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The Dongba Religion 101: Interview with a Naxi Dongba

On 6th October 2012, in the company of a small group of inquisitive fellow Australians, I visited the house of the renowned Dogba (东巴) of Baisha (白沙), Mr He Zhenwei. Baisha is a village not far from the historic and World Heritage listed town of Lijiang (丽江). Lijiang’s UNESCO heritage listing actually includes the old town of Dayan (大雁) – what most people think of as ‘Lijiang’ – and the villages of Shuhe (束河) and Baisha. Shuhe has expanded dramatically in recent years, as I have explained in a previous blog post. I also did an interview with two of Shuhe’s local farmers who now also supplement their income by providing horse rides for tourists. Baisha is less ‘developed’ than Dayan and Shuhe. It still has the feeling of a sleepy village just on the cusp of big changes. So if you are planning to visit Lijiang you should definitely include Baisha on your itinerary. Baisha is also worth a visit because of its historical importance in Naxi (纳西) culture (sometimes written as ‘Nakhi’). For a long time it was in fact the political seat of the ruling Mu clan (木氏) (the political centre shifted to Dayan during the 13th Century). It therefore contains some important remnants of Mu clan palaces and temples, which include very significant frescoes. You can see where Lijiang is on Google Maps here.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain as viewed from Black Dragon Pond. The water of this lake come from the mountain and from here are then diverted to the old town to form the ingenious system of water canals that is a major engineering feat.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain as viewed from Black Dragon Pond. The water of this lake comes from the mountain’s glacier via underground streams and springs. From here the water is then diverted to the old town to form the ingenious system of water canals that is a major engineering feat still in use today, although the water no longer appears to be as pristine as it once was.

Lijiang sits on a strategic fertile basin at about 2,400 metres. It has long been an important trading town and staging post on the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’. The basin is surrounded by high mountains, dominated by the 5,500 metre main peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山) (which is home to the southern most permanent glacier in the northern hemisphere). It is an extremely diverse place both in terms of biodiversity and human cultures. The Naxi people, the historical orgins of whom are described by Mr He below, are the dominant ethnic group in the basin and in many of the surrounding valleys and smaller basins. But they share their home with many other ethnic groups such as Tibetans, Han, Bai, Yi, Hui and Mosuo. Over the centuries the Naxi, absorbing many different cultural elements, developed a unique high mountain culture. The Dongba religion (东巴宗教) (and ‘religion’ is used in a very general sense as a organised system of belief) is one of the treasures of Naxi culture. The ‘Dongba’ is a major religious ‘priest’ or ‘shaman’ figure, exclusively a male occupation (women had other roles as spiritual mediums). The Dongba were traditionally part-time ritual practitioners. Most of the Dongba would have been farmers, only called upon to conduct rituals at certain times (such as important festivals and life cycle rituals). Of particular interest is the Dongba use of pictographs to record all manner of historical, natural, social and religious information. As far as I am aware it is the only significant pictographic language still being used on a daily basis. The textual corpus of Dongba texts is approximately 20,000. The Dongba are also famed for their painting of long scrolls, some up to 15 metres in length, and for their very complex  dance notation. You can view examples of the Dongba script on the Omniglot website here. Some argue that the script should be called the ‘Naxi script’ as it is believed the script emerged before the development of the Dongba religion.

Mr He traces his Dongba lineage back many generations. I was introduced to Mr He through Professor Liu Zhaohui of Zhejiang University (Hangzhou, Zhejiang). Professor Liu has conducted extensive study of the Dongba with an emphasis on how they are responding to the challenges of the modern world, especially in terms of the pressures of commercialisation and tourism. I’m presently polishing one of Professor Liu’s essays on this subject and I hope it will be published in 2014 in a collection of essays I’m editing on the theme of ‘China and the uses of culture’ – part of a Worldwide University Network (WUN) project I have the honour of leading.

