The time-locked world of China’s Naxi people
“I am old and ugly — why do you want a picture of me?” asks the grizzled village elder, shaking his weather-worn head in bemusement. Dressed in simple village attire of loose cotton pants and 1950s Mao jacket, and clutching a silver angel-hair tobacco pipe that matches his wispy grey beard, this octogenarian in many ways typifies China’s modest beauty.
I am in Baisha, a small town in the country’s remote southwest province of Yunnan where, in stark contrast to much of rapidly modernising China, the ageless reign. Here, old is good, old is beautiful, old is something to be treasured.
Baisha constitutes part of the famous three-town cluster of Lijiang, a well-preserved prefecture that sits beneath the lofty Jade Dragon Snow (Yulong) mountains, not far from the mythical Tiger Leaping Gorge near the Tibetan frontier.
Within easy reach of the fabled Shangri-La region immortalised in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, The Lost Horizon, Lijiang, it is said, is a town forgotten by fairies. It maintains an old-world charm that began a millennium ago when the nomadic Naxi (pronounced Nashi) people crossed the Tibetan plateau, trading in their long-distance yak caravans for a pastoral lifestyle on the surrounding fertile river plain. En route, their first stop was Baisha, still a Naxi stronghold and a place virtually unchanged since the 11th century.
After sampling a Dalai Lama breakfast (oats, yoghurt and spices), my guide Gou and I explore its dusty streets, catching rare glimpses of primitive rural China: mahjong tiles clacking, chickens scratching in the dirt, women in doorways washing their hair from wooden buckets.
Jealously guarded by its 5000 inhabitants, the town’s time-locked culture makes it a living museum, now enjoyed by a growing number of tourists fascinated by the Naxi way of life. Almost half of China’s 60 recognised ethnic minority groups reside in Yunnan, each with its own colourful history and tradition. The Naxi are no different.
Last of the matriarchies
Until recently, this 300,000-strong cultural group remained one of the world’s last free and open matriarchal societies whereby women controlled family affairs, organised market activity and enjoyed multiple lovers — an ancient custom known as the zouhun, or “walking marriage” system.
According to local custom, a man would ride his horse to his lover’s window in the evening, singing to announce himself. He would present a gift to the family, spend the night and leave at first light; any resulting children remained with the mother. All family pedigrees were traced back through maternal lines. No Naxi word for “father” existed.
Gou says that although such customs have largely been outlawed by the Chinese government’s crackdown on adultery and polyandry, Naxi women remain independent and highly respected. And, as with their matriarchal neighbours to the north near Sichuan province, the Musuo, they retain strong ties with mother earth, believing the female to be the source of life and the incarnation of peace of wisdom.
Not surprisingly, women comprise Lijiang’s main labour force. In the nearby fields, among blossoms of pinkish-red highland chrysanthemum, it is they who carry the family’s workload on their backs — literally — in wicker beilo baskets loaded with melons, pears, pig feed and sometimes young children.
They are resplendent in traditional dress: trousers, aprons and caps in various shades of blue, with criss-cross strapped goatskin capes embroidered with seven circular patches symbolising the stars of the Big Dipper constellation under which they toil. Similar to those worn by their Mongolian cousins, these frog-eyed garments serve a threefold purpose, says Gou, by keeping the wearer clean when working the fields, skinning animals and cooking.
Naxi men, on the other hand, are left to drink, paint and ponder their place in life. Many are considered slovenly, whispers Gou, a former teacher from Yunnan’s capital Kunming and a non-Naxi. “About 50 per cent of Naxi men are lazy,” he claims. “They sleep and drink tea, so women often marry a man from another tribe.”
Still, many Naxi male elders are skilled calligraphers and musicians, performing regularly in various classical orchestras throughout the Lijiang area. A living remnant of an earlier era, these musical collectives were originally founded in the 1200s under Kublai Khan’s patronage. Today, they are famous for their “three olds”: old men (few players are under 80), old instruments and old songs.
With their music banned during the Cultural Revolution, many musicians concealed their instruments by burying them underground. These days, aided by public donations, Baisha’s local orchestra conducts performances on the roadside, reprising Song Dynasty-period compositions handed down father-to-son over the generations.
