The Naxi are descended from Tibetan nomads who settled the Lijiang region before the tenth century, bringing with them a shamanistic religion known as Dongba. A blend of Tibetan Bon, animism and Taoist tendencies, Dongba’s scriptures are written in the only hieroglyphic writing system still in use, with 1400 pictograms. The Naxi deity Sanduo is a warrior god depicted dressed in white, riding a white horse and wielding a white spear. Murals depicting him and other deities still decorate temples around Lijiang, and are a good excuse to explore nearby villages.
Strong matriarchal influences permeate Naxi society, particularly in the language. For example, nouns become weightier when the word female is added, so a female stone is a boulder, a male stone a pebble. Inheritance passes through the female line to the eldest daughter. Women do most of the work, and own most of the businesses; accordingly, the Naxi women’s costume of caps, shawls and aprons is sturdy and practical, while retaining its symbolic meaning; the upper blue segment of the shawl represents night, a lower sheepskin band represents daylight, and two circles around the shoulder depict the eyes of a frog deity. Naxi men often appear under-employed, though they have a reputation as good gardeners and musicians. You’ll likely see a few falconers too. Forgotten Kingdom, by Peter Goullart, available at bookshops in town, is an entertaining account of Lijiang and the Naxi during the 1930s.