Mr He, accompanied by his son who is also learning the 'Dongba trade', conducts a special ritual for myself and guests to wish us health and happiness. Fingers crossed the gods were listening and we are deemed worthy recipients.

Mr He, accompanied by his son who is also learning the ‘Dongba trade’, conducts a special ritual for myself and guests to wish us health and happiness. Fingers crossed the gods were listening and we are deemed worthy recipients. During the ritual, which lasted nearly two hours, Mr He used the relevant dongba script text as a mnemonic device to aid in the chanting.

As I have been documenting on this blog, the diverse cultures of Yunnan are undergoing historic transformation as ‘old’ and ‘new’ worlds collide. Lijiang has been transformed from a relatively isolated and sleepy town to a major domestic and international tourist destination. Both Naxi culture and Dongba are faced with the challenge of maintaining cultural traditions whilst adapting to the ‘modern’ world. There are indeed many things we can learn from ancient indigenous cultures such at the Naxi and Dongba. In terms of the Dongba I think it is the emphasis placed on living in harmony with nature that many outsiders will find appealing.  The Naxi and the Dongba are now often seen through the lens of the ‘new age’ environmental movement, as a living culture that stands on the border between a premodern past (a world inhabited by spirits, magic, etc) and a modern present/future (a world seemingly dominated by materialism, development, self-gratification, etc). As Mr He explains below, the Dongba religion does indeed have some lessons for us all.

The interview that follows barely scratches the surface of what is a very complex and rich system of beliefs and culture, a kind of ‘Introduction to the Dongba Religion 101’. For a very accessible introduction to the Naxi and Dongba I recommend Pedro Ceinos Arcones’s (2012) Sons of Heaven, Brothers of Nature: The Naxi of Southwest China.


Q: What is the basic philosophy of the Dongba belief system?

A: ‘Dongba’ in the Naxi language refers to what we nowadays call the ‘Dongba religion’ (东巴宗教). And the ‘priest’ (祭司) within the Dongba religion is known as the ‘Dongba’. For much of history in this region the Dongba religion was the most systematic and detailed belief system. Some time between one to two thousand years ago the Dongba religion became the touchstone by which the Naxi people judged their spiritual life, morality, ethics and so forth. We can therefore say that the development of the Naxi people is intimately tied to the ethics, morality and so forth of the Dongba religion. Putting it very crudely, the Dongba religion at its core is the worship of heaven-nature (天地). It believes that all the myriad lifeforms in the universe have a spirit (万物有灵). It emphasises that people should have harmonious relations with each other. And that there should also be harminious relations between nature and people. Therefore the Dongba religion places a lot of emphasis on opposing the wanton destruction of nature. This is a general and brief overview of the core beliefs of the Dongba religion.

Before 1949 the natural environment in and around what we nowadays call Lijiang was excellent. After 1949 there has been ongoing destruction of the natural environment. I’ve been to big Chinese cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. The natural environment there is relatively devoid of trees and there is a lot of pollution. When I got back to Lijiang I breathed a sigh of relief. We have grown up in Lijiang and always had a close relationship with nature. We can breath the air freely and it feels good. The water is also very clean. We realise now the role of the Dongba religion in restricting the wanton destruction of the environment. We are particularly careful about caring for the water sources and making sure the water is clean and pure.

Q: Can you tell us about the history of the Naxi and of the Dongba religion?

A: Yes. If you want to understand the Naxi culture and the Dongba religion you must understand where they come from and how they developed over time.

There are three fountain heads  from where the Naxi people derive. The first and perhaps most important source of the ancestral origins are those people who migrated, perhaps over one thousand or more years ago, from northwestern China. These people have been historically known as the ‘Qiang’ people (羌族). There were different tribes and conflicts between the tribes and the ancestors of the Naxi where the losers in the conflict and gradually migrated south and finally to present day Lijiang. When a Naxi person dies the spirit must seek the ancestral lands. An important role of the Dongba is to send the spirit back, stage by stage, all the way to the ancestral land [translator: believed to be somewhere in the vicinity of modern day Gansu Province].

