Yunnan has the largest number of ethnic groups in China. Apart from the Han, 26 ethnic groups live in compact communities that account for one third of the total population in Yunnan.
As early as the clan society, three major ethnic groups, namely the Qiang, the Pu and the Yue, inhabited in areas of Yunnan. They were the earliest residents in Yunnan and have multiplied throughout the years. It was not until the Qing Dynasty that various ethnic groups gradually settled down.
The Yi people mostly live in the northwestern, middle and northern regions of Yunnan; the Bai people live nearby areas of Erhai Lake; the Zhuang and the Miao people live in the Eastern and Southeastern regions of Yunnan; and other ethnic groups reside in the western, southern and northwestern regions of Yunnan.
The Dongba Culture
The Dongba culture, also called the Dongba Sept culture, places an emphasis on religion. It originated from the ancient Naxi culture that was passed down from generation to generation to form the Dongba religion. The priest of the Dongba religion is called “Dongba,” which is translated as a wise man in the local dialect. A priest is usually a generalist with a good knowledge of songs, dances, books, scriptures, history and medicine within the culture.
The Dongba culture includes hieroglyphics, writing characters, Dongba paintings, dances, music and various rituals of sacrifices.
The Dongba Writing Characters
The Dongba characters are categorized as primitive hieroglyphics. From the perspective of the development of the shape of the characters, the Dongba characters are older than the inscriptions on oracle bones and are an early form of writing. They were originally marks and images written or drawn on wood and stones. Later, after the art of paper-making came they were written on paper. In a way, the Dongba characters are presently the only living hieroglyphic in the world and serve as a “living fossil” shedding light on the origin of character writing in human society. There are 1,700 Dongba hieroglyphs with a combination of pictures and characters. They are smooth in strokes, simple in style and bright with color. Today, many of the characters remain in use by the Dongba people.
The Dongba Music
The Dongba music refers to the melodies and tunes that are chanted with musical instruments by the priest while offering sacrifices and performing religious rituals. The Dongba music is an important part of Dongba culture. Their musical style gainsed popularity through oral narration and has been preserved in the Dongba scripture and pictures. Apart from the art of the divine, the Dongba scriptures are sung instead of read.
There are approximately 50 tones in Dongba music. The chant of the Dongba music is based on Naxi folk melodies with the company of musical instruments that include bells, drums and cymbals. The rhythm is single and the notes are simple. There are orchestras in the Dongba music as well. In the Dongba rituals of sacrifice, singing is usually accompanied with musical instruments to make the performance striking in rhythm and resounding in tone.
The Dongba Dance
The Dongba dance is a classical Naxi dance. The Naxi people have been famous for their talents of singing and dancing. Currently, the dances that are newly developed and prevail among the people are original dances like Dongba classical dance, group dance and new dance. “Maida Cuo” and “Rere Cuo” are types of original dance that combine with poems, songs and dances. They have many features: like singing while dancing, singing to promote dancing, dancing to promote singing and stopping dance when the songs end, as well as dancing with no musical instruments. Additionally, they can limit the amount of people involved and there are no restrictions on place and occasion, while both men and woman are involved. Their steps are quite simple. Generally, people put their right hands on the left shoulder of another person or hold onto their hands with the persons right next to them and move together eastward in circle.
The theme of Dongba dances come from the folk songs that absorb the elements of folk dances. The local people add various elements of the Dongba religion to the dances performed in the rituals and turn it to their own, therefore, their dances have a strong sense of local culture.
The Dongba Palace
As a major part of Dongba culture, the palaces play an indispensable role for inheritance and development of writing characters, music, songs and dances. Located in Lijiang ancient town, the Dongba Palace opens a door for people to better understand Dongba culture.
The Dongba Palace stands in the East Street of Lijiang ancient town. Five local auspicious ornaments are decorated on top of the door and the Dongba wood paintings are put on both sides of it. The unique decorations and activities inside the palace will expose you to the charm of Dongba culture. The Dongba Palace is a small but complete museum of ethnic cultures where you can appreciate Dongba culture and arts as well as have a better understanding of the Naxi ancient music and the folk dance.
The Dongba Painting
The types of Dongba painting can be subdivided into wood painting, card painting, scroll painting and scripture painting. The Dongba paintings mainly represent the gods, demons, ghosts and goblins that the Naxi people had faith in ancient times as they expressed ideal worlds. Some of the paintings depict secular life in ancient Naxi society.
The time-honored Dongba paintings with the most striking characteristics are artistic legacies of the Naxi ethnic group. When performing rituals, the Naxi people would draw various images of the Buddha, gods, figures, plants, animals and ghosts, then worship and offer sacrifices to them. Painting that serves as a religious ritual is generally called a Dongba painting. The Dongba painting shares the same five artistic features with the hieroglyphics and scriptures. This is due to the form of the Yebei scripture, graceful lines, bright colors, and presentation of dynamism and absorption of characteristics.
The Dongba Ritual
Offering sacrifices to heaven is the most important ritual for the Naxi people. The Naxi people are very proud of this ritual as they believe they are blessed by heaven. The rituals are performed in spring and autumn in a certain place for offering sacrifices with one household or clan as a unit.
Offering sacrifices to the god of wind, known as Hailaliken in the Naxi language, is aimed at releasing the souls of people who died unnaturally like committing suicide for love or dying in a war.
Offering sacrifices to Dingbashenluo), known as “Shenluowu” in the Naxi language, is a mourning ritual for the demise of priests.
Works of the Dongba Art
Works of Dongba art refer to puppets made of wood and flours, clay statues and various bamboo-knitting fabrics that are used in religious rituals. The works are valuable as they are unique in style and vivid in imagery.
The Dongba sumptuary art mainly reflects the works of puppets, flour-made puppets and wood carvings. Carving a piece of wood into a puppet is a way to make flour-puppets in religious rituals. Up until now, over 30 flour-puppets have been collected. The Dongba people are all excellent craftsmen since all of them have a talent for carving puppets. The shapes of the puppets are as followed: some have the shape of a thinker, some have the posture of looking far into the distance, while some have a wide-open mouth like their ready to shout. The shapes of the puppets are all whimsical. The Dongba puppets are carved with hats (used in Buddhist and Taoist mass), brooches and pearls. They also have the posture of sitting upright and the carved lines are clear and bold.
The Naxi Ancient Music
Naxi ancient music is one of the oldest musical styles in the world. According to historical research, it originated in the 14th century and remains the oldest music style in Yunnan. It is also a very artistic crystallization that the Naxi people create under the influence of the civilization during Confucianism in the central plains of China.
Naxi ancient music has three characteristics: old songs, old musical instruments and old performers. Most of the performers are 70 to 80 years old, but recently, there are also some young intellectuals fascinated by the Naxi ancient music. Not only will the people who have listened to this kind of music come to understand old civilization of Naxi ancient music, but will also appreciate the profound culture of the Naxi ethnic group. Old as the Naxi ancient music is, it has maintained popularity for over 500 years. In October 1995, the band of Naxi ancient music was invited to give performances in the U.S., Belgium and Holland, creating a mass sensation in Western Europe, the U.S., the U.K. and Italy. Broadcasting corporations in these countries have played a significant role in exposing Naxi ancient music worlwide. Experts and delegations from Holland and Japan have made special trips to Lijiang to investigate the ancient music and publish treatises later.