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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 Kevin PlattStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 29, 2000



LIJIANG, CHINA

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

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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."

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.