Adept at the Chinese flute, bobo (double-reed pipe), ten gong chimes and the crooked-neck pipa (pear-shaped guitar), these silk-robed seniors re-create with solemn simplicity folk-based songs that marry ancient torch music with Confucian ceremony. To these unschooled ears, it sounds like little more than a high-pitched racket, but if you believe an old Yunnanese proverb, experiencing classical Naxi music is akin to listening to a beating heart.
Also held in high esteem in these parts is Dr Shixiu Ho, Baisha’s sprightly 82-year-old Naxi herbalist and physician whose Lijiang Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Chinese Herbal Medicine Clinic has gained significant fame in the region since it opened in 1985. The diminutive Dr Ho, a spectacle of herbal wisdom in his white laboratory coat and fu manchu beard, counts himself a natural healer and acupuncturist having purportedly treated more than 300,000 patients suffering diabetes, cancer, bronchitis and other ailments using plants, roots and herbs collected from the nearby mountains.
Despite claims of spying in the past, he has often treated patients for free. During an epidemic in the region in the mid-90s, Dr Ho often mailed medicine to patients before receiving his fee. And although now officially retired, he still sends herbs wrapped in paper to people overseas. “To treat a disease is like fighting fire,” he is quoted as saying. “It will delay [curing] the disease if I mail the medicine after receiving payment.”
Ironically, it was his own potentially fatal illness in his 20s that led Dr Ho to return to Jade Dragon Snow mountains to investigate medicinal herbs. After a decade of study, including that of his father’s secret botanical recipes, he eventually cured himself, earning his doctor’s stripes along the way. An unashamed self-promoter, Dr Ho claims he was discovered by the English travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who wrote about him in the New York Times in 1986 following one of the author’s forays through China. “He died two years ago. I was very sad,” Dr Ho laments, pouring me a bitter herbal concoction for my lingering flu.
A multi-lingual Dr Ho has since become an international celebrity of sorts, hosting diplomats, dignitaries, surgeons and television personalities alike, including Michael Palin and John Cleese, the latter offering the parting quip: “Nice bloke, crap tea!”
Recently written into the lists of 2000 Outstanding Scientists of the 20th Century and 500 Leaders of Influence, Dr Ho has his office wallpapered with hundreds of newspaper articles and letters detailing his “remarkable” talents as a Tao physician and miracle worker. In many ways, he represents the Naxi way of life, perfectly encapsulated in a local proverb: “Work like ants, live like butterflies.” “I am famous but I lead a simple life,” he says, bidding us farewell.
Just outside Baisha lies the rustic minority village of Mudu, a splendid cluster of mediaeval dwellings housing several families and more than a few farm animals. As we approach, Gou claps his hands to announce our arrival. We are warmly greeted and led to a courtyard where a group of young Naxi women cook mooncake on a small coal stove in preparation for the approaching autumn moon festival. Consisting of bean flour, sesame seed and rape oil, traditional mooncake is Frisbee-sized and delicious. Sitting on low wooden stools, we sample a portion along with tea and sunflower seeds. Peeling corn husks from an enormous basket, locals giggle as they watch us eat.
Village houses are typically two-tiered earth structures built in the clay and timber tradition set down by Naxi ancestors — designed to keep out both heat and cold. In communal courtyards grow fruit trees ripe with papaya, apples and plums, all fed by springwater and later harvested and sun-dried on rattan trays. Many rural houses accommodate three family generations on the ground level, with the upper open-air storey used for storing firewood and crops: maize, soybean, potato and sometimes hemp.
Within easy reach in the Yulong mountains is the Yu Feng Si (Jade Peak) Buddhist monastery, home to a 500-year-old sacred camellia tree believed to bloom 10,000 pink flowers each spring. This 5.6-metre-high Ming-period relic is actually an outgrowth of two entangled camellias — one male, one female — planted too close together. During the 1950s, a resident Buddhist monk, Nong Lu, risked death at the hands of Mao’s Red Guards by secretly watering the tree at night. Now nearing his 90th birthday, this faithful guardian still sits in blissful solitude, watching over his beloved camellia from a nearby porch.
