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Naxi People, Middlemen of the Tea-Horse Road



Naxi people(Nakhi people纳西族) live in Hengduan mountain where Tibet, Yunnan and Sichuan meet. Blessed with Three Parallel Rivers, snow-capped mountains, Tiger Leaping Gorge and rolling grasslands, this isolated heaven reputed for exceptional rich bio-diversity and engaging ethnic culture,  is immortalized by J.F. Rock, James Hillton and Peter Goullart through miniature depictions, legendary explorations and vivid photos. 

The deep valleys and mist-shrouded peaks are glorified by a multitude of lesser-know ethnic groups, among which Naxi people, the king of Lijiang, stand out as the most prominent one.

Population:324,679(by 2000) 295,464 in Yunnan, 8,725 in Sichuan 1,223 Tibet 1.3% other area

Language: Naxi language: it the Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family and is the only pictographic written language in use today. Along the bank of Jinsha River, two dialects thrive.

Script: Dongba Script(which has around 2,200 pictographs) and Geba Script(哥巴文). Geba means “disciple”. The dominating school voices that it emerged after Dongba Script, hence it name, while dissidents include J.F. Rock insisted that it appeared earlier than Dongba Script. Geba once prevailed in Lijiang, it is a syllable script, which is more sophisticated than Dongba Script on pronunciation.

Distribution: the meeting point of Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet they centered on: Lijiang and Diqing Prefecture of Yunnan, with minor settlements in Tibet and Sichuan

UNESCO Heritage of Naxi People:       The Old Town of Lijiang (1997)            Three Parallel Rivers (2003)


National HeriageDongba Painting (2006), Naxi Hand Paper-Making Technique (2006) , REmeicuo Dance 热美蹉 (2008)


Naxi men and Naxi women

One of the most controversial part of Naxi people is that women shoulder almost all the manual work, while their beloved husbands stay naxi womanin home and take care of babies, planting flowers, playing Majiang, keeping a bird, practicing chess and calligraphy. As the byproduct of Tea-horse Road, this unbelievable practice has continued for hundreds of years.

With big eyes, high noses, strong will and an air of confidence, Naxi women are easily identifiable. When stroll in Lijiang, you can easily notice Naxi women of all ages and classes busy themselves with all kinds of occupation, from slaughter a pig, weave, embroidery, trade to plow the rice paddies. These super women literally make the busiest group of lijiang. To describe their competence, a saying goes like this: “a Naxi woman is more strong and capable than 10 horses”. During the past, they were prejudiced as unclean creatures and treated like lifelong slaves. Generations of hard work not only gifts them with stout and healthy body, but also confidence and strong will. The past century saw their social status improved significantly, yet they still cling to the ancient lifestyle and cherish the same passion to labor and work.

Judging that Naxi women can rule the family and manage all kinds of stuffs so aptly and skillfully, their husbands step back and choose to indulge in a much slow-paced domestic life and derive pleasure from chess, calligraphy, painting and music. As a group which can easily stirs envy, despise or even resentment from outsiders, Naxi men obey their life code stylishly out of habit, or shamelessly in our view. To them, “ build a house, get married and enjoy the sunshine” are top three priorities. Marry a Naxi woman, in particular, is a passport to a secured, cozy and comfort life ever after. Hence, competition for Naxi woman can be very tense, especially when men outnumber women nowadays. In some extreme cases, a Naxi man in his 20s will be glad to marry a Naxi woman is her 40s.

Dongba women wear blue headgears, long gown, brown vest, long trousers, aprons , sheep skin scarf as well as two “moons” and seven colorful round “stars” made of fabric. These “moons” and “stars” metaphor their diligence.

Naxi People: the Middlemen of Tea-Horse Road

South Silk Road and Tea-Horse Road, two important trade arteries spurred numerous towns and kingdoms along their courses, lingered on the Old Town of Lijiang and bestowed it with influential heritage and rich legacy which finally outlast their own epic journey.

Naxi people contributed a lot to to sustain the Tea-Horse Road by acting like “middlemen” and rule-maker. Tibetans with their horses, butter teas, herbs and furs, Bai people with their batiks and teas, Sichuan people with their salt, tea and fabrics, Naxi people with their handicrafts, all traded according to the fair practice set up by Naxis in Lijiang. As the southernmost stop of Tibetan Buddhism and the westernmost sanctuary of Chinese Buddhism, Lijiang lives up to the fame as the spiritual anchor and melting pot of Yunnan. As to foreign belief, Naxis are desperations of the commissioners, just as the Tibetans. Rumors has it that dozens of commissioners from western and eastern Europe marched into Lijiang ambitiously, all ended up with failure.


Naxi People: the King of the Old Town of Lijiang

The Old Town of Lijiang, now crowned as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, derives half of its charm from the idyllic setting, soothing atmosphere as well as the labyrinth of crisscrossing lanes, intertwined canals, arched bridges and quaint shops, and the other half, from the mysterious and profound Dongba culture.

