Ethnic Minority People in Yunnan: Naxi Culture and the Role of Women

By Stelzner, Andrea; A-gan, Ge et al. | Women in Action, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Ethnic Minority People in Yunnan: Naxi Culture and the Role of Women


Stelzner, Andrea, A-gan, Ge, Xiaoxun, He, Women in Action


Southwest China's Yunnan Province is home to 26 officially recognised ethnic minorities--who account for one third (approx. 15 million) of the total population of the province--and is also home to about 29 million Han Chinese. The Han constitute the majority of the people in China. Their history has been recorded in the official annals, while ethnic minorities have been merely mentioned therein. The status and recognition of ethnic minorities has changed--from being heroes defending the Han Chinese "Central Kingdom's" frontier regions against barbarian aggressions from the outside, to being referred to as "uncivilised frontier people" themselves.

The Southwest (as well as other regions of China) had been invaded many times in the course of the Chinese emperors' attempts to unify the empire. Through these invasions, culturally uniform Han Chinese standards and values were introduced to ethnic minorities' civilisations. On the other hand, interethnic and cross-cultural exchanges were common along the trade routes in the mountainous regions of Yunnan Province.

Lijiang is one of the cities of Yunnan. Lijiang City's old town Dayan Township, northwest of the Province, used to be the capital of the ancient Naxi Kingdom. The town was an important fortress on the Yunnan-Tibet "Old Tea Trade Route." It lies at the foot of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and was built around the end of the twelfth century. Being part of the Southern Silk Road, people in the town have been in touch with various other cultures and religions. The Naxi Kingdom itself had integrated Han Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Taoism to its own belief system.

Ethnic minority people's identities in China have been difficult to define. Out of over 450 ethnic minorities' claims for an official status as ethnic minority, 260 applications came from Yunnan Province during the nationwide ethnologic identification project conducted in the late fifties by the Central Government. The Central Government finally classified 26 ethnic minority groups as more or less "developed" on a Marxist-Leninist scaling system. But official recognition of ethnic minority people, and, especially, ethnic minority women, in China has not improved--even if more liberal economic policies were introduced in the early eighties.

The image created of Yunnan Province's ethnic minority women is often that of entertaining merrymakers: In the centre of the attraction of social scientists, artists, journalists, and tourists, these women are performing and dressed up in exotic, colorful clothes. As Evans (1999) wrote: "Ethic women emerge as the exotic embodiment of a range of imaginaries, fantasies, and sublimations that the dominant discourse denied in the representing of Han [Chinese] women."

Apart from being featured in colorfully illustrated coffeetable books, paintings, and on video compact discs (VCDs), ethnic minority women are embodied in wood carvings, ceramics, batik tablecloths, and bronze sculptures. Souvenir shops all over China are selling these artifacts with standardised symbols and motifs of erotic ethnic minority women. Dai (Thai) women's images are sold in Lijiang, where the Dai (Thai) do not live; oil paintings of Tibetan females can be found on the borders with Thailand.

But women of the Naxi and Mosuo ethnic groups in Yunnan have a slightly different status from those of other ethnic minorities in the province. (1) Naxi and Mosuo belong to the Na ethnic group: The Naxi--with most of its members living in Lijiang City--is a patrilinear society; the Naruo (commonly called Mosuo) (2) is a matrilinear community, living on Lugu Lake (approx. 300 km from Lijiang). Mosuo society's most outstanding feature is the tradition of Zouhun (walking marriage), implying that women (and their children) are the central members of a family household.

While it continues to be the norm in Chinese communities for a woman to move in with her husband's family, it is commonly accepted in Na communities that the husband moves in with his wife's family.

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