Pointing to the surrounding courtyard embossed with tiles depicting the Chinese symbol for long life, Gou says that for visitors, in particular newly married couples, the tree is a symbol of love and longevity.
Ten kilometres further south is Lijiang’s main town and star tourist attraction, Dayan. This picture-book old quarter is one of China’s most popular attractions, boasting the country’s largest collection of antiquated freestanding wood and stone houses. Built in the 13th century, these structures with their ornate design are a poignant reminder of Lijiang’s 800-year history.
Most of the houses, with their upturned eaves and flower-lined terraces, survived a devastating earthquake in 1996 that destroyed adjacent new Lijiang’s modern concrete buildings, killing 300 people. That the old quarter withstood the powerful quake is testament to time-honoured Naxi construction methods, whereby wood-pole frames allowed mudbrick walls to collapse outwards, leaving both tiled rooftops and village inhabitants largely untouched.
A year later, in 1997, UNESCO listed Lijiang as a World Heritage cultural site, sparking a flurry of restoration work and a new co-existence between tradition and tourism. Busloads of Chinese tour groups now flock to pedestrianised Dayan in great numbers to experience firsthand a rapidly vanishing phenomenon: old-world China and all its inherent charms.
One of Dayan’s prettiest features is its vast network of springwater canals that thread their way through the old quarter. The Naxi’s close relationship with the natural world dictates that a stream must flow past every home. “A house beside a stream with a small bridge across it makes a harmonious scene,” states a traditional poem derived from the dongba, the Naxi’s pictographic script based on ancient animist, Tibetan and Taoist beliefs. Fed by the snow-capped Yulong mountains and collected in the nearby Black Dragon Pool — rumoured to house a mythical dragon among its revered Naxi pavilions and phoenix towers — these swiftly flowing streams are the lifeblood of Lijiang (“beautiful river”), giving rise to the town’s reputation as the Oriental Venice.
The Naxi have cleverly diverted streams through their homes and into kitchens, supplying small artesian wells the Chinese call canyi. At the southern end of town, the Baima Long Tan Triple Well is divided into ponds according to use: the upstream well is strictly for drinking only, the second well for washing fruit and vegetables and the third for washing clothes.
In the dull half-light of early morning, we follow the streams along empty streets, strolling past countless chestnut wood gangplanks that link houses to the myriad stone alleys paved smooth by years of foot traffic. Store holders sleepily remove carved door panels in anticipation of tour buses, street masseurs limber up, and shuffling old Naxi folk hawk fresh vegetables from rusted three-wheel carts and pork buns and jidou (beancurd jelly) from doorways.
Flanked by weeping willows and red lanterns, and spanned by slab stone-arch bridges, Dayan’s canals are often wider than the narrow walkways that run beside them, suggesting it’s water and not the road that ultimately guides the way.
Most of Dayan’s backstreets invariably lead to bustling Sifang market square, the town’s nerve centre and once part of a vital tea-horse trading route through to Tibet. Now highly commercialised, the square is ringed by cafés, guesthouses and souvenir shops peddling handicrafts, Mao memorabilia and the ubiquitous postcards, all part of China’s great leap towards modern capitalist success.
Still, the square remains an important meeting place for the town’s 40,000 residents. Mid-morning, elderly Naxi women gather in full costume to sing and line-dance in a fabulous ritual that often sweeps up unsuspecting tourists. Forming a long circle chain, they hold hands and stamp their feet in a traditional method called alili designed to keep toes and fingers warm during the winter months. This dance is believed to bring to life cultural traditions involving family, love and solidarity.
Unlike the neighbouring cobbled town of Dali to the south, Lijiang was originally built for trade, not political purposes. Its architectural layout is therefore freeform and unfortified, quite an exception in wall-obsessed China. With houses cosily bunched together and sharing communal courtyards, the town’s pervading focus is one of unity and harmony where Naxi, Tibetan, Bai and Han people have peacefully co-existed for centuries.
Antiquated as it is, Lijiang and its hidden beauty are hopefully here to stay.