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[Yunnan] Dongba culture at crossroads
Latest Updated by 2005-08-05 10:05:43
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He Xiudong, 21, dreams of being a real Dongba a spiritual leader of the Naxi ethnic minority to revive his culture and win the respect of his people.

"Both my father and grandfather were Dongbas. When I was five, I could read three old Dongba manuscripts," recalls He, who is studying Dongba religion at the Lijiang Dongba Cultural Research Institute in Lijiang, Yunnan Province.

He was a shepherd for eight years before coming to the institute to study a few years ago.

At the institute, He and his fellow students recite and transcribe hieroglyphics from century-old Dongba manuscripts, recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as Memory of the World in 2003.

At the same time, the pupils learn how to become a genuine Dongba, which involves conducting sacrificial rituals, setting up altars, properly using religious tools and performing Dongba dances.

In 2003, the young man, as a new student, performed Dongba rituals at Whitman College in the United States, at the invitation of the Freeman Foundation.

He says the journey was a complete success.

"Thousands of people were out there waiting," he says, adding that someone even asked for his autograph.

At Whitman College, He displayed the art of hieroglyphics and enthralled his audience with Dongba songs.

"I performed a traditional Dongba religious ritual, which reflects the relationship between humans and nature," He says.

In the performance, humans and nature live in harmony, but a conflict erupts due to human greed. But in the end, the two resume their peaceful co-existence.

While He works hard to get to the heart of Dongba culture, researchers feel his dreams of reviving the ancient ethnic culture might be in vain.

"The number of young Dongbas in training is gradually on the rise, but Dongba culture remains on the brink of extinction," says Yang Fuquan, an expert with the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.

Living fossil

At the top of Jade Dragon Mountain, novelty-seekers gather to take photos, ride sledges and enjoy themselves while vendors hawk souvenirs.

The jovial atmosphere belies the sacred respect the Naxi people have for this mountain - an important part of their unique culture famed for its mysterious hieroglyphics and religion.

The Naxi number roughly 300,000 and live in Southwest China's Yunnan Province. They are descendants of an ancient tribe called the Qiang that moved to the juncture of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces and the Tibet Autonomous Region from the Yellow River valley in Northwest China.

Like the Maya in South America, the Naxi developed a culture closely tied to religion, known as Dongba, and passed down a system of hieroglyphics by word-of-mouth.

Naxi people are proud of their mother tongue, which is the only hieroglyphic language still being used in the world.

To write the word "snatch," Naxi people draw a bird falling prey to an eagle's claw. For "absorb," they depict a man sucking from a bowl with a straw pipe.

Ancient Naxi also used seashells to read divinations from heaven. In a translated manuscript, one divination reads:

If you throw away one white seashell from thirteen;

The divination resembles the sun rising from one slope of the mountain

In another:

A Vulture spreads its wings upon craggy and soaring mountains;

You will know loss or the recovery of things;

Warfare and disaster or bliss lie ahead.

To experts, the Dongba manuscripts are "living fossils."

Behind the bloom

Today, Dongba culture is nothing more than a fad, with sacrificial rituals, clothing, tapestries and vaudeville shows available at tourist resorts.

Experts are concerned with this cultural facade.

"Behind the bloom is hedonism, commercialism and consumerism," Yang says.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Lijiang, home of the Naxi and where Dongba culture clings to life.

Located about 600 kilometres northwest of Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, Lijiang is home to three UNESCO World Heritages - Three Rivers Flowing Abreast, Lijiang Ancient Town, and the Dongba Manuscripts.

Take a walk in the cobbled streets and you'll see a feast of Dongba culture, at least that's what it looks like at first. In reality this "culture" is limited to ostentatious Dongba icons: slogans, tourist souvenirs that say "I love you," newfangled Dongba theme parks and imitation Dongba manuscripts.

"Dongba culture is rooted here, but presented only as a commodity rather than an enriched history and culture," says Yang.

"Of course, there have been a lot of preservation efforts. The local government made it a priority and experts are dedicated to protecting the culture by collecting manuscripts and translating them," says Yang, pointing to the 100-volume "Dongba Manuscripts Translations and Studies" sitting on his bookshelf.

But native Dongba speakers are now few and far between. "Nowadays, only one in 10,000 Naxi can decipher the original manuscripts," says Bai Gengsheng, a Naxi and vice president of the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society.

Dongbas, omniscient gurus in Naxi culture, number even less. According to tradition, Dongbas are supposed to preside over sacrificial, marital and burial ceremonies and provide offerings to the gods.

"The 11 veteran Dongbas at our research centre all passed away," sighs Zhao Shihong, head of the Dongba Cultural Research Institute.

The Dongba manuscripts, the core of the culture, are in peril. "Mistranslations of Dongba manuscripts abound and researchers are rare," says Zhao.

Globalization has also dealt a deadly blow to Dongba culture, says Bai. Every year, about three million visitors swarm into Lijiang. They bring different values that are a threat to traditional Naxi lifestyles.

"They can't resist outside changes and remain what they used to be," he says.

Revival or survival

Some local experts have realized the importance of preserving Dongba culture and taken action.

Starting in the 1980s, elderly Dongbas living in villages were recruited to decipher old manuscripts. Dongba apprenticeships were resumed in tandem.

"Back in the old days, Dongba culture was exclusive and strictly passed down within Dongba families, following a kindred and male-heir line," says Yang of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.

Under the ongoing educational programme, talented students are selected and sent to elderly Dongbas, who teach them to read manuscripts, write hieroglyphics, hold ceremonies and make religious gadgets.

There are now 14 Dongba culture educational institutions in Lijiang.

"It's imperative for us to cultivate new Dongbas. Otherwise, we will not understand what the hieroglyphics say decades from now," says Zhao of the Dongba research institute.

For the moment, seven young men, including He Xiudong, are studying Dongba culture at the centre.

Performing rituals for the public is considered by the centre an effective way to protect Dongba culture at the grassroots level. However, "except in a very few villages, many Dongba activities are just commodities," Yang points out.

Bai of the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society is also fairly pessimistic.

"The impact of globalization is irresistible. Like many other ethnic minority cultures, Dongba culture is facing imminent extinction. What we can do is record as many of the original manuscripts as possible."

(Source: China Daily)

By: Source: China Daily Website
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