The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of The Cosmos And The Stars

Lijiang, high in the Himalayan foothills and in the shadow of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, is home to the Nakhi people, whose blue and white traditional dress can be glimpsed around the cobbled alleyways and canals of Lijiang's old city, and in all its surrounding villages.

The Nakhi (Naxi in Chinese) are descended from Tibetan nomads, settling into the Lijiang valley to grow crops and trade tea with Tibet and beyond, and despite incursions from the Han Chinese they have managed to preserve their rich and vibrant customs, language (the only pictographic written language in current use in the world), religion, music and their matrilineal structure. 

Their ancient Dongba religion rests on the belief that Nature and Man are half-brothers from different mothers, closely related and intertwined, and that the land and the forest are sacred and must be protected for future generations. The Nakhi were the original conservationists, really, and accordingly their customs reflect this:

"One of the most widely practised Dongba rituals, Zzerq Ciul Zhuaq (literally, to repay the debts of a tree), is often seen in the village of Shuming. The ritual was conducted if somebody was stricken with illness or bad luck, when a Dongba priest would be consulted. On many occasions, the result would show that the person had carried out logging or washing of dirty things in the forest, and the family or person concerned would have to ask the Dongba priest to hold the ritual near where the activity had taken place, and apologise to the nature god Shu." (wikipedia)

In keeping with the importance of women in Nakhi culture, the women continue to wear traditional dress, as seen here. Immediately recognisable by their cobalt blue caps, they wear a white shirt and blue or dark red sleeveless vest fastened with knotted ties at the shoulder. A skirt is worn over their dark blue or black trousers, tied at the waist with a long heavy cotton sash embroidered at both ends with an intricate black and white geometric design, with both ends hanging behind. The most eye-catching feature though, is their extraordinary cape, black above and white below, worn over the back with broad white straps crossing over the front of the body, and embroidered with seven coloured circles. 

These circles intrigued me, and I imagined they must have symbolic meaning, but it wasn't until I read the account of Bruce Chatwin, the legendary travel writer who spent some time in Lijiang in the 1980s, that I understood their significance:

"Apart from the bonnet, the women's costume consists of a blue bodice, a pleated white apron and a stiff, quilted cape secured with crossbands. Every Nakhi woman carries the cosmos on her back: the upper part of the cape is a band of indigo representing the night sky; the lower, a lobe of creamy silk or sheepskin that stands for the light of day. The two halves are separated by a row of seven disks that symbolize the stars - although the sun and moon, once worn on either shoulder, have now gone out of fashion." 

(from 'In China, Rock's Kingdom' published in the New York Times, March 16, 1986). Quite poetic as a way of dressing, don't you think?

Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 2: Exercising Caution While Maintaining Momentum
Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 3: My Life in the Hands of an Idiot in a Minivan
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Dali: The Trouble with Being a Pig
Kunming: Crossing the Bridge Noodles
Yunnan: In Pictures

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