The Naxi People

I don’t know much about the Naxi (NA-shee) people that inhabit parts of the Yunnan province in Southwest China. But I know enough to give a few pieces of information that I found interesting in my exploration of the area.

Population. There are only about 250,000 Naxi people left in the whole of China. They are clustered in Lijiang, where I spent three days and did the famous (and inspiring) Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. The path was dotted with Naxi homes and women selling wares. They’re in part descended from the Tibetan people. And, like the rest of China’s ethnic minorities (all of which comprise just 9 percent of the country’s current population), the Naxi are exempted from the One-Child Policy and instead can reproduce freely, given their low numbers.

Matriarchal. Yep! The Naxi are matriarchal. I was told that this structure has mostly disappeared in modern times, but historically women held all property and disputes were resolved by female elders. How ’bout that! Additionally, the Lonely Planet guidebook tells me that nouns preceded by the female prefix enlarge their meaning; by contrast, the male prefix diminishes meaning. So “stone” plus “female” means “boulder,” whereas “stone” plus “male” means “pebble.”

Textiles. For a textile lover like me, the Naxi sure do impress. I arose at 6am the day of my flight to Chengdu just so I could attempt to find a neighboring village known for their textiles. Many mishaps later, I found it and was absolutely astounded by the beauty, quality and precision of the work. Mostly silk embroidery, the pieces were so finely crafted that it boggled the mind to think of the technical skill and patience needed to produce just one–nevermind the years of training and innate artistic ability also required. I had the pleasure of meeting the region’s foremost embroidery expert as well as several master teachers. They received me warmly with pots of local tea, a serious tradition here. I bought one of the masters’ pieces and had it carefully shipped home the same day. Here’s an article about the village I visited and the embroidery:

Aside from the factual information, they are beautiful people in composition, comportment and custom. Their dress is traditional and beautiful–made of fine colorful silks and playful sashes and sparkles. They smile warmly and chatter amongst each other excitedly. They give the traveler a feeling of tranquility, security and character that plays beautifully against the geographic backdrop of rice paddies, towering Himalayas and lush green fields. Their cuisine is simple but flavorful and their prized tea ceremonies are among the world’s most beautiful traditions.

The Naxi remind me much of their Quechua counterparts in the Andes, though this group is decidedly more modern and assimilated to national culture. Hardworking agriculturalists, the region produces the vast majority of the mushrooms China is so known for, as well as much of the nation’s teas. Their beloved home in the Yunnan province is full of Chinese tour buses and Han ethnic majority everywhere, but the Naxi (at least on the face of it) seem unperturbed. Theirs is a life of hard work and simplicity, but beauty and peace, too. I’ll not hesitate to go back someday.


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