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  • NaXi People

  • Area: northwestern part of Yunnan Province
  •  The Nakhi (simplified Chinese: 纳西族; traditional Chinese: 納西族; pinyin: Nàxī zú; endonym: ¹na²khi) are an ethnic group inhabiting the foothills of the Himalayas in the northwestern part of Yunnan Province, as well as the southwestern part of Sichuan Province in China.

    The Nakhi are thought to have come originally from Tibet and, until recently, maintained overland trading links with Lhasa and India. They were brought to the attention of the world by two men: the American botanist Joseph Rock and the Russian Taoist doctor Peter Goullart, both of whom lived in Lijiang and travelled throughout the area during the early 20th century. Peter Goullart's book Forgotten Kingdom describes the life and beliefs of the Nakhi and neighbouring peoples, while Joseph Rock's legacy includes diaries, maps, and photographs of the region.

    The Nakhi form one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China. The official Chinese government classification classes the Mosuo as part of the Nakhi people. However, despite similar origins and very striking resemblances from a linguistic point of view, the two groups are now culturally distinct, the Nakhi more influenced by Han Chinese culture, the Mosuo more influenced by Tibetan culture.


Nakhi culture is largely a mixture of Tibetan and Han Chinese influences, with some indigenous elements. Especially in the case of their musical scores, it acts as the foundation of the Nakhi literature.

Nakhi music is 500 years old, and with its mixture of literary lyrics, poetic topics, and musical styles from the Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties, as well as some Tibetan influences, it has developed its own unique style and traits. There are three main styles: Baisha, Dongjing, and Huangjing, all using traditional Chinese instruments.

The origin of Baisha music lies in a gift from the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai Khan. Upon his expedition to Dali, he had difficulty crossing the Golden Sand River, and received help from Mailiang, the chief of the Nakhi people. To show his appreciation, Kublai Khan left half of his band and many musical scores as a gift to the chief. "Baisha Fine Music" is one of ancient China's few large-scale, classical orchestral forms of music and has twenty four tunes, locally known as qupai. Although archaic, simple, and elegant in style, modern Baisha is exquisite, euphonious, and energetic in character.

Taoist in origin, and fused with some indigenous elements, Dongjing music was introduced to the Nakhi from the central plains during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and today it is the most well-preserved musical form in China. In addition to its intrinsic stateliness, purity, and elegance, Dongjing music incorporated the local musical elements and styles. Originally reserved for the nobles, the local passion for music overcame this restriction. Music is very important to them.

Art and architecture
Absorbing architectural styles of the Han and the Tibetan, the houses of the Nakhi are built in a unique vernacular style of one courtyard with five skylights, which have a crude and simple appearance, but with elaborate and delicate patterns on casements and doors.

The temples, though looking very staid and ordinary from the outside, are decorated on the interior with carvings on poles, arches and idols of gods. The decorations include depictions of episodes from epics, dancers, warriors, animals and birds, and flowers. The mural paintings depict Dongba gods, and are derived from Tibetan styles. A good example is the Delwada Temple.

Nakhi dongjing musicians in LijiangThe Nakhi celebrate the annual Torch Festival on the 24th and 25th of the sixth month of the Lunar calendar, which corresponds approximately to July 8–9, and the Sanduo Festival on February 8

According to legend, Sanduo is a war god who defends the local people. In ancient times a hunter discovered a strange stone on Jade Dragon Mountain, and carried the stone home. On his way home, he had to put the stone down for a rest, because it was extremely heavy. When he decided to continue his trip, he could no longer lift the stone, and many thought that it was the embodiment of a god.

The Nakhi later built a temple to honour this god, whom they later named Sanduo, and depicted as an immortal in a white coat and a white helmet, carrying a white spear and riding a white horse. They believed that Sanduo would protect the local people and their land. Because Sanduo was thought to have been born in the year of the goat, a goat is sacrificed at his festival


Cremation has been a tradition since ancient times, although burial was adopted in certain Nakhi areas during the late Qing Dynasty. Religious scriptures were chanted at the funeral ceremony to expiate the sins of the dead.

Among the Nakhi in Yongning County in Yunnan and the Yanyuan County in Sichuan, existing remnants of a matriarchal family structure were evident until the beginning of democratic reform, when it changed to a patriarchal structure.

