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ALTERNATE NAMES: Muoshayi, Moxieman, Nari, Naheng, Malimasha,Yuanke, Bangxi, Muoxie, Moshu, and Wuman
LANGUAGE: Naxi and Chinese
RELIGION: Dongba, Lamaism, Taoism, and Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: China and Her National Minorities


As early as the 4th century ad, the ancestors of the Naxi lived around Yanyuan in south Sichuan. They were called Muoshayi in Chinese ancient books. Later on, they reached the Jinsha River and Yalong River and gradually migrated south to areas around Lijiang and Binchuan in northern Yunnan. There, they became prosperous and called the Moxieman. They established their own political administration, Moxiezhao, which was later integrated into the Nanzhao Kingdom in the first half of the 8th century. Areas around Lijiang, however, became an area of fierce rivalry between Nanzhao and Tubo (the ancient regime of the Tibetans). In the mid-13th century, the army led by Mongolian aristocrats passed the Lijiang area to attack the Dali Kingdom and were welcomed by the Mu clan, ancestors of the Naxi. Thereafter, hereditary headmen of the Mu clan were appointed by the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. They represented a great force at the juncture of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet, and played the role of a strong pillar of the Chinese central government to rule over this area. Owing to the close contact with various nationalities over many centuries, the economy and culture of the Naxi have been greatly influenced by those of the Chinese, the Tibetans, the Yi, and the Bai.


Amounting to 308,893 in the 2000 census, the Naxi mainly inhabit Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County; they also form an important part of the ethnically composite population of Weixi, Zhongdian, and Ninglang counties in Yunnan Province and Mangkang County in Tibet. Jinsha, Lancang, and Yalong are three important rivers flowing through the areas inhabited by the Naxi and criss-crossing a varied topography of high mountain areas, plateaus, basins, and canyons, with an average height of 8,800 ft above sea level. Although the climate fluctuates considerably depending on altitude and season, rainfall is abundant and the land suitable for cultivation. The Jinsha River winds through a famous forested area. The Tiger-Leaping Gorge of Jinsha River is one of the deepest gorges in the world. The river cuts a deep course between the Yulong and Haba mountains, which reach an altitude of some 13,000 ft. Powerful torrents gush down a drop of more than 1,000 ft.


The Naxi language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family, Tibeto-Burman group, Yi branch. There are two dialects, eastern and western. Many people are bilingual (Naxi and Chinese). There were two traditional writing systems. The first was ideo-graphic as well as pictographic (Dongba writing); the second was syllabic (Geba writing). These writing systems were not used by the Naxi people at large but were usually reserved for the priests of the Dongba religion (Bon shamanism originating from Tibet) to record poems, folklore stories, and rituals. An alphabetic writing based on romanization was created in 1957.

Naxi is a self-given name. "Na" means "big and black" and "Xi" means "men." Different branches of the Naxi call themselves Nari, Naheng, Malimasha, Yuanke, Bangxi, Muoxie, and Moshu. In China, the Naxi were traditionally known as Wuman (Black people). Naxi has been their unified name since 1954.


Tradition has it that the first man of the world, Hengu, had five sons and six daughters. They married each other, incurring the wrath of the Supreme God, manifested by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. All the brothers and sisters died except the youngest brother, Li'en, who hid in remote, thickly forested mountains. The Supreme God sought to kill him. In despair, he met a lesser god who gave him a goat, a dog, a rooster and 10 kinds of cereal crops. Following the god's instructions, Li'en killed an ox, made a bag with its skin, and put the animals and the crops inside the bag. Knowing about it, the Supreme God tried to destroy the bag and its content by fire, thunder, and turbulent streams. The leather bag floated in the air for seven months and finally dropped on a cliff. Li'en cut it open and let out the animals. He busied himself by planting crops and sometimes hunting, but lived in solitude. He sought help again from the lesser god, who told him: There were two celestial women living on the Twin-Star Cliff. One of them was very beautiful but not good, while the other was very good but not beautiful. The god repeatedly admonished him that the latter was the one he should marry. However, when he met the beautiful fairy maiden, he fell under her spell. After the marriage, the beautiful maiden had four children. The first time she gave birth to a pine and a chestnut; the second, to a snake and a frog; the third, to a bear and a pig; and the fourth, to a monkey and a chicken. Li'en was deeply disappointed. He asked for help again. After he implored for a long time, the lesser god finally promised to help him propose to the good fairy maiden. He succeeded in marrying her after innumerable hardships. She gave birth to triplets, but after six years, they still could not talk. Li'en and his wife offered sacrifices to the gods of heaven and earth. One day, the children began to speak, but in different languages. The eldest spoke Tibetan; the second spoke Moxie (Naxi); the youngest spoke Chinese. They became the ancestors of the Tibetan, Naxi, and Chinese peoples.


