sons of heaven


Ceinos Arcones, Pedro. Sons of Heaven, Brothers of Nature: The Naxi of Southwest China. 2012.


Hidden in the confines of East Asia, where the imposing mountains of the eastern foothills of the Himalayas blocked for centuries the western expansion of the Chinese, there is a natural border between China, Tibet and Southeast Asia; a geographical, natural and ethnic divide that effectively separates three worlds: Three fascinating ways of understand life, death, and the time between. This frontier was inhabited by a nation of ancient ancestry that during centuries kept a close relationship with a heterogeneous group of tribes and empires, giving origin to one of the most remarkable cultures on earth. They are the Naxi people.

Though the origin of the Naxi civilization is lost in the mists of time, its culture developed slowly during the last thousand years to become the key to understand the cultural mosaic of the Sino-Tibetan borderlands. In the process they experienced amazing splendors and witnessed their political fall; the culture developed along this tortuous road remained unknown to the outside world until the middle decades of the 20th century, when the curtain opened for a while, letting the world catch a sight of a mysterious civilization. Before a real understanding of their inner life could be grasped, the curtain closed again.

The Naxi occupy a central position in the research and understanding of the old traditions of East Asia as no other ethnic group can claim. To their Qiang ancestry and the cultural influences of other Loloish1 groups that live in their neighbourhood, their culture incorporated elements of the oldest Tibetan culture, influences of the Mongolian and through them of Central and North Asian civilizations, and a repository of ideas and traditions that can be traced back to the archaic culture of China. No other ethnic group of Asia has preserved so rich and multifaceted ancient heritage, no other ethnic group is so central to the research of the old cultures of Asia. The role of the Naxi as preservers of ancient cultural heritages can be attributed to the isolation of some communities and to the writing of a surprising amount of sacred books, maybe thousands of them treasured in the hands of their religious specialists, known to the outside world as the Dongba Classics. The study of Naxi traditions has changed the cultural meaning of the Sino-Tibetan borderlands, with their main elements ranked as intangible cultural heritages, and Lijiang recognized as a site where the main civilizations of East Asia intersected and integrated, creating an original and diverse culture.

Living in a time characterized by a materialistic view of the world, it can be surprising to discover how in the description of Naxi culture, the spiritual world is continuously present, with the influence of gods and demons always at hand, and a feeling of sacredness permeating their ideas about man and nature. These beliefs of the Naxi originated in two main myths that will be discussed in this book, one emphasizing the brotherhood of humans and nature, and the other the divine origin of human beings. Together they provide the ideological structure that serves as the basis of Naxi religion and culture. Central to Naxi cultural life are the Dongba priests, resourceful artists and mediators between the human and divine worlds, whose traditions can be credited with some of the most brilliant creations in the human history: the invention and use of a pictographic language, the writing of more than 20.000 sacred scriptures in this script, the creation of long scroll paintings more than 15-meter long, and the development of an ancient dance notation.

After the Naxi territory was opened to the outside world in the 1980s, an interesting amount of books and academic papers have been published about the most remarkable features of their life, culture and religion. Unfortunately, most of these publications, written in Chinese, are not available to the general reader, as are neither the handful of academic studies full of technical terms difficult to understand to the non-initiated, or the simple and well illustrated tourist books, more suited to be considered a souvenir than a tool to get a deeper understanding of Naxi culture.

Every year thousands of travelers from all around the world visit the Naxi region, turning their former isolation in a permanent exhibition of their lands and homes. During their stay in Lijiang they get in contact with some of the most outstanding characteristics of Naxi culture: Dongba pictographs, Old City traditional architecture, Alili popular dance, ethnic clothes, Baisha mural paintings, Dongjing music, etc., but unfortunately these dispersed manifestations of the Naxi culture fail to provide an overall understanding of the Naxi people, remaining instead as touristic activities without a link to the soul of the people who created them, and part of whose spiritual world they are.

This first and sudden contact with the Naxi culture arises the interest of many travelers that unfortunately cannot find any materials with whom satiate their thirst. This book was written to fill this void. Blending the most interesting Chinese and western academic materials in an easily readable and understandable guide to Naxi culture and history, we want to let the outside world understand the human environment of Lijiang, to help the travelers fully enjoy their visit to the lands of the Naxi, and to provide our readers a permanent emotional link to one of the most fascinating ethnic groups on Earth: The Naxi.

This book is structured in six main chapters, “The Naxi of Southwest China” is an overview of Naxi geographical and natural environment, Naxi population and territorial distribution, language and especially Dongba pictographs, the only pictographic writing still in use in the world, that was developed by the Dongba priests as a route guide to their religious ceremonies; “Echoes from the past: Naxi History” shows a chronological description of the history and social development of the Naxi people, from the oldest information about them that can be found in Chinese chronicles, to their royal genealogies and the 20th century changes that shattered their traditional world; “Gods and Dongbas: Naxi religion” is an overall description of the main aspects of Naxi traditional religion, introducing the religious beliefs of the Naxi, their view of nature as a sacred entity, the features of the Dongba and Lhubu priests, their main deities and the ceremonies performed to honor them. In “Naxi Culture” the basic aspects of the material culture of the Naxi are described, the symbolism of the village, home and dress, as well as the special characteristics of their society. In “Naxi life cycle” the three main stages in the life of each Naxi: birth, pairing, and death, are discussed. In “Naxi yearly cycle” the reader will find information about the festivals and ceremonies usually celebrated on a yearly basis, discovering also in the ritual celebration of the year interesting influences of diverse origin. The last chapter “Music, Arts, and Literature” is a short exposition of the way the Naxi people expressed in both the secular and profane realms, their rich spiritual world; their different artistic traditions related to music, art and literature are described, and their more acclaimed artistic works are introduced.

Not aimed to give an overall description of Naxi culture and religion but a comprehensive guide to the most remarkable features of them, we think that this book can be an ideal introduction to further research, a useful companion of travel and an indispensable tool in the cultural elaboration that follows man adventures in faraway lands.

The book - The author about his book - Contents - Introduction - Glossary