Ellen Douglas gets a real taste for China as she explores the history and customs of the Naxi people. They are thought to have originated in northwestern China. Now, this is an ethnic group inhabiting the foothills of the Himalayas in northwestern Hunan province and southwest Sichuan province.
Ellen Douglas, host
High season in the Hunan Valley is rainy season, yet we had to come to the Joseph Rock Museum. This man was a botanist, a traveller, a linguist, an adventurer; he told the story of the minority people in this region for almost three decades, and he transcribed the Naxi language, he was a true Indiana Jones.
The Naxi people form one of the 55 ethnic minority groups officially recognized by the people's republic of China. They are thought to have originated in northwestern China. Now, this is an ethnic group inhabiting the foothills of the Himalayas in northwestern Hunan province and southwest Sichuan province. These minority people were brought to the attention of the western world by two men: the Austrian-American explorer, linguist, botanist and geographer, Joseph Rock and Russian writer and traveler, Peter Goullart. Both of whom lived in Lijiang and travelled during the early 20th century. Peter Goullart's book, Forgotten Kingdom, describes the life and beliefs of the Naxi and neighboring peoples. The author dedicated this book to his friend Joseph Rock. These two men truly loved the region and the Naxi people, as written in Peter's descriptive and alluring writing. This is what he wrote about seeing the region for the first time, again and again:
"Descending from the past, the loveliness of the valley hit me with staggering force, as it always did when I made this journey to Lijiang in springtime. I had to dismount and contemplate this scene of paradise. The air was like champagne, the weather warm but with a tinge of freshness that came from the great snow range dominating the valley."
He clearly cared about the area and the Naxi people.
The Naxi people have a long and storied history. This place here, in the jade water village, is very important to them. This represents the god of nature, and this is one of the most fresh drinking springs in the area. The legend is that man and the god of nature were born to the same father and different mothers. When the parents died there was a fight over the property inheritance. Originally, the god of nature wins, man has nothing, so the god of heaven sends down a master to negotiate an end to the fight. There was many disagreements, finally man is allowed to share in the bounty with the god of nature. But the deal is they have to stop putting blood in the water, they have to stop cutting the trees down and they have to respect the land. People now come here, drink the water and pray to the god of nature for clean, good land.
I've got great access today, my friend Yan is going to take me to meet a Naxi Dongba master. My first question is going to be, "how does one become such a wise man?"
Yan: He says it takes at least 10 years to be a Dongba, because Dongba means to learn many things, from astronomy, to geography, to the traditions, to the history, the music, the songs, the paintings, so many things he has to learn. And that's also why the Naxi people call Dongba the wise man. Dongba characters are very important; Dongba character is actually a kind of pictographic language. So initially it is from paintings, so when they see a bird they raw a bird, and they call this bird. Like, it's a beautiful painting, and he is very good at this and he's very glad to show us how to paint this.
Ellen: A Dongba master is a learned man, and I'm very lucky to meet one.
A group of farmers, many Naxi people have gardens, corn crops, pigs, goats and other livestock and crops.
Sometimes it's lucky to be a blonde in China, they were as interested in me as I was in them. So I got behind the scenes with the Naxi orchestra, we had a really great time.
I feel so lucky to have met these people in this beautiful and pristine place. I began to realize that the more I see and learn of China, the less I know. This is a diverse place; both crowded and filled with open spaces, both strange and very friendly. For beautiful China, I'm Ellen Douglas.