Most Naxi believe in a religion called "Dongba"; others believe in Lamaism (the Tibetan version of Mahayana Buddhism) or Taoism. Since the 19th century a small number of them have converted to Christianity.

Dongba is a primitive polytheistic religion. Its name comes from its founder, Dongba Shiluo. He was a precocious child, endowed with many supernatural gifts. He killed an ogress and a number of malevolent ghosts, delivering the people from many evils. Another theory, however, says that Dongba is originally a branch of the original, pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion, called "Bon" (a form of Shamanism). The Naxi believe that the innumerable spirits that fill the world are ambivalent, having the power to bring disaster upon them and to grant them good fortune. They ascribe spirits to the sky, earth, sun, moon, mountain, water, fire, wind, rain, thunder, lightning, wood, snow, etc., and believe that the spirits never die. Therefore, they hold frequent offerings to various gods, even the Livestock God and Crop God. Images of gods appear on the instruments of the shaman (called dongba), including drums, bells, swords, chains, forks, bows, arrows, and conch. The religious activities involve almost every aspect of the Naxi's life, such as offering sacrifices to spirits and ancestors, marriage, birth, naming, burial, festival, divination, selection of dates for important events, exorcising ghosts, curing disease, praying for a good harvest, expiating the sins of the dead, etc.


Besides seasonal sacrificial offerings, major holidays are the Spring Festival, the Farm Tools Festival in January, the Dragon King Festival in March, the Torch Festival in June, and the Mule and Horse Meeting in July (all according to lunar calendar).

The Spring Festival (lunar New Year; Western calendar, between January 21 and February 20) is a grand holiday. The New Year's Eve is a very important occasion. The traditional custom of cooking a pig's head and butchering chickens is still followed. These sacrificial rituals aim at honoring the Kitchen God and welcoming ancestors to return to celebrate the New Year together with the family. Various dishes and fruits are prepared for the dinner party. If a family member is away, a bowl and a pair of chopsticks symbolizing his/her presence should be put on the table. Thus, the whole family is reunited. They feed the dog rice and meat; based on the dog's appetite, they forecast the production and the price of rice and pigs. On the first of January, they offer sacrifice for boys and girls who have reached 13 years of age.

The twentieth of January (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between February 11 and March 9) is the Farm Tools Festival. It is a fair of farm tools, originating from a temple fair in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Since the busy spring season is coming, an endless array of farm tools made of iron, wood, and bamboo, a wide variety of articles of daily use, as well as children's toys are exhibited on the square in front of the temple and on side streets.

The fifteenth of March (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between April 7 and May 5) is the Dragon King Festival, originally the date of a sacrificial offering to the Dragon King, now a fair of commodities among different nationalities.

From June 25-27 (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between June 22 and August 22) is the Torch Festival. Buffalo fighting, wrestling, and antiphonal singing are held in the daytime. In the evening, each household places a big torch on a nearby tree and many small ones in the courtyard. Children hold torches while dancing. Youngsters gather to dance while playing the reed-pipe wind instrument (lüsheng).

