During a recent trip to Lijiang in northwest Yunnan Province, some friends eagerly introduced a newly completed tourist attraction named "Dongba Kingdom" at the foot of the Yulong (Snow Dragon) Mountains close to the ancient town of Lijiang.
The Naxi people have held many important cultural activities in the past few years, amazing the world with their ability to preserve and promote their own culture.
It seemed that this new site would be another great place not just for curious tourists but for the Naxi people themselves.
The "Dongba Kingdom" covers well over 100,000 square metres. It has six major parts: Hieroglyphs Square, Five Grains Bridge and Sacred Sea, Door and Religious Staff, Scroll of Sacred Road, Naxi Totem Square and Ancient Naxi Village.
The entire kingdom is designed according to Dongba scriptures, said designer Zhang Chunhe. Zhang is famous in and outside China for incorporating hieroglyphs into innovative paintings.
"This is a grand project to rejuvenate the Dongba Culture," Zhang said. "The theme of the kingdom is to express the respect the Naxi people have for life, for the harmony between man and nature."
Zhang's claims are well founded.
History and religion
Lijiang has always been a beautiful place of peace and auspiciousness. Many different religions, such as the Naxi people's Dongba religion, Tibetan Buddhism and the Bon Religion of the Tibetan people, as well as Catholicism spread here by Western missionaries, peacefully co-exist in the region.
Over 1,000 years ago, the Naxi people, a branch of the ancient nomadic Qiang people who originated in Northwest China, settled along the banks of the Jinsha River in the Hengduan Mountains of Southwest China.
In the long process of development, the Naxi people created mysterious hieroglyphs which recorded objects in nature and the way that people lived. Such hieroglyphs have been recognized as a "living fossil" among the whole world's written languages.
Although 10 centuries have lapsed, the fascinating hieroglyphs have been well preserved and are still revered by the Dongba shamans in their religious ceremonies.
In the Naxi language, which is soft and musical, "Dongba" means "sage who can make divination and chant scriptures." In fact, the Dongba shamans are learned scholars in many fields: ancient sorcery, medicine, arts and crafts, history and literature.
Throughout history, the Dongba shamans have been vital in carrying on the cultural lineage of the Naxi people.
Although many Dongba shamans' skills were cultivated by their fathers, any young man interested in the practice could also become an apprentice and gain local people's recognition through years of hard work.
One of the basic tasks that a novice must accomplish before he could become a Dongba shaman is mastering the skill of writing the Dongba scriptures, which are written entirely in hieroglyphs.
With a bamboo pencil, special ink and a kind of brown paper made through a complicated process, the Dongba shamans paint the hieroglyphs for different scriptures.
The Dongba scriptures are like an encyclopedia of Naxi history and culture, as they record everything from details of religious ceremonies to legends of the world's beginning, production and life of the society, geology and astronomy, animals and plants, as well as the fundamental belief that humans should co-exist with nature in peace.
In 2003, Ancient Naxi Dongba Literature Manuscripts were included in the World Memory Heritage List by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Before modern medicine and mass media reached the Naxi people, locals relied on the Dongbas to hold various rituals with goals ranging from grave matters such as paying tribute to Heaven and Earth to trivialities like treating an ailment.
Dongba Religion can be seen as a primitive polytheism which worships everything in nature. Although Dongba Religion was widely practised, somehow it never developed into strict organizations in temples as did Tibetan Buddhism, which has many branches and grand monasteries.
The "Dongba Kingdom" honours the great Dongba Culture with well-designed exhibits.
On a long wall, most of the 1,400 commonly used hieroglyphs are inscribed; a group of nearly 100 sculptures are dedicated to renowned Dongba shamans who had made outstanding contributions to the Naxi people before they passed away.
Among them is the sculpture of Dingba Shiluo, legendary founder of Dongba Religion. It is said that in the mid-11th century, a great religious master named Shiluo (Dingba means patriarch in Tibetan) learnt Buddhism in Tibet and taught disciples to write hieroglyphic scriptures at Baidi of Sanba Township in Shangri-La County to the northwest of Lijiang.
Every year, on the eighth day of the second month in the lunar calendar, people of the Naxi, Tibet, Yi, Bai, Lisu and other minorities go to Baidi to attend grand ceremonies honouring the Dongba Religion's creator.
But the most astounding sight at the "Dongba Kingdom" is the Scroll of the Sacred Road. At 10 metres wide and 250 metres long, it is claimed to be the largest stone carving in the country.
More important than the size of the scroll are its religious and academic values. The Scroll of Sacred Road (Shenlu Tu) is a very important part of the Dongba Culture and it reflects the Naxi people's ability to assimilate other cultures while at the same time, retaining their own.
There are many versions of the scroll, but generally it is painted on a cloth scroll of about 30 centimetres wide and 10 to 20 metres long.
The scroll is vital for a Naxi funeral, when the Dongba shamans must spread the scroll from the head of the deceased towards the northeast a place where the ancestors of the Naxi people had come from.
There are eight volumes of scriptures related to the Sacred Road, which must be chanted by the Dongba shamans at the funeral to guide the spirit away from the Sphere of the Ghosts (Gui Di).
Besides the Sphere of the Ghosts, the scroll also depicts the Present World (Ren Jian) and the Regime of the Deities (Shen Di). But some researchers say such equivalents of heaven, hell and Earth were not an original idea of the Naxi.
Many details on the painting bear traces of the Taoism from Central China, Tibetan Buddhism and the Bon Religion.
More interestingly, some parts of the scroll, such as a white elephant with 33 heads, might have taken influence from Indian Brahmanism.
It is interesting that while the Dongba shamans guide the spirit through heaven, hell and Earth, they also point out specific names of places near the homeland of the Naxi people. Returning to where the Naxi people had come from is a deep-rooted concept of the Naxi, which is reflected by many other scriptures as well.
"We carved the 'Scroll of the Sacred Road' onto rocks, so that we can preserve it forever," said Zheng Lihua of the Lijiang Dongba Kingdom Cultural Tourism Development Company, which invested 36 million yuan (US$4.4 million) in the project.
Through the two international Dongba cultural and arts festivals held in 1999 and 2003, Lijiang has not only promoted the Dongba Culture to the world, but also awakened the Naxi people's pride in their own cultural heritage.
Three years ago, researchers, local entrepreneurs and government officials began discussing how to better promote and preserve the Dongba Culture. "Dongba Kingdom" is the result of this.
Tourists can attend religious ceremonies held by real Dongba shamans and participate in Naxi village life, Zheng said.
Interested couples can enjoy a traditional Naxi wedding and get wedding certificates made from Dongba paper, which "won't decay in 1,000 years," according to Zheng.
"We provide visitors with lively entertainment as well as sites that represent Naxi culture," Zheng said, adding that over 600 tourists visit on an average day.
He Xuchun, chairman of the board of the Dongba Kingdom Company, clearly remembers that he stayed on the project site for "three years and one day" before its completion.
"Lijiang is famous in the country and in the world. There are only about 320,000 Naxi people, but we have paid great attention to preserving and promoting our ethnic culture," said He, who started with a construction company and now runs the Naxi Grand Hotel in the new area of Lijiang.
"I don't care much if I can't get the investment back," said He. "I feel happy and content that I can contribute to the culture of my own people, which is important for the whole world."
(China Daily July 24, 2006)