The other belief is that the ancestors of the Naxi people arrived in the Lijiang region during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) as part of a long process of nomadic migration in which they moved with their livestock (yaks, cattle, goats, and so on) from one pasture [translator: or valley basin, known in Chinese as a 坝子] to another, gradually making their way south. Lijiang at that time was occupied by the Dianpu 滇普 people. There was a battle and the ancestors of the Naxi were victorious [translator: this is recorded in one of the Dongba texts]. Over time the two peoples interacted and intermarried so that some also claim that the Dianpu are also ancestors of the modern day Naxi. Once that integration had occurred I think we can say that the ‘Naxi’ people first emerged. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368), and then also in the Ming (1368 -1644) and Qing (1644 – 1911), tens of thousands of soldiers and officials came to the Lijiang region from the ‘central plains’ [translator: referring to ‘central China’]. This was the first major wave of Han Chinese culture into the region. Most of the soldiers and officials, and other migrants, settled permanently and also intermarried with the locals, thus making up the third ‘fountain head’ [translator: the other two being the ‘qiangzu migration’ and the ‘dianpu people’].

The Naxi people also have a very close connection to Tibetan people and culture. Over time, through trade, intermarriage and shared religion [translator: that is, Tibetan Buddhism], the Naxi also absorbed much from the Tibetans. And also from the culture of the Bai people as well. But through all these interactions and absorption of culture the Naxi people’s essential culture hasn’t changed.

Q: Can you tell us something about the Naxi people’s attitude towards peaceful coexistence? I ask this because it is often said that the people’s of Lijiang have coexisted in relative harmony.

A: The first thing to note is Lijiang’s relative isolation from the rest of the world. The Lijiang region is extremely mountainous. For many hundreds if not thousands of years the outside world seemed very far away. For instance, in the past, the journey from Lijiang to Kunming could take up to eighteen days. From Lijiang to Lhasa and back to Lijiang could take up to one year. Other than the battle with the Dianpu people, given Lijiang’s isolation and moutainous terrain, there haven’t been many wars. The old town of Lijiang [translator: known locally as ‘Dayan’] was raised to the ground during the Panthay Rebellion (1856 – 1873). Even when Kublai Khan’s Mongol armies came this way there was no conflict as the local Naxi rulers, the Mu clan, capitulated and actually showed the Mongols the road to Dali [translator: the Mongols were primarily focused on taking the strategic town of Dali, the then capital of the Dali Kingdom]. The Japanese also did not attack Lijiang during the war [translator: that is, the Second World War which in China is known as the War of Anti-Japanese Resistance]. Consider that for most of its history the old town of Lijiang didn’t have fortified walls. It didn’t need them. The passes into the region were also easily defended. A small number of soldiers could fend off a much larger army. The mountains surrounding the valley were its fortress. Many Naxi people believe that the protector dieties have been looking after them and giving them a land of relative peace and harmony. When compared to the surrounding regions that have been almost continuously ravaged by war and revolts Lijiang is a very unique place. So in general the Naxi people have benefited from harmony and have fostered a natural opposition to warfare. This is also reflected in their attitudes towards the harmonious coexistence between people and nature.

Q: Can you tell us about the origins of the Dongba?

A: Once an ethnic group is formed then a new culture emerges. This is actually an interactive process between the people, the environment and the culture that takes a long time to unfold. In this way, with the interaction in particular between the people and environment of Lijiang, the Dongba were created. The notion and emphasis on harmony that you find in the Dongba religion I believe stems from the origins of the Qiang people who had to fight many battles and suffer adversity in their migration from China’s northwest to the Lijiang region. Their experiences taught them the value of harmony. The other important aspect contributing to this notion of harmony was their lifestyle dependence on nature itself. They were nomadic herders and depended on the good fortunes of the weather to survive. So the Dongba religion came to be based on the notion that only with harmonious relations between people and between people and nature can we find the good life.