July 15 (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between August 9 and September 7) is the Mule and Horse Meeting. It is a colorful fair of large animals, among which the Lijiang and Yongning horses account for the greater part of the business (bidding). On this occasion, horse racing, antiphonal singing, and other recreational and sporting activities are also held.


Among the Naxi around Lake Lugu, a rite of "adulthood" for boys and girls having reached 13 years of age is held on the morning on the first day of the lunar New Year. All families having a child of that age kindle a big fire in the firepool. The boy stands by a "male column" and the girl by a "female column." They stand with one foot on a grain bag and the other foot on the fat of a pig. Silver coins are put in their hands. This rite means that they will have endless fortune in the future. Helped by her mother, the girl puts on a new skirt; the boy, helped by his uncle (mother's brother), puts on new trousers; the dongba (shaman) recites the prayers. Finally, the boys and the girls kowtow to their mother, uncle, and other elder members of their family. After the rite, they are allowed to participate in some major productive labor and social intercourse.

The Naxi burial customs vary in different districts. Cremation is traditional. Around Lake Lugu, the funeral is organized by the lama as well as by dongba. As soon as someone dies, the family informs relatives and neighbors. The body is washed. Bits of silver, tea, and butter are put into the mouth of the dead. Butter is also applied to the nose and ears. Linen bands are used to tie the body up into a squatting posture; it is then put inside a linen or white cloth bag. A cave is dug beforehand in the rear of the central room. The bag containing the body is put down into the cave, with its face toward the gate. The cave is covered by a plank or an iron pan, which is further covered by a layer of earth. It is the exclusive duty of the son or nephew of the dead to cover the plank or pan with earth. This is called the "temporary stay of the corpse," the duration of which is decided by the lama, but it should not exceed 49 days. During these days, relatives and friends bring oblations and offer their condolences. When the days are over, the dongba priest is invited to read the scriptures to open a way for the soul of the dead. At the same time, the body is taken out of the cavern and put inside a cubic wooden coffin. When the coffin is sent to the crematorium, eight lama sit cross-legged while reciting the scriptures. Then, the body is again taken from the coffin and placed on firewood for cremation. They bury the ash in a secluded place. The Naxi in Lijiang District have exchanged the fire burial for a ground burial. There are four or five successive rituals during the funeral, which is organized mainly by the dongba.


When entertaining guests, the host usually offers buttered tea, corn candy, millet candy, and stir-fried sunflower seeds. An alternative is bitter tea, potato, and stir-fried cornmeal. If the host gives a banquet, stewed chicken, fried eggs, pork, bean curd, and wine are served.

The youngsters are free to meet socially. During festivals and fairs, girls band together and prepare to meet boys. Holding catkins in their hands, the young men also get together in groups. According to custom, girls always bring some candies or cakes with them. The young men beg the girls they like for some refreshments. They make an appointment to meet in the evening by the riverside or by the bonfire. They express their passions through singing, but they are not allowed to sit side-by-side or face-to-face. A distance of 2-3 m (7-10 ft) is necessary for their conversation or antiphonal singing.


There are two traditional types of housing. One is a wood-arris house. The walls are built by piling up logs and roofed with planks, which are pressed by stones. A firepool is at the center of the room. The beds are set up on frames. The second type is a tile-roofed house. The foundation is built by piling up hewn rocks. The lower portion of the wall is built with bricks or adobes, and the upper portion with planks. The roof is rather large, with eaves stretching outward to protect the wooden walls. There are many compounds of houses around a common courtyard, similar to the quadrangle of Beijing. There are also storied houses for large families.

Highways have been built in recent decades. Most of the Naxi townships and villages have bus stops. There are well-equipped hospitals in counties and cities. Pestilence and epidemic diseases have been eradicated since 1949.


There are three types of families. One is the patrilineal family, usually an extended family consisting of three to four generations. The property is handed down from the father to his sons. The eldest son will be the patriarch when his father is old and infirm. When they break up the big family and live apart, an "old-age field" is provided for the parents and will be cultivated on their behalf by their sons. The position of women in a family is rather low. They have no right of inheritance. This type of family is now mostly replaced by small monogamous families, and the position of men and women in a family is more or less equal.

