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Naxi: the all singing, all dancing, nature loving people of China

Luckyily for us, we happened to arrive in Lijiang during the Naxi celebrations to their God of Water – Shu. Every year in January they hold ceremonies to worship nature, as they believe strongly in the value of water as the source of life; keeping their local river systems clean, living in harmony nearby water and striving for ecological purity. They call it the primitive Shangri-La Spirit – the act of balancing humanity and nature.

With that in mind, the Naxi people gather close by Lijiang’s Black Dragon Pool, which reflects the towering mountains and they dance. They also sing, loudly, for hours; holding hands and moving to the music as people watch and wonder. Mostly me.

The Naxi are believed to be the descendants of the nomadic Qiang, an ethnic group inhabiting the Tibetan plateau since ancient times. They are one of China’s 56 ethnic minorities and proud of it. They have their own local dialect and funky pictograph writing that is thousands of years old, known as Dongba.

Unfortunately for the Naxi people, the Communist Revolution ensured that the use of Dongba was discouraged, until 1957 when the Chinese Government invented a Latin-based writing system for them. Thanks Mao.

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution when everyone was getting busy making stuff for the apparent greater good, thousands of manuscripts were destroyed and boiled down into construction paste for building houses. Luckily some Dongba manuscripts survived, taken from China by some good folk to the United States, Germany and Spain.

Today Dongba is nearly extinct, and the Chinese Government are trying to revive it in an attempt to preserve Naxi culture. Now tourists can contribute to the preservation of Naxi culture by paying for private Cultural Shows in theatre restaurants. I guess we felt lucky to get the street version for free.

Their music is 500 years old and for all our inexperience in the world of traditional folk, a very acquired taste. Imagine a kind of guttural throat singing style, Tibetan-ish traditional instruments, accompanied by a slow side to side swaying cum dancing action.

Apparently the music was a gift from the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty – Kublai Khan. One day he was traversing the countryside on his way South to Dali and he had trouble crossing the Golden Sand River. Enter the Chief of the Naxi people to the rescue.

To show his gratitude, Kublai Khan left half of his band and a lot of musical scores as a gift to the Chief. Known as Baisha Fine Music it is one of ancient China’s few large-scale, classical orchestral forms of music and has twenty four tunes. Although archaic, simple, and some would generously say elegant in style, modern Baisha is touted by the Chinese to be exquisite and energetic in character. We just couldn’t really see it. The cool thing is that today, Baisha is the most well-preserved musical form in China.

If you’re curious, you can listen to an example of the musical style and see for yourself.
I challenge you to sit through the whole six minutes!


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