Every ethnic group has its own language. If you only have language and no script it is very difficult to communicate with people far away, and also very difficult to pass on knowledge. So therefore the Dongba created the Dongba script. We have two different ways of referring to script, those written on stone and those written on wood – this refers to the very earliest origins of the Dongba script before the invention and use of paper. It is a pictographic script. Later, at about the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), the Dongba started making paper and continue to make the paper in the traditional way to this day. The paper is highly valued by artists and calligraphers [translator: the paper has a rough texture and absorbent quality, good for ink brushes and paints]. The very earliest material for actual writing was derived from wood ash, natural minerals, and animal blood and bile [translator: the latter used to congeal the ink and provide a luster].

A few years ago the local Lijiang authorities decreed that all public signs, including shop signs, should be in both Chinese and Dongba. This is a bit odd given that the Dongba script was never used in this way and many new pictographs had to be created. Anyway, thanks to such wisdom we now have 'KFC' in Dongba. Maybe they should slaughter all the chickens Dongba ritual style too?

A few years ago the local Lijiang authorities decreed that all public signs, including shop signs, should be in both Chinese and Dongba. This is a bit odd given that the Dongba script was never used in this way and many new pictographs had to be created to accommodate modern objects and concepts. Anyway, thanks to such wisdom we now have ‘KFC’ in Dongba. Maybe they should slaughter all the chickens Dongba ritual style too?

Q: What is the relationship between the Dongba religion and Buddhism? And Tibetan Buddhism in particular?

A: There is no direct relationship between the two. The Dongba religion is the native religion of the Naxi people. Buddhism came to this region much later than the creation of the Dongba religion. Tibet also has an ancient native religion which is somewhat similar to the Dongba religion, that is, the Bon religion. The Bon religion was over time incorporated into what we now call Tibetan Buddhism. Later Buddhism came to Lijiang and the Naxi people became followers of Tibetan Buddhism, but they also kept their belief in the Dongba religion. There is no contradiction or conflict between the two faiths.

Q: What about the interaction between Han Chinese and Naxi cultures? What can you tell us?

A: As I already said it was during the Yuan, and then the Ming and Qing that the Lijiang region was incorporated into the empire of the ‘central plains’. So some Chinese culture began to find its way to Lijiang through the soldiers who settled here, some of whom were Mongols and other non-Han peoples, and through interaction with traders. But for a long time the local ruling clan was permitted to continue its rulership, but on behalf of the dynastic government, in what is called the ‘tusi’ (土司) system. However during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1722 – 1735) the tusi system was abolished and Han magistrates appointed as the rulers. The rule of the Mu clan came to end, although it was still a very important family. With regards to the Dongba, in order to promote the expansion of a Confucian culture, the Qing authorities prohibited the Dongba for living or practicing their religion in the vicinity of Dayan. So actually from that time until ‘liberation’ in 1949 there was not much Dongba activity here. There were some Dongba who remained however, like my ancestors. If they tried to get rid of all the Dongba there would have been a riot. But certainly not in the old town itself. The Dongba continued to practice more openly in the mountains and remote villages and towns, and especially in the place known as Baishuitai (白水台) [translator: also known as ‘Baidi’, the mast sacred site of the Dongba, said to be the place where the first Dongba practiced]. The Qing and the mainstream Han culture looked down upon the Dongba as barbaric. After 1949 the authorities said the Dongba religion was a ‘superstition’. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) the Dongba were attacked. So for quite some time the Dongba religion suffered and nearly died out. Yet although it has gone through many challenges it has a strong life-force, and whereas many other ancient cultures have disappeared, especially those with such pictographic scripts – including the ancient script of China [translator: referring to the jiaguwen of ancient China], the Dongba and Naxi cultures live on. Most importantly of all, during the 1980s the government reassessed the Dongba culture and decided, correctly, that it was not  a ‘superstition’ but instead gave it the label of a ‘religious belief’. This meant that the Dongba could now openly practice their faith without fear of persecution. Since then the Dongba religion has undergone a significant revival. There are still many challenges facing us Dongba, especially the forces of tourism and rapid development, but I believe that the Dongba religion and the Naxi culture has a bright future.