Naxi families living around Lake Lugu are matrilineal. For instance, a woman lives with her brothers and sisters, her mother with her mother's brothers and sisters, and so on for women of each generation. All the family members are generations of women with their sons and daughters. In the family, there are no husbands and wives, because they practice a unique form of friendship marriage called azhu ("friend"). An adult man goes to a woman's house at night and they sleep together. He returns to his mother's house at dawn to participate in productive labor there. The man and the woman call each other azhu. Their relationship is by no means stable. It may last as long as several years, or as short as one or two nights. Most of the men or women have six or seven azhu in their lives. The men usually begin to have an azhu at 17 or 18 and the women at 15 or 16. If the boy and girl are offspring of the same maternal ancestor of less than five generations, the azhu relationship is taboo; if more than five generations, there is no prohibition. Difference in age, seniority in the family or clan, and nationality are not limitations. To renounce the azhu relation is easy: either the woman closes her door to the man or the man ceases to call at her house. In some cases a simple message is sent to the opposite side stating that the azhu relation is terminated. The children born from the azhu relationship are members of the woman's family. The man has no concern for the children. A family usually consists of two to four generations, with an average of seven or eight people. In rare cases, the family members amount to as many as 20 to 30. The head of the family is usually an aged or a capable woman. She is also the organizer of the sacrificial offerings. The work is divided according to age and sex. The property is distributed according to a principle of egalitarianism.

The third type is the bilateral family, in which patrilineal and matrilineal families coexist. The children borne by the woman before and after marriage live in the same family, but only those who were born after her marriage are counted on the paternal side. All the family members have equal inheritance and proprietary rights. The bilateral family appears to be the combination of the matrilineal (linked to the azhu relationship) and of the patrilineal family structure of the Naxi.

In areas where the Naxi do not practice azhu, the wedding is an elaborate ceremony and the matrimonial customs show a marked influence of the Chinese traditional model.


The men's dress is not very different from that of the Chinese. In winter, men wear a short garment of worn-out fur or a wool cloak. The middle-aged and the aged wear a long robe buttoned on the side, which was the traditional male dress of the Chinese and the Manchus during the Qing Dynasty (1644- 1911). Men always put on a cap or a hat; if not, they wrap their head with a cloth. Women's clothes vary in different districts. In some areas, they wear a vest and a loose garment over their knees and a pair of trousers that is covered by a multipleated skirt. In other areas, they wear a short garment and a multipleated skirt with a broad waistband of cloth. Girls comb their hair into braids or wear a kerchief. Married women always wrap their head with a long cloth. The colors of their dress are mostly black, blue, and white.


The staple foods of the Naxi include wheat, rice, and corn. In mountainous areas, highland barley, buckwheat, and potato are added as a supplement. They usually take rice only at dinner. Wooden tablewares are used. Meat is served in equal portions by the man of the house. Daughters are in charge of other dishes. The Naxi like sour and spicy food, drinking, and smoking. Ham cakes and sour fish are some of their main delicacies; these will be served to guests or offered as gifts.


In Lijiang, 94% of school-age children attend local schools. In areas around Lake Lugu, primary schools have been set up in larger villages and middle schools in the counties. However, school attendance is not as high as that of the Lijiang District. There are a number of college students and scholars of Naxi nationality throughout China and some studying or teaching abroad.


A major feature of Naxi culture is the combination of poems, songs, music, and dance, such as "Wenmaida," "Arere," and "Sanduo." There is also ancient orchestral music performed on indigenous or Chinese instruments including bamboo flutes, vertical flutes, reed-pipe (lüsheng), two- and three-stringed violins (huiqin and sanxian), plucked string instruments (pipa, zheng, and se) conches, and drums. "Dongba Classic Dance" (performed during rituals) and folk dance follow the general pattern of dancing while singing. A number of Naxi dances are imitations of animal movements: "White Lamb Dance," "White Deer Dance," Lark Dance," "Ox Dance," "Golden Peacock Dance," etc.

