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ETHNONYMS: Hlikhin, Luxi, Moso, Nakhi, Nari


Identification. The Naxi are one of China's fifty-six officially recognized "nationalities." "Naxi" (Nah-shee), meaning "people of the black," is the name most Naxi use for themselves. Prior to 1949, they were most commonly termed "Moso" or "Moso Man," the traditional Chinese labels for the Naxi. The chief exception to this is in the work of Joseph Rock, an American botanist-cumethnographer who published widely on "Na-khi" history and religion. Reference searches should include all of these names.

Location. The great majority of Naxi live in a fairly small area in northwestern Yunnan Province, in Lijiang, Weixi, Zhongdian, and Ninglang counties (26° to 28° N and 97° to 99° E). Scattered Naxi settlements are also found in neighboring Sichuan Province. The area is rugged and mountainous, with major peaks reaching over 5,500 meters. Habitation extends between 1,800 and 3,300 meters, the lowest elevations being associated with the deep sinuous gorge of the Golden Sand River (the major tributary to the Yangtze), the region's most prominent geographical feature.

Demography. In 1990 the Naxi population numbered approximately 278,000, of whom more than 60 percent lived in Lijiang County.

Linguistic Affiliation. Naxi belongs to the Tibeto-Burman Branch of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family. Chinese linguists divide Naxi speakers into two dialect groupsa western dialect spoken in the Lijiang area and an eastern dialect centered in the Yongning region of Ninglang County. As the area also includes numerous speakers of the related Yi, Lisu, Pumi, and Tibetan languages, bi- or trilingualism in these languages is fairly common among the Naxi. In addition, many Naxi, especially men, also speak Mandarin (Chinese).

History and Cultural Relations

The Naxi are generally thought to have migrated to their present location from somewhere to the north in eastern Tibet, western Sichuan, or Qinghai Province around the beginning of the common era. Some scholars feel that the Naxi may originally have been related to the Qiang people now inhabiting northwestern Sichuan. Present-day Naxi society and culture have been greatly influenced by more that 1,000 years of continual contact with their regionally dominant neighbors, the Tibetan and Han (Chinese) peoples. During the sixth to twelfth centuries, the Naxi were a part of the powerful Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms centered around Erhai Lake, about 150 kilometers south of Lijiang. These kingdoms (in succession) maintained close but not always friendly relations with both Tibet and China, and at the height of its power in the latter years of the Chinese Tang dynasty (618-906), the Nanzhao controlled an area that covered much of western Yunnan, southern Sichuan, and into Burma and Tibet. In 1252, the Naxi were conquered by the Mongol armies of Kubilai Khan, the founder of the Chinese Yuan dynasty (1260-1368), and since that time they have been under the political hegemony of the Chinese state. During the Yuan and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, Chinese rule over many of the ethnic groups in south and west China was exercized indirectly through the use of hereditary "native chiefs" (tusi), appointed by the Chinese court. Among the Naxi there were two main chiefly lineages, the Mu lineage in Lijiang and the A lineage in Yongning. Military conflict between China and Tibet in the early eighteenth century led to the permanent replacement of the Mu chief by a regular Chinese magistrate in 1723. Members of the A lineage continued as native chiefs in Yongning until 1957. After their southern neighbors, the Bai, the Naxi are among the most highly Sinicized of Yunnan's ethnic minorities. This holds particularly for Naxi living in the town of Lijiang, for as far back as the Ming dynasty the Mu chiefs made a point of welcoming Han (Chinese) merchants, artisans, scholars, and religious specialists to the area. A similarly conciliatory policy towards Tibet is reflected in the region's several Tibetan lamaseries, most of which were heavily financed by the Mu family.


Naxi villages range greatly in size from only a few to more than 200 households (20-1,000 people), with the average somewhere around 40. The area also boasts several towns, the largest being Lijiang with a population of about 25,000. The principal factors influencing settlement size are the availability of cultivable land and water for irrigation. The settlement pattern of most villages is characterized by closely clustered domestic compounds, surrounded by vegetable gardens and orchards and, further out, fields of grain and other staple crops. Domestic compounds consist of walled courtyards enclosing at least two principal buildings, a house and a stable. Traditional Naxi houses are of whole-log construction, with roofs made of slats weighted down by stones. Increasingly, houses of this type are being replaced by Hanand Bai-style houses with wood frames, tamped earth or adobe walls, and tiled roofs. House architecture reflects Naxi views of cosmology, kinship, and gender.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Naxi economy varies widely between districts due to the range in elevation, and hence temperature. People in the lowlands grow wet rice and a wide variety of vegetables and raise citrus trees. The highlanders grow mostly wheat, maize, legumes, a more limited variety of vegetables, and temperate fruits (mostly apples and pears). In the highest elevations, even these crops grow poorly, and the people raise mainly potatoes and turnips. The Naxi also depend heavily on pastoral production. This is especially true in the higher elevations where good grass is plentiful and crop yields are low. Goats, sheep, common cattle, and, in the highlands, yak and yak-common cattle hybrids form the bulk of the herds. Woolen- and leather-goods factories operate out of Lijiang. Naxi horses and mules are famous throughout southwestern China and form the basis for two annual trade fairs in Lijiang. Farmyard animals include pigs, oxen, water buffalo, chickens, and ducks. During the last several decades, timber sales to the state have come to occupy a large share of the Naxi external economy. Deforestation is a problem.