As the heads of the family, the women gave inheritance to the children either through the mother, or to her nephews through her brothers. This is called matrilineal decent, where one belongs to one's mother's lineage.

A matriline is a line of descent from a female ancestor to a descendant (of either sex) in which the individuals in all intervening generations are female. In Nakhi society, women also acted as the main work-force; thus they were respected at home and in the Nakhi society.

In 2005, Kuang Jianren, a famous Chinese film script writer produced "Snow Bracelet", a film based on the life of (Nakhi) Nakhi ethnic minorities in Yunan.

Nakhi men have a tradition of hunting with falcons.


The Nakhi women wear wide-sleeved loose gowns accompanied by jackets and long trousers, tied with richly decorated belts at the waist. Sheepskin is worn slung over the shoulder. Especially in Ninglang County, the women wear short jackets and long skirts reaching the ground with several folds. Large black cotton turbans are worn around their heads, which are accompanied with big silver earrings. The men's costume is much like that of Han Chinese. In modern times, traditional dress is rarely worn among the younger generation, since most of them prefer to wear Chinese dress. It is now usually only worn at cultural events and on special occasions.

The dress of the Dongba lamas resembles that of the Bön priests of Tibet; they wear conical hats like those of the lamas of the Black Hat sect, with a piece of red cloth.


The Nakhi are believed to be the descendants of the nomadic Qiang, an ethnic group inhabiting the Tibetan plateau since ancient times. During the Sui and Tang dynasties, the Nakhi were known as the Mosha-yi, or the Moxie-yi. Only after communist rule in China did they call themselves Nakhi, which means "people who worship the black things of the nation".

Frequently harassed by neighbouring tribes, the proto-Nakhi then moved to head of the Nujiang River from the Jinsha and then to the Along River in the present-day province of Sichuan in western China. After being pushed south by other conquering tribes, the Nakhi finally settled in Baisha and Lijiang by 3 CE.

The Nakhi split into three groups while their ancestors were still in Baisha. The ones who remained are known as the Nakhi, those in Dali are known as Bai, and those living around the Lugu Lake are called the Mosuo. Even today, the three groups share similar customs.

Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, agricultural production in Lijiang underwent marked changes, and agriculture eventually replaced livestock breeding as the main occupation of the people. The production of agricultural, handicraft, mineral, and livestock products led to considerable prosperity, and during this period a number of slave-owning groups in Ninglang, Lijiang, and Weixi counties grew into a feudal caste of lords. Tibetan Buddhism got a foothold among the Nakhi from the fourteenth century onwards.

In 1278, the Yuan Dynasty established the Lijiang Prefecture, which represented the imperial court in Yunnan. A chieftain, Mude, was made the hereditary chieftain of Lijiang Prefecture, exercising control over the Nakhi people and other ethnic groups during the Ming Dynasty. The hereditary chieftains from the Mu family collected taxes and tribute, which then went to the Ming court in the form of silver and grains. The Ming relied on the Mu family as the mainstay for the control of the people of various ethnic groups in northwestern Yunnan Province.

Land-leasing began to take place, thus marking the beginning of an economy controlled by a landlord. In 1723, during the Qing Dynasty, hereditary local chieftains in the Lijiang area were replaced by court officials, and the Mu chieftain became the local administrator.

The ancient Nakhi town of Lijiang is now a major tourist destination. Some Nakhi run shops catering to tourists, such as those serving traditional Nakhi bread (baba).


The Nakhi are traditionally followers of the Dongba religion. Through both Han Chinese and Tibetan cultural influences, they adopted Tibetan Buddhism (especially in the case of the Mosuo) and, to a lesser extent, Taoism, in the tenth century.

Dongba religion was rooted in the beliefs of the Tibetan Bön religion; the word "Dongba" literally means "wise man" in the Nakhi language. Tracing its origins to a Bön shaman from eastern Tibet named Dongba Shilo, who lived in a cave near Baishuitai 900 years ago. According to Nakhi legends, he was said to have created the Lijiang Mural.

Anthropologists claim that many of the Dongba rituals show strong influences from the Bön religion, and are not native in origin. Bön lamas are believed to have settled among the Nakhi as farmers, and to have begun to practise exorcisms as a way of earning a little money on the side; they were thus in competition with the native ritual specialists, locally known as Llü-bu, or Ssan-nyi.

