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Naxi, Descendants of the Dongba Culture

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Spring Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(1) page(s): 15 and 16

A half million people call themselves Naxi. They have an age-old history, a rich cultural heritage, and a systematic complete written pictographic language from their splendid Dongba culture; and they are proud of it. Most Naxi people live in the northwestern part of the Yunnan Province in the Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County. A smaller number of them live in the Sichuan Province, and smaller numbers still live in Tibet. And, there are lesser numbers scattered throughout China.

Who are the Naxi? Reading older literature about Chinese ethnic populations and the name Naxi does not appear. Why? Because their ancestors were Mousu, Mosha, Moxie, and other peoples who first acquired the name, actually they named themselves in the late 1940's. Why the name Naxi? In their language, na means respectable and xi means people. With roots nomadic, their very early ancestors were most likely the Di and Qiang people who moved south and broke into several groups. These once wandering folk now prefer being called 'The Naxi Nationality.'

Their language is a Yi language of the Tibeto-Burmese/Sino-Tibetan language group. However, now, most Naxi speak the same language the Han Chinese do and they live in close proximity. We highlight them here, though they are a small nationality in China because some aspects of their culture are in danger of extinction. Young Naxi folk themselves are less familiar with their own traditional behaviors, all of which had impact on the larger Chinese population.

The Naxi are descendants of a Dongba culture that can be traced back close to two thousand years. Their elders and middle-aged members know their roots from writings In their own language. The most famous of these is a five hundred volume called 'Genesis.' All their writings are called dongba, this particular book can be read only by their wizard, who is also called dongba. This epic speaks of these people and their life from primitive through feudal societies. The word dongba means many things because their language, while considered complete, only has hundreds not thousands of words. It is very artistic for these Naxi known as people of the moon and the stars.

What is known about the Naxi? Theirs was and is a matriarchal society. An interesting ancient custom, practiced now but only on feast days, is about family members when they get together to eat. It requires family members to toast the oldest woman at the table before they begin taking their food. This practice can still be found, done at least at their three main festivals; The Farm Tool, Dragon King, and the Mule and Horse fairs, and at their New Year.

A belief in the dongba culture is that boys and girls are adults and treated as such by age thirteen. Some say this is done for females at age twelve when, to mark the occasion, a girl stands before an assembly of older women. She has one foot on a pile of pig fat and another on a bag of grain. Both of these are symbolic of and a wish for an ample future life. After the boy’s or the girl’s religious part of the ceremony, they not only are treated as adults, they have all the rights and responsibilities thereof, including marriage, earning a living, preparing meals for their elders, etc.

At Naxi New Year, they honor their war god called 'Sanduo.' He safeguards them and can be found at temple fairs. The origins of this festival stem from discovery of a strange snow stone on Jade Dragon Mountain. A hunter tried to carry it home but partway, when he took a rest, he could no longer lift it, as it had grown heavier. The local people built a temple there believing a god had increased the stone’s weight. Some say that a god appears near the stone in a white coat and white helmet carrying a white spear while riding on a white horse. They called that god 'Sanduo' and he was born in the Year of the Goat. This very year is The Year of The Goat, and an important one to the Naxi. Because they believe Sanduo protects them, he is their safeguard and their war god. They sacrifice a goat to honor him on Goat Day, which occurs twice every year near the beginning of February and the beginning of August. The earlier of these two dates is the Naxi Sanduo Festival, their most important holiday.

You may have read about a rare snow tea that comes from Yunnan. The Naxi like it, some say because of its white color. They drink it often. Those that live in mountainous regions at an average altitude of 2900 feet, appreciate its warmth, and say that Sanduo is safeguarding them and keeping them warm when they have it. The terrain where the Naxi live in Yunnan has many large rivers. Snow tea grows near Mt. Yulong whose top is snow-covered all year long, another sign to them of Sanduo.

Naxi people have great respect for nature. They are diligent and work long hours, often at night. To show this, they decorate their clothing and always their cape with a design of the seven stars of the big dipper. This is also embroidered on the back of their shawls. There is other embroidery, of the sun and the moon, and it is on clothing items, but only at the shoulders. In more ancient times, those who became known as Naxi wore large headdresses made of black silk threads or fabric wound around their heads. It used to be decorated with amber and other accessories, sometimes with flowers and birds. No matter the item of decoration, every item of decor is arranged symmetrically.

The Naxi and their ancestors were and most still are people whose subsistence comes from farming, fishing, and some animal husbandry. When there are holidays, or when guests visit, which is considered a family celebration, they break into song and sing frequently. Many of them tell about their ancestors and their way of life. One song speaks of skillful people, but none more so than their mother. This particular song says that no one can compete with mother. Clearly, for them, it is a woman’s world.