Industrial Arts. Most villages support a few individuals with full-time employment as tailors, basket weavers, carpenters, medical personel, shopkeepers, and truck or tractor operators. Some families specialize in raising pigs, chickens, or eggs or sell prepared food products, such as bean curd or cheese. Weaving and knitting are done in the home. The Lijiang area is noted for its copper and brassware.

Division of Labor. Exclusively male activities include herding, plowing, logging, house building, and truck or tractor driving. Spinning, weaving, and knitting are solely female activities. Women do the great bulk of the domestic work, but men sometimes cook and wash clothes, and frequently help with cleaning and child care. Except for plowing, both sexes participate more or less equally in all phases of agricultural production.

Land Tenure. Prior to the 1949 Revolution, land was owned by individual families and divided equally between the sons. Some poorer families rented land, or worked as tenant farmers or agricultural wage labors, but these numbers were not high. As in other parts of China, all land reverted to the state during the land reform period in the early 1950s. People were organized into production teams, brigades, and communes to work the land collectively. In the early 1980s, the "household-responsibility system" was implemented. Under this system land continues to be owned by the state, but people are given individual plots to work, and the household rather than any larger group assumes the responsibility for meeting production quotas (essentially a taxes-in-kind system).


Kin Groups and Descent. Naxi kinship and descent is a highly contested subject. Largely on the basis of dialect and kinship differences, contemporary Chinese ethnologists distinguish two "branches" of Naxi, the Lijiang Naxi and the Yongning Naxi. The Lijiang Naxi reckon descent in the patriline and maintain patrilineal descent groups. The same is true of the formerly aristocratic lineages in Yongning, but as a whole the Yongning Naxi uphold an ideal of descent from primordial matriclans, and most commoner households today reckon descent in the matriline. This has led most Chinese ethnologists to designate the Yongning Naxi as a "matriarchal" society which, in accordance with the social evolutionary theories of Lewis Morgan and Friedrich Engels, is in the process of becoming a patrilineal-patriarchal society. Accordingly, the Lijiang Naxi are considered the more evolved branch. This theory remains open to debate.

Kinship Terminology. Traditional Naxi kinship terminology follows the Omaha pattern. The terms for same-sex siblings denote birth order.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditional Lijiang Naxi society shows a fairly strong preference for patrilateral cross-cousin marriage (between a man and his father's sister's daughter). Marriages were arranged by the parents, often when the marriage partners were quite young. Nevertheless, young people frequently took as lovers individuals other than their intended spouses. Unable to break their parents' arrangements, such couples not infrequently resorted to joint suicide. Today, although all marriages are in principal freely contracted by the individuals involved, arranged cross-cousin marriage remains fairly common in the remote villages. Residence is generally patri-virilocal and divorce is very rare. In Yongning society, by contrast, many people do not marry formally, but establish variable-term sexual relations with one or more azhus ("friends"). In azhu relationships, a man will visit his woman friend at night, and return to his own natal, matrilineal household in the morning. Children born of such unions are generally raised in their mother's house.

Domestic Unit. Lijiang Naxi households are initially comprised of a married couple and their unmarried children. Subsequently, all daughters marry out, while elder sons establish independent households nearby upon marriage. Only the youngest son remains with his parents and brings in a wife. Yongning "matrilineal" households are more extended. The recognized head is usually a senior woman, and an ideal household would include her brothers, her younger sisters, her children, her sisters' children, and her and her sisters' daughters' children. Several other household structures, including some based on virilocal marriage, are also found in Yongning.

Inheritance. In Lijiang, sons divide their parents' property equally upon the marriage of the eldest son. Daughters receive a dowry. In Yongning, property can be inherited in either the matri- or the patriline, depending on household composition and descent reckoning as indicated above.

Socialization. While young children enjoy a great deal of unsupervised play, they begin to help around the house at an early age, and by age 12 or 13 are expected to start working alongside their parents. Boys help with the herding, girls in the garden and around the house, and both sexes work in the production and processing of major crops. About 90 percent of the children attend six years of primary school, and perhaps 40 percent of these continue on to middle school. As sons approach a marriageable age they take on an increasingly important role in the business of the patrilineage, and relations with their fathers tend to become more strained. Young brides often have difficulties in adjusting to life in their husband's household, especially as regards their relationship with their mother-in-law.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In Lijiang Naxi society, seniors and men are accorded a higher status than juniors and women. This reflects the power held by the coq-o sso, the "men of the patrilineage." In running the household, however, women exercise considerable authority, and it is women who manage most of the family-run businesses in Lijiang town. In Yongning, the control of women over the domestic sphere is even greater, but political offices were traditionally occupied only by men.

