the source of the Yangtze River. Zhang felt an instant connection to the unique customs of the Dongba religion and culture, in particular the altruistic relationship between humans and nature, a pact which has been maintained for centuries, through ceremonies and sacred rituals.
Living with the Naxi people, Zhang became fascinated with the Dongba culture and religion. The Naxis are the descendants of an ancient nomadic people known as the Shiqiang who centuries ago gave up their nomadic wandering and settled in the Lijiang valley. In ancient times these settlers were known by the names of Moxie or Mosha. In 1949, with the establishment of the People's Republic of China, they took the name of Naxi.
Their traditional religion is polytheistic and influenced by Shamanism, Taoism and Buddhism. The Naxi believe that all works of nature have souls, including heaven and earth, the sun and moon, mountains and rivers, clouds and wind. Their religious leaders, dongbas, preside over rituals including the worship of gods and ancestors. They conduct funerals, divinations, rites, and celebrations, and are called upon to cure the sick and expel ghosts. Dongba shamans are also well-versed in medicine, literature, arts and crafts, and have the crucial responsibility of passing on the traditions of the Naxi culture to future generations. Dongbas are not granted special privileges among their fellow villagers, and have traditionally earned their living by farming.
Preserving a Threatened Culture
Over the past half-century, the Naxi people have gone from a thriving culture with a heavy emphasis on sacred rituals, to one in an increasingly precarious position as the practice of traditions begins to fall victim to modernization.
Zhang, producer and director for the Beijing Television Art Center, turned to her profession several years ago to help raise awareness of the situation. In 1992 she wrote and directed the television documentary The Mystical Dongba Culture, which aired throughout China and internationally. Then, in 1996 she prepared the screenplay and stage design for the Dongba dance-drama Third Kingdom of Jade Dragon Mountain, which was performed in Hong Kong. Late last year, she traveled to Lijiang to shoot footage for a documentary on traditional Naxi rituals.
"Time is running out. The civilization and its traditions are dying out," says a determined Zhang, sitting in her Beijing apartment on a recent winter night. "Even today, a decade later, I am still one of the only people doing this important work."
Zhang's home is filled with Naxi pictograph woodcut scriptures, and framed Egyptian hieroglyphs cover the walls. Her bookshelves are filled with magazines, hardbound scholarly studies, and videotapes of past and current projects.
Upon graduating from the Beijing Broadcasting Institute in 1983, Zhang found herself restless and bored with city life. "There was little contemporary culture. I was searching for something new," she says wistfully. Zhang's first post-graduation project was to adapt and direct the television drama Lost In The Trees, a series about city youth on south China's Hainan Island during the (1966-76) Cultural Revolution. The series won a national television award.
To Zhang's great consternation, the Dongba culture is dying out. According to scholars, there are less than 100 practicing dongbas left. As a result, traditional ceremonies are not held as regularly as they once were. In addition to working to save the Dongba culture, advocates like Zhang have been persuading the government to teach the native Naxi language in primary schools in Lijiang County. Supporters argue that Naxi language-based education will help instill a sense of pride in the culture.
The Naxi population in Yunnan hovers around 280,000 people. The traditional dongba training is passed down from generation to generation. The training includes translating Dongba scriptures based on the Naxi language, the world's only surviving pictographic language still in use today.
Problems facing the Naxi are as much internal as they are external, Zhang observes. One challenge lies in maintaining the Dongba family structure, which has traditionally been of paramount importance. Another is in persuading dongba shamans to pass on their teachings. "Few people consider it their obligation to preserve the Dongba culture," Zhang laments. "The new generation in Lijiang doesn't care about culture - they are more interested in material pursuits."
Lack of financial support and poor economic conditions is also a serious problem facing the Naxi people, Zhang adds, despite the interest in Lijiang shown by foreign organizations. "Outsiders are willing to visit Lijiang as tourists, but are not interested in helping its people," Zhang says. Little respite is offered by the growth in tourism and commerce that Lijiang has experienced in recent years. In fact, the fear is that this will be the culture's downfall, undermining the sacred, legendary treaty made long ago between humanity and nature.