In the Naxi nationality, many men and women do not get married. It is not because they do not have lovers. Rather, they always sisi. That word means 'walk back and forth' in their language. Therefore, many have visiting relationships with lovers, the women receiving male visitors who stay overnight. Those that sisi, rarely live together. Should a pregnancy ensue, the child born of this relationship lives with the mother whose own male relatives help look after it as brother or sister. The father assumes no care nor does he have any financial responsibility. The father, or the lover, keeps the relationship alive by bringing gifts, many of which are food for her and candy for her children.

Many Naxi are animists. Others follow a Shamanistic leader and their beliefs. Still others practice a Tibetan-style of Buddhism. They are not religiously fanatic, but most do follow whatever religious tenets of faith they believed in when younger.

What do the Naxi eat? They raise rice, corn, potatoes, and other vegetables. They eat lots of them mixed with pork and/or chicken or fish. They have a unique way to preserve their pigs. But they do not preserve all parts of any one of them. They preserve the skin and the animal’s fat. They slaughter pigs at the end of their year’s tenth month. Doing so, they remove all of the animal’s innards. They also take away all bones and all the lean meat. Then they fill the remaining cavity with salt, Sichuan pepper (fagara), garlic, and ginger. Sometimes, they add honey and a few families are known to add butter. They sew the skin together with all the fat that lies underneath it. This is then flattened and dried in the sun.

This flattened porcine product is stored for winter use in any of several years to come. Pieces of it are always offered to guests. They cut off a piece and either steam or fry it. This food is also used at festivals and at all life-cycle events such as special birthdays and funerals.

Once, when visiting a Naxi home in Beijing, some of this fatty meat was deep-fried and served to us. Another portion was stir-fried with corn and rice and looked like a typical fried rice dish. Still another portion was steamed, cut up and mixed with spices, many different kinds and lots of them. This took place in an apartment where, they told us, they never closed the windows or the door. They were not well-to-do, just the family of a woman whose brother wrote for the country’s minority newspaper. She lived with him and her three young children. He often did not sleep there, but visited his lover(s) and returned to her home each morning.

She told us that her mother died recently and that her brother had always lived with her in her home. She was so pleased that an American came to learn about the Naxi way of life; and genuinely pleased to share her stored food. The brother told us that to have and store many flattened dried pigs was possible in this city because they had been dried at another brother’s mountainous home in Yunnan. He advised that some were sitting in this very apartment for as long as six years. His Yunnan neighbors would consider having that many a sign of wealth. To them it was a sign of necessity because they could not always get to their ancestral home at the right time of year to prepare them.

The meat she prepared with some of this preserved fat tasted as if it were smoked. It was ever so tasty. They said it was not, just kept around a long time covered with many things to flavor it. We liked the dishes they made and were fascinated with these dried pig-meat pieces and the dried sewed pieces of fat and skin that were just sitting near the charcoal grill on their enclosed balcony. The pieces of fat had both head and tail in tact. They had no aroma, and while they did look peculiar, they did taste fine. The meat was rather dry, and was a little hard, sort of like beef jerky. We were told that the meat was made and dried in the town of Dayan near Mt. Yulong. This town is at about 6825 feet. The meat keeps about two or three years while the fat lasts a lot longer; that is if none of her children indulge and eat too much of it. She said that not all families leave the head on, but all almost all of her Naxi friends and relatives prefer it that way at least for festival occasions.

We asked about vegetable use, and were told that they used many or any and that they are always cut into very small pieces. How small, about the size of a grain of rice was the reply. After cutting some, we were told that they were fried with a very small piece of the preserved fat. To illustrate what she meant, she and her eight year old son got up and took a vegetable very similar to baby bok choy, but a bit larger, and she washed it. He chopped it into tiny pieces. She had him cut it to show how easy it was to do, but she fried it for us, saying she did not want him to burn himself. We were amazed at his dexterity and at the end product. It tasted crisp and not like a fresh green vegetable. Had we not seen the preparation with our own eyes, we might never have understood what goes into this type of typical Naxi dish. We did ask what is used when no preserved fat or meat are available. The reply, that does happen some years and we take fatty meat (and drew a picture of what looked like bacon) and slice it and dry it and put that away whenever we worry that our supply will run low.

We have never seen a printed Naxi recipe. This family knew of none. Should you, our readers, ever find one, do share it so that we can share it with everyone else.

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