Naxi: Songs of Mount Satseto

by on September 20, 2016


I come today to sit and look at the mountains
not for poetry
poetry found me.

A stanza of Singaporean poet Pan Shou’s poem «平生» (meaning ‘All My Life’) written in 1963 captures and depicts my impression of the home of the Naxi people in Lijiang city rather clearly—in ways my coarse translation of it in English cannot. In the winter of 2012, I had a chance to visit the city of Lijiang, where it seemed to me that a badge of Naxi culture and identity not easily accessible to the out-group is its written language, which, while seemingly simplistic, actually holds the key to a trove of heritage and appreciation of the Naxi way of life. The second badge of Naxi pride is an appreciation of its natural wonders and a respect for the ‘souls of nature’. In the religious tradition of Naxi, the people even worshipped a nature god named Shu.


A statue of the traditional Naxi god of nature, Shu; dated 2012.
(Photo by Frances Loke Wei)

Inhabiting the sublime peaks and valleys of the Himalayas, in Naxi Autonomous County in Lijiang averaging 2,700m above sea level, are the Naxi people. Also widely-known as Nakhi, Naqxi, Nari, and Nahan, the people live within a unique culture with influences from Tibetan and Han Chinese culture and are one out of 55 ethnic minorities recognised in China, and are believed to have descended from the nomadic proto-Qiang tribe from the Tibetan plateaus. Na means ‘black’ and xi means ‘people’. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), they were to have migrated from northern China to Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai, and by the Tang Dynasty (618–907), settled in northwest Yunnan (Yu, 2010). Outside of Yunnan, Naxi people have also settled in other parts of China, but more significantly in adjacent counties of Sichuan province and Mangkang County of Tibet Autonomous Region. In 2009, there were an estimated 320,000 ethnic Naxi people (Ge, 2016), a third of whom were monolingual Naxi speakers.


A map of the parts of Yunnan province inhabited by Naxi people.
(Source: Global Gateway
, Library of Congress)

Naxi scripts: Dongba and Geba

While strolling through the three ancient towns of Lijiang, I often wondered at the pictograms I saw on store fronts, street signs, and outside some places of residence. Some Western restaurants even follow this trend: Yu (2010) recounts how there was an American fast food restaurant on Sifang Street, Texas Fried Chicken, that had its name and menus written in hieroglyphic script. How did this script, that resembled the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt or Maya more than they did Chinese characters (some of which were derived from pictograms), come to be used by people in China?

The Naxi people traditionally believed in the worship of nature, mostly practised through the Dongba religion, an offshoot of Tibetan Bon shamanism thought to have been introduced to Naxi culture over 900 years ago. According to Austrian-American explorer Joseph Francis Rock’s Naxi-English Encyclopedic Dictionary (1963), Dongba literally means ‘priest’, and the script was named after its interpreters, the priests themselves.

Since the 15th century, the depiction of religious beliefs, spells, folklore, and stories in general was put into writing using the traditional Dongba script, which uses pictograms of objects, people, and places to represent verbs, particles, homonyms, phonetic clues, and cosmological beliefs (West, 2010). Even though there was such a writing system to aid the sharing of stories, the pictograms functioned more importantly as a mnemonic device rather than an exhaustive way to put abstract and concrete thoughts into words (or rather, images).

Priests and narrators still had to use verbal language in order to convey their abstract thoughts and make sense of the pictograms. Interestingly, some Naxi pictograms subscribe to what is called the rebus principle, which in this case means a word that is represented with a pictogram could be used to stand in for another word with the same pronunciation—kind of like the basis of the Pictionary game. In other words, Naxi pictograms have homonyms, some with as many as 10 different meanings! For example, the pictogram of a pair of eyes below refers to ‘eye’ on a basic level, but can also mean ‘fate’ because they share the same realisation or pronunciation.


Examples of Naxi Dongba homonyms. (Source: Lawrence Lo)


Examples of Naxi Dongba pictograms and their pronunciations and meanings in English.
(Source: Lawrence Lo)

In modern times, the Naxi language is written with a simplified version of the pictograms that use a complex system of rebus with verbs, particles, and sounds. With the younger generations of Naxi learning the more economically- and educationally-favourable Mandarin Chinese in favour of Naxi, vestiges of Dongba writing can typically be found on restaurant signboards and door couplets, street signs, libraries, religious and ancient texts, and the minds of older Naxi people.