If you scratch the surface of this glamorous and vibrant city, you will unveil its spirit and character which still shine and dominate. The diversified landscape and rich Dongba culture which enthralled and inspired adventurers including J. F Rock, Peter Goullart(a Russian writer and author of the Forgotten Kingdom) and James Hilton(the author of Lost Horizon) still draw curious souls like you and me like a magnet. Our journey of unravel this great nationality, starts from its faiths and beliefs. 

tea horse roadtea horse road


Jade Dragon Snow Mountain: the Abode of San Duo

Consisting of thirteen peaks at mind-blowing height, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain serves as the landmark of Lijiang and the spirit totem of Naxis, who believe that these holy peaks overlap their national spirit and are the abodes and incarnations of Sanduo, their mighty protection God. According to Naxi myth, San Duo, the legendary military general of the Mu Clan, was born from a snow white stone. He rides a white horse, wearing white hamlet and vest as well as carrying white arrows and bows. On the eighth day of the second lunar month, when spring is in the air, Naxis will stream into the Beiyue Sanduo Monastery in Baisha Yulong Village to worship him. This three-day Sanduo Festival involves solemn ritual ceremony, parade, horse racing, antiphonal singing contests, dance, picnic, trade and appreciate the Ten-thousand camellia blossom in Yufeng Temple. For romantic souls, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain also harbors the “ Yulong Third Kingdom”, where ill-fated lovers can sacrifice life for eternal love and happiness.


jade dragon snow mountainjade dragon snow mountain

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain: the Abode of San Duo

Yulong Third Kingdom

jade dragon snow mountain sanduo worshipsan duo

Naxi people worship Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

San Duo: Naxi people's protection God



Dongba Culture


Dongba culture is a sophisticated system encompassing Dongba language, script, painting, dance, music and rituals...


dongba culture


Naxi Ancient Music


Simple and graceful in style, Naxi Ancient Music is subtle, euphonious and vibrant in character. Spend several hours in Lijiang, you can hear the celestial voices of Tang dynasty which has long died out in inland China.



 naxi ancient music

 Naxi Ancient Music: celestial voice  from Tang dynasty



Baisha Murals


 Baisha Murals are famous for their elaborate layout, rich themes, fabulous colors, outstanding craftsmanship, flowing lines, well-proportioned and life-like figures. Though them, you can perceive the eclectic mix of Dongba culture , Tibetan Buddhism and Han Buddhism. (where to see Baisha Murals: Baisha Ancient Town)


baisha mural

Baisha Mural


History of Naxis

The past millennia have witnessed the ups and downs of Lijiang, and its main dwellers: the Naxis. Scholars hold that Naxi people are the descendants of the archaic Qiang tribe hailing from Qinhai Plateau, which intermarried with local tribes before forming the Naxi Nationality. During Qin, Han and Wei, Jin, they lived a nomadic life along Ya-lung River of west Sichuan. During Tang dynasty(618-907), Naxi people were trapped among Nanzhao Kingdom of Bai people, Turpan Kingdom and the Tang empire of Han Chinese succeeded in securing a status thanks to their exceptional resourceful brains.

In the 13th century, Mongolia troops drove the corrupted and weak Song emperors all the way from Beijing to Hangzhou and established the Yuan dynasty. It als did not forget to incorporate the unclaimed Naxi territory into its kingdom. This turned out to be a blessing for Naxis, for various naxi tribes were unified, social peace were reassumed and Dongba culture thrived. Naxi people took in the essential parts of Han, Bai and the Tibetans to built their own spirit palace. Everything has two sides, and one of the worst influence from Han feudal culture is to confine and despise woman. In the past, Naxi women were basically slaves of the family, who can be traded as commodities.

In the 14th century, Yuan dynasty gave way to Ming dynasty. Zhu Yuanzhang, the newly enthroned grass root emperor, found the Tibetans a nuisance and big threat. To get ride of the thorn in the eye, Naxi people, the neighbors of the Tibetans, were pacified to fight back the consistent harassments launched from the Tibetans. Mu Clan, the most influential family of Naxi, emerged at that time, whose legacy to us is their splendid mansion fashioned after the Forbidden city and their heroic deeds. For present day, it serves as the most convincing proof that Naxi men are not cowards, though most of them play the role of house wives, and their wives shoulder most of the responsibility, from manual work to running business.

During Qing dynasty, with Tibet combined into Han Chinese’s empire, Mu Clan fell out of favor and went into obscurity in the end. The good side is that Lijiang benefited a lot and saw the flourishing of handicraft industry, and its handicrafts were sold worldwide. Another interesting and defining phenomenon was that plenty of lovers died for unfulfilled love in Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, hence the nickname: “the capital of Romeo and Julie”.



tea horse road
tea horse road
tea horse road
tea horse road

Tea-Horse Road: Originating from the tea-horse trade among Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan., the ancient Tea-horse Road emerged during the 7th century and flourished during Ming and Qing dynasties(1368-1911). Consisting of Sichuan-Tibet Route and Yunnan-Tibet Route, it reached India, Nepal and ended at the Red Sea of west Africa.



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