Religious scriptures suggest that the Llü-bu were female shamans who practised divination, exorcism, and other rites in a trance. By the early nineteenth century, the Dongba priests had created a huge religious vocabulary accompanied by a variety of rituals, and had largely displaced the Llü-bu.

Adherents of Dongba had no places of worship, and so they were not officially recognized as a religion. A Dongba shaman is merely a part-time practitioner priest, who is literate in Dongba religious texts that were unreadable by most Nakhi.

The Dongba religion is based on the relationship between nature and man. In Dongba mythology, "Nature" and "Man" are half-brothers, having different mothers. According to the villagers of Shu Ming Village, nature is controlled by spirits called "Shv". These gods are depicted as human-snake chimeras. The Dongba priests practice rituals such as the "Shv Gu" to appease these spirits and prevent their anger from boiling into natural disasters such as earthquakes and droughts.

Before communist rule in China, many villages still had shrines or places of worship dedicated to nature gods such as Shu, and until recently, at least, inhabitants of Tacheng, which is in the Lijiang-Nakhi Autonomous county, still professed belief in the "nature and man" concept.

Their attitude towards nature is clearly illustrated by the story of He Shun, a Dongba priest, who forbade his three sons to cut down more trees than they needed, as this would anger the gods and bring misfortune to his family.

One of the most widely practised Dongba rituals, Zzerq Ciul Zhuaq (literally, to repay the debts of a tree), is often seen in the village of Shuming. The ritual was conducted if somebody was stricken with illness or bad luck, when a Dongba priest would be consulted. On many occasions, the result would show that the person had carried out logging or washing of dirty things in the forest, and the family or person concerned would have to ask the Dongba priest to hold the ritual near where the activity had taken place, and apologise to the nature god Shu.

Being a conservative people, the villagers prohibited logging, and even the cutting of tree branches and gathering of dry pine-needles from the coniferous trees wasn't generally allowed. The gathering of pine needles was only allowed in July, when the forests were lush and green. However, only one person of each household was allowed to do this job, in order to enforce fairness between households with more or fewer labourers.

The elders, locally known as Lao Min (老民), would watch the all these activities. The elders also voluntarily carried out the public affairs of the village. Traditionally, they played an important role, which still influences many villages.

Especially in Longquan, the villagers have a traditional custom for regulations for logging and firewood. Known as Jjuq-ssaiq or Jjuq-Hal-Keel by the local people, this refers to the regular logging of trees and firewood every two to three years in the forested area near the particular village. A group of people comprising the Lao Min, the village headman, and the mountain guards will organise the procedure in advance. Even in recent years, Nakhi villages still retain an organisation that protects the forests, who were administered by the members of the village committee. This necessarily include the heads of the agricultural Productive Cooperatives, the members of the female union, and the village mountain guard.

Until the communists came to power in China in 1949, villagers followed these traditional principles and tried to use the natural resources conservatively, with thought for the preservation the natural resources for future generations. However, after 1949 serious cultural and social change came to the Nakhi, and the government encouraged logging in the area, which in turn led to a relaxation of the traditional customs.

Tibetan Buddhism
The Nakhi's Tibetan origins and proximity to Tibet led them to embrace the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism during the fourteenth century. Over the years, the Nakhi in Lijiang built Buddhist Gompas which acted as the place of worship for the Nakhi Buddhist community. The first monastery, Ogmin Namling at Lashiba, was founded by the tenth Karmapa, Chöying Dorje. Religious Mani stones can also be found in some of the Nakhi households, especially among the Mosuo sub-group.

The story is told of the Nakhi king inviting the eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje to Lijiang in 1516. The king, worried about the safety of the Karmapa on his long journey to Lijiang, dispatched an army of four generals and ten thousand soldiers to accompany him. On the third day of the fourth month the Karmapa reached the border between Tibet and the Nakhi kingdom. Accompanied by his brother and his uncle, who were both riding elephants and escorted by many riders on horseback, the Nakhi king, riding on a palanquin, received a magnificent welcome. The king prostrated himself before the Karmapa, the elephants broke their tethers and bowed down three times before him, and raised their trunks to the sky causing thunderclaps with their trumpeting.