In China's southwest, the Naxi minority culture meets tourism

Few in the ethnic group are left to pass along ancient hieroglyphics and animist traditions.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the beginning of Lijiang's history, there was the word, and the word was a picture.

More than 1,000 years ago, the Naxi people began carving etchings of gods, men, mountains, and the heavens into soft bark to create what is today the world's only living pictographic writing system.

The Naxi scrolls, written by priest-scribes called dongbas, "chronicled native philosophy, religion, history, folk mores, art and literature, medicine, astronomy ... and weaponry," says Zhang Xu, a young filmmaker who has studied the ethnic minority for the last decade. "But these centuries of learning and way of life are in danger of extinction."

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The Naxi hieroglyphics, along with many other facets of their culture, are engaged in a slow-motion clash of civilizations with the dominant Han Chinese majority.

The only locals who can read and write the pictographs are "a group of about 20 elderly shamans out of 280,000 Naxis, and these shamans are dying off without transmitting their knowledge to the next generations," says Zhang.

He Kangxia, a shaman at the Dongba Research Institute in Lijiang, says that "Most Naxis no longer study dongba religion or culture - kids today learn only Han [Chinese] culture." The dongbas practice a unique religion: they are animists who engage in exorcisms, sacrifice animals in heaven-worship rituals, and employ oracles to divine the future.

And as China's Communist leaders use their laws and labor camps to control religious believers ranging from underground Christians to members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, few dongba experts expect the government to try to help save their group.

Other threatened cultures

The story of Lijiang, in southwestern China, mirrors those of the endangered cultures in Buddhist Tibet and Islamic Xinjiang, but with an important twist: Some of the people and organizations who have been the most vocal backers of preserving the region's cultural legacy may have inadvertently hastened its demise.

One year after the "Great Earthquake" of 1996 destroyed parts of Lijiang, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization added the city to its prestigious World Heritage list.

That "means that international experts have designated the site of world value worthy of preservation for all mankind," says Edmond Moukala, a UNESCO official in Beijing. "When a site is put on the World Heritage List, it receives an international recommendation and obtains the right to get funds from foreign governments.... When a site is listed for preservation, the tourist industry is attracted and visitors start flowing in."

For centuries, Lijiang, whose name means "Beautiful River," was a sleepy, peak-protected valley crisscrossed by narrow canals and cobblestone streets. Viewed from above, its wing-tipped houses looked like a gigantic, wooden flock about to take flight.

But in the past several years, tourists have flooded into Lijiang, polluted its streams, and funded the development of a concrete cage of high-rises surrounding the ancient quarter of the city. Han Chinese migrants are dominating the local economy and changing the culture. "More than half of Lijiang's cafes, crafts shops, restaurants, and bars are now run by Chinese from outside the region," says a shoemaker surnamed Zhou, himself a migrant from western Sichuan Province.

The migrants bring not only pop music and karaoke halls, but also drugs, prostitution, and other vices that are eating away at Lijiang's social fabric, say local residents. "More young Naxis are beginning to use heroin, and the problem is becoming so bad that the police only aim to catch the biggest suppliers," says a former Army officer who has opened a business in the center of the city.

The biggest clash of cultures between the local Naxis and Han Chinese took place during the radical Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong in 1966. To tear down China's past and the traditions and beliefs of its ethnic minorities, Mao enlisted millions of young Red Guards to conduct house-to-house searches for books, paintings, and writings from "feudal China." Confucian academies and Buddhist temples were razed or turned into temporary prisons to hold their former inhabitants.

"During the Cultural Revolution, many dongba scripts were burned and dongba priests were attacked throughout the Lijiang region," says Yang Fuquan, a Naxi scholar at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences. Although the Chinese leadership promised religious freedom and cultural autonomy after Mao's death in 1976, "the legacy of the Cultural Revolution lives on," says director Zhang Xu.

She says that "The Naxis have become terrified of being associated with "banned superstitions," the party's term for religious practices that is echoed in recent charges against Falun Gong practitioners. And today, "there are only 25 monks in the Tibetan Buddhist temples around Lijiang, compared with 10,000 before the Communist Revolution," says a Buddhist worshipper who asked not to be identified.

Although the central and provincial governments have funded the restoration of some temples, the moves seem aimed more at fueling the nascent ethno-tourism trade than at sparking a religious renaissance. The once-vibrant Yufeng Monastery, at the foot of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain on the outskirts of Lijiang, now charges a 20 yuan ($2.40) entrance fee. Visitors are overwhelmingly Chinese curiosity-seekers. "Most Naxi villagers cannot afford to pay the entrance fee," says the Buddhist worshipper.

Buildings, icons, and a way of life

Inside the temple, a tourist shop sells intricately carved icons, some billed as centuries old. And as Lijiang is inundated by tourists, the city is beginning to resemble a valley-wide museum that is being stripped of its cultural heart, say local scholars, clergy, and residents.

"If you preserve only the buildings and monuments of an endangered site without protecting the cultural life around it, then the culture is likely to die," says UNESCO's Moukala. Filmmaker Zhang agrees. "If tourism isn't controlled and if funds aren't invested into protecting Lijiang, then the dongba's [culture] ... could end up surviving only in museums." In the end, Zhang adds, the unique art-language of the Naxis, like the rest of their culture, could become mere pictures in an exhibition hall which are understood by no one.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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