Political Organization. Naxi political organization in the 1980s does not differ markedly from that in other parts of China. In descending order of rank, the hierarchy of political units is: province, prefecture, county, district, township, and village. At each level above the village there are offices for both government and Communist party officials. Locally, party secretaries often exercise greater authority than their counterparts, the township headmen. Due to the proportion of Naxi living there, Lijiang County holds the status of an "autonomous nationality county." This gives the Naxi a degree of freedom to develop their own policies locally, as well as greater flexibility in implementing policies issuing from higher-level government organs.

Social Control. In resolving disputes the Naxi generally try to avoid using the court system and prefer informal mediation through kin networks. In this, the local patrilineage plays an important role. Traditionally, punishments, in some instances including death, were meted out by patrilineage elders. Today, persistent problems are taken to local officials for mediation before legal alternatives are sought. Gossip is also an important mechanism of behavior modification.

Conflict. Historically, warfare with neighboring ethnic groups was fairly common. Groups of Tibetans, Yi, and Pumi, in particular, often raided the more-settled Naxi. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), Naxi units fought with Han troops against the Tibetans on several occasions, and against the Hui in the Muslim uprising in Yunnan during the late nineteenth century.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Most Naxi subscribe to an eclectic mixture of Buddhist, Daoist, and indigenous animist and shamanist beliefs. Traditionally, lamas and priests from the several local Tibetan lamaseries and Chinese Buddhist and Daoist temples were called upon to perform wedding and, especially, funeral ceremonies, along with indigenous Naxi ritual specialists. With the exception of the Yongning Naxi, however, few Naxi have played active roles in these organized religious institutions. In the early eighteenth century, the Naxi of Yongning converted en masse to the Gelug-pa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The lamasery there is well-supported locally, and many men and women take the religious vows.

The Naxi recognize several thousand deities residing throughout the heavens, purgatory, and the human world. Following generally from the Buddhist and Tibetan Bon traditions, specific gods and demons are often conceived in pairs that represent conflict in the cosmos. Virtually all locations and major geographical features have deities associated with them.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional Naxi religious practitioners include ritual specialists, shamans, and diviners. The ritual specialists (dobbaqs ) possess a voluminous literature of ritual texts, written in a unique pictographic script that few ordinary Naxi are able to comprehend. No new dobbaqs have been trained in the post-1949 period, and the remaining hundred or so are quite elderly.

Ceremonies. Traditionally, a variety of annual ceremonies were held in connection with critical moments in the agricultural and pastoral cycles. Some centered around individual families and others around larger social groups. The most important ceremony, the Sacrifice to Heaven (Meebiuq), was performed twice annually, in the first and seventh lunar months. Many of these ceremonies have been discontinued since the founding of the People's Republic of China. Many events of the Han ritual calendar are also celebrated.

Arts. While there is a tradition of visual arts associated with the dobbaq and Buddhist religions, the most common art forms are music, singing, and dance. Singing involves not only great technical skill, but a rare ability to improvise poetic verse.

Medicine. In contemporary Naxi society, modern Western medicine coexists with traditional Chinese medicine, Naxi and Han herbal traditions, and a belief system in which disease is ascribed to the influence of malevolent spirits. Diseases of the latter type are cured through exorcism or shamanic "soul-catching" journeys.

Death and Afterlife. Naxi ideas about death incorporate Buddhist notions of reincarnation, Han folk beliefs in the soul and ghosts, and the idea that the soul travels backwards along the road by which one's ancestors came to the present location, eventually to reside eternally with the ancestors in the north. Today, most Naxi follow Han funerary customs and burial procedures, but in some places bodies are still cremated in the manner of the old tradition. Traditional Naxi funeral rites are very elaborate, especially those for persons who have died "unusual" deaths, such as suicide.


Goullart, Peter (1955). Forgotten Kingdom. London: John Murray.

Jackson, Anthony (1979). Na-khi Religion: An Appraisal of the Na-khi Ritual Texts. The Hague: Mouton.

Li Lin-ts'an (1984). Moso yanjiu lunwen ji (Collected research papers on the Moso). Taipei: Palace Museum.

Rock, Joseph F. (1947). The Ancient Na-khi Kingdom of Southwest China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [See also numerous other books and articles by Rock.]

Zhan Chengxu, et al. (1980). Yongning Naxizu de azhu hunyin he muxi jiating (Azhu marriage and the matrilineal family of the Yongning Naxi). Shanghai: Shanghai Peoples Press.


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