Daughter of the Dongba
For Zhang, cultural preservation is not only a matter of spirituality and consciousness, but also of family values. In 1990, Zhang attended a religious ceremony, presided over by the shaman He Xuezeng, in which a deceased elderly woman was having her soul released from purgatory. The open embrace of the mountains surrounding the village, the soft caress of the wind, the old dongba's face filled with rivulets of wrinkles chanting sacred scriptures during the ceremonies was an epiphany.
Zhang felt an instant affinity, not only to the culture but for the old sage as well. Upon visiting He's house and spending time with him and his wife for the first time, Zhang found herself enveloped in a feeling of love and kinship infused with familiarity. The gathering was further intensified when the wife professed to Zhang: "How wonderful it would be if you were my daughter." To that, the filmmaker responded without hesitation, "I am your daughter." The certainty in Zhang's voice moved the couple as they explained that they had lost a daughter in childbirth many years ago.
As a result of her work, the Naxi people gave Zhang the name Tayou Lamu, after a Naxi goddess. According to legend, Tayou Lamu is responsible for saving the souls of all those who are unable to get into heaven. Zhang has taken the responsibility attached to her name to heart, becoming an ardent advocate of Naxi culture and working to keep the Dongba tradition alive. "You have to commit your life to it to be successful," Zhang states with conviction.
On her most recent trip, she captured striking footage of the ancient tradition of papermaking, kept alive by the 72-year-old shaman He Zhiben (all dongbas are given the surname He). He Zhiben is a master of Dongba scriptures, as well as in charge of maintaining and keeping alive the ancient craft of papermaking. Zhang's new film, Traditional Naxi Papermaking, documents the process used by He Zhiben and his son to make a special type of acid-free paper used for recording Dongba pictographic scriptures.
In the documentary, He Zhiben explains the tradition to Zhang: "My family has been making paper for three generations. My son is the fourth generation, and my grandson is the fifth," he says. "Here's some of our paper. I made this. This was made by my uncle. It's over a hundred years old. This scripture is probably over a hundred years old."
He talks and points to an old worn and weathered book, the single surviving Dongba almanac in his village. The book fell behind his bookcase during the Cultural Revolution and was thus spared destruction. He and his son use this old scripture book as a reference. Taking a sheet and shaking it in the wind, He proudly says of his paper, "This is really good quality. It sounds like a new hundred yuan bill, the way it crackles. It's the best there is."
Zhang began studying painting in the early 1990s under the tutelage of Zhang Chunhe (no relation), founder of the Contemporary Dongba School of Religious Painting in Yunnan. At this point, Zhang had no formal art training. In just a year she became a professional artist, holding her first exhibition in Germany in 1993. Since then Zhang has exhibited at the Mexican and Romanian embassies in Beijing, among other places.
Zhang's paintings combine elements of Dongba pictographs, myth, and contemporary aesthetics. Considered Modern Dongba painting, a relatively new style begun by contemporary Naxi artists, her pieces are abstract in content and infused with vibrant colors used to represent the harmony between gods, humanity and nature. Her piece, The Relationship of Lives, is conceived as a triptych, each part telling stories in pictographic forms: two birds entwined at the neck looking in opposite directions, the yellow head and neck of an animal coming out of the mouth of another symbolizing birth, and musical notes representing harmony.
Zhang's relentless pursuit to keep the dongba culture alive does not stop at documentation and her own art. In 1996, she set up the Beijing Association of Dongba Culture and Arts, to preserve the Dongba heritage and promote wider appreciation of Dongba culture, arts and traditions. Since its inception, the association has organized a series of acclaimed exhibitions of rare cultural objects, photos, documentaries, and works of art that have toured China and abroad. The Beijing Association of Dongba Culture and Arts strives to unite people from all walks of life interested in Dongba culture to support and join in the association's efforts.
Although fundraising ranks among the group's priorities, Zhang has been financing most of the activities, including her own documentaries in Yunnan, out of her own pocket. Zhang says while she could spend her energy now raising money for projects, knowing how few dongba shamans remain, the dutiful adopted daughter of the Naxis sees her work as a race against time.
"We have to do this," Zhang states simply. "These traditions are too important to be lost."
Zhang Xu is president of the Beijing Association of Dongba Culture and Arts. For more information, call 8425-1108, fax 6835-1189, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Beijing Scene