The Naxi have a rich literature including myths, folklore, stories, long poems, folk songs, fables, fairy tales, proverbs, riddles, and children's songs. Among them, "The Creation," preserved intact in Dongba scripture, is the most famous. It describes the story of Li'en, the earliest ancestor of the Naxi. Narrative poems, such as "The War of Black and White" and "Hunting Song," are also masterpieces of Naxi literature.


The main occupation of the Naxi is agriculture. Because of their long tradition of livestock husbandry, they are also experts in raising horses. Their horses are small and tough, good for climbing hills and mountains. Some people grow Chinese medicinal herbs. Ludian in Lijiang is the "home of medicinal herbs."


Swinging, horse racing, wrestling, and arrow shooting are traditional sports of the Naxi. In addition, there are two unique sports. One is the "Rotating Race" (damoqiu), for which the teenagers are most enthusiastic. A pole is erected on the ground. Its upper end is pared in a concave hemispherical pit. A trans-verse pole is pared at the middle point into a round ball-like shape to fit in the hemispherical pit of the vertical pole. Some vegetable oil is added for lubrication. Two players facing each other prostrate the upper part of their body on the transverse pole. They exert their strength on tiptoe in turn when touching the ground, thus making the ends of the transverse wave up and down as it rotates faster and faster. It requires much skill and is physically quite exhausting. The other sport peculiar to the Naxi is the "Dongba Jump." The athletes dress like warriors, imitating the martial practice of the ancient dongba, who were both priests and warriors.


Movies and television are quite popular in the Naxi districts. The public cultural events in their cities are not different from those of the Chinese. But, the Naxi still prefer their traditional forms of entertainment, singing, dancing, swinging, and damuoqiu.


Carpets, brass and copper ware, embroidery, ornaments, silver plated wooden bowls, and tanned leather products are famous Naxi crafts. The ancient Naxi architecture (as is found in the governmental offices of local officials, temples, ancestral halls, arches, pavilions, stone tablets, and pagodas) are universally admired. The Naxi talent for sculpture and carving is vividly demonstrated in the wooden statue of the thousand-arm Buddha in Dajue Palace and in the openwork of the doors and windows of civilian houses. The thousand-arm Buddha in Fuguo Temple, the Sakyamuni in Longquan Temple, and group of warring animals in Beiyue Temple are masterpieces of clay sculpture.


The Naxi have succeeded in maintaining their socio-economic sovereignty. They live in quite compact communities, cut off from the main lines of communication and transport in China. There is a marked rural/urban imbalance in their overall development. For instance, the Naxi around Lake Lugu still preserve their ancestral matrilineal type of marriage and family, while the Naxi living in and around Lijiang City have been integrated in the "Chinese way of life."


The Chinese constitution states that women have equal rights with men in all areas of life, and most legislation is gender neutral. However, there are continued reports of discrimination, sexual harassment, wage discrepancies, and other gender related problems. The gap in educational level between women and men is narrowing with women making up 47.1% of college students in 2005, but only 32.6% of doctoral students.

China has strict family planning laws. It is illegal for women to marry before 20 years of age (22 for men), and it is illegal for single women to give birth. The Family Planning Bureau can require women to take periodic pregnancy tests and enforce laws that often leave women with no real options other than abortion or sterilization. Though minority populations were previously exempt from family planning regulations, policy has changed in recent years to limit minority population growth. Today, urban minority couples may have two children while rural couples may have three or four.

Prostitution and the sex trade is a significant problem in China involving between 1.7 and 5 million women. It involved organized crime, businessmen, the police, and government workers, so prosecution against prostitution has limited success. In 2002, the nation removed homosexuality from its official list of mental illnesses, and though it is still a taboo topic, homosexuality is increasingly accepted, especially in large, international cities.


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—by C. Le Blanc

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