Before conducting the ritual, something Mr He said should never be done on an empty stomach, his wife cooked us up a traditional home style 'mini' feast. Delicious! The broth in the bowls is Tibetan yak butter tea, an acquired taste but definitely worth the effort.

Before conducting the ritual, something Mr He said should never be done on an empty stomach, his wife cooked us up a traditional home style ‘mini’ feast. Delicious! The broth in the bowls is Tibetan yak butter tea, an acquired taste but definitely worth the effort. Most of the vegetables and meats were grown by the He family.


  • Aug 20th 201315:08
    by Jarek


    Gary, thank you for the article, it’s clarified many aspects of what I have heard of Dongba. I visited Lijiang back in January 1991 and talked to Mr Xuan Ke about visiting a Dongba priest. Mr Xuan Ke said they conducted their rites in caves near Dayan town. I promised myself I’d pay them a visit one day but later one were afraid the good times were gone and all have turned into commercialised performances. Your article suggests this is not the case, which I’m very happy to learn.

  • Aug 21st 201303:08
    by Gary


    Thanks Jarek. There are also the ‘Daba’ (大巴) of Yongning/Lugu Lake. These are the ‘Dongba’ equivalent amongst the Mosuo people. I believe that some of them are still quite active out there in more remote parts of the region bordering Yunnan and Sichuan.

  • Aug 22nd 201302:08
    by Jarek


    Thank you Gary, that’s exactly the info I’m looking for, bread crabs that may take one on a journey of spiritual discovery.
    By coincidence just learnt today that a friend of mine is finishing a movie for Oxford University ‘Blood for the gods’ about shamans of the Pumi people in Muli county. Looking forward to its release.

  • Aug 27th 201300:08
    by Jarek


    BTW 大雁 or 大研?

    • Nov 7th 201305:11
      by Gary


      It should be 大雁。

  • Oct 17th 201311:10
    by Edwina Nearing


    I really appreciate your noticing, and caring and distinguishing, between what is “real” in local cultures and what is recreated for touristic purposes. I’m active in the field of “folkloric” dance, and detest phony pholklore — in my experience as a tour leader in Egypt, most Westerners seem to dislike the phony stuff too, and they react to it when they encounter it by talking during performances of government-sponsored folklore-troupe performances and so forth . . . (folklore created in Egypt by Soviet-trained ballet choreographers imported by the Egyptian gov’t. to “interpret” Egyptian dance, resulting in Taffeta-Moisheyev-on-the-Nile). The Chinese seem much more receptive of the phony stuff for some reason . . .

    • Nov 7th 201305:11
      by Gary


      Yes, that’s right Edwina, a number of scholars of Chinese tourism have noted that many Chinese tourists not only don’t mind ‘staged performances’ but also expect to see/experience them as part of their tourist experience. I think in the early stage of mass tourism most tourists are just happy to ‘be a tourist’ and aren’t too concerned with ‘authenticity’. They are out for fun and entertainment. But now of course the market is diversifying and maturing, there are more and more Chinese tourists who also want some more ‘authentic’. Of course as you well appreciate the search for ‘authenticity’ is never straight-forward.

  • Mar 24th 201523:03
    by Jillian Mayotte


    Hi Gary,

    The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, is currently developing an exhibition on China. We’re interested in using one of your images, of a KFC with Dongba script, in a small digital graphic. We would use the image in-gallery only, for educational purposes, and would not distribute it for any reason. Any information you could give me on permissions would be most appreciated!

    Warm Regards,
    Jillian Mayotte
    The Field Museum

    • Mar 28th 201523:03
      by Gary


      Hi Jillian, yes, very happy for the image to be used for the purpose you outline.

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