The other traditional script of Naxi is called Geba—named after its inventor who was a disciple of the founder of Tibetan Bon—, which functions as the syllabic component of the Naxi language traditionally used to transcribe mantras and annotate or supplement Dongba pictograms. One can say Geba is a syllabary, or a “phonetic script”. For a language with four (some dialects with three) tones, this amounts to quite a number of letters. The forms of some of the letters, as seen below, were based on Chinese and Dongba characters, though it is not known how those Geba letters with a more original design came into being. While ancient, the Geba syllabary has been reportedly used in a bilingual Naxi-Moso text, according to the Musée de Trocadéro in Paris (Cook, 2007).


Part of the Naxi Geba syllabary.
(Source: Simon Ager, Omniglot – Writing systems and languages of the world, 2015)

Sounds of Mount Satseto

Within three years, I have thrice visited the city of Lijiang, home to the majestic Mount Satseto (as it is named in Naxi; often better known as the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain or 玉龙雪山) and about 75% of the Naxi population (240,580 people, according to the Statistic Bureau of Lijiang City, 2011a). Lijiang has a rich history as the “Silk Road of the South” linking inland China with Southeast Asia and West Asia via the Tea-Horse Ancient Road (known as 茶马古道)—so called because tea was a prized commodity that used to be transported over long, mountainous, and often dangerous distances on horseback. Walking the paths and shaky bridges that once held so much weight in history made me reimagine the mellifluous mountain songs in Lijiang as I trekked.

Each time I returned, I could only try to make out the sounds and try to understand what the people around me were saying. Even with languages with four to six tones in my linguistic repertoire, trying to decipher specific sounds was just about as difficult as climbing to the peak of the Mount Satseto at 5,596m above sea level in the middle of winter. At this point, it would probably be useful to know what Naxi sounds like. Here’s a recording of Naxi singer, Li Xiuxiang (born 1945) from the village of Lashi in Lijiang narrating her life story to Alexis Michaud, in a research project sponsored by the Centre national de la recherche scientifique. (There’s more to this project on the Open Language Archives resources page, which includes recordings of the interview and some mountain songs.)

Trickling down Lugu Lake

Classified under the Yi branch of Tibeto-Burman languages under the Sino-Tibetan language family tree, Naxi is but one of thousands of languages around the world that are threatened by accelerated globalisation and development. My hope for it is that it would be able to survive without being made a token of Naxi meant to pander to tourists.

In Mosuo county, I had the chance to meet with a family of the predominant Naxi tribe: the matriarchal and matrilineal Mosuo. Naxi who live in the Yongning and Lugu Lake areas are called Mosuo. The family showed me their quaint wooden house not far from the scenic Lugu Lake, where the matriarch’s room had a square hole for a door, so that whomever came through would have to bow down before entering, as a sign of respect. As part of the matrilineal system, a Mosuo husband would move in with his wife’s family.

But sights and traditions like these are increasingly becoming a trope of touristic places of interest in the area as the younger generations move into the city for education, work, and life, and the flow of tourists is stronger than the flowing streams of the Tiger Leaping Gorge. This increase in contact with foreigners may be economically beneficial, but perhaps detrimental to two things: the Naxi language and the natural spaces of Lijiang. Fitzpatrick & Voeller (2011) wrote about the latter, where they observed that “due to a recent explosion in domestic tourism, some Naxi have lost their traditional respect for nature. Unlike their elders, the younger generation no longer follows an environmental ethic, the moral relationship of people to their natural surroundings.” If nature—which has such a big part to play in the realisation of Naxi culture and identity—is at risk, one can only imagine the potential detriment to its linguistic corollary. In a survey done in Xinren Primary School in Lijiang, about 90% of students could not speak their native language, Naxi (Yang, 2005).


Lugu Lake, Mosuo county, Lijiang; dated 2012. (Photo by Frances Loke Wei)

As much as Lijiang is a haven for Naxi culture, the surge and rising interest for Mandarin Chinese is inevitable, given that Han Chinese make up an overwhelming 91% of the population in China, and 43% of the population in Lijiang (Yu, 2010). As Mandarin Chinese is the lingua franca of a country with 1.3 billion people, it pays to speak the language of the majority. Naxi is used as a medium of instruction in several Naxi primary schools, broadcasted on radio and TV channels, and found in dictionaries and grammars, but China’s centralised education system provides opportunities for Naxi students to learn about Han culture through curricula and textbooks, leaving the intergenerational transfer of Naxi to mostly the home domain. As I said goodbye to my Naxi family friends in Lijiang, I promised to send letters in English to the little girl of the family, so that she could increase her opportunities for practise, in a setting where she is already expected to be fluent in two other languages: Mandarin Chinese and Naxi.


As a National Geographic explorer in Yunnan province, Joseph Francis Rock spent 25 years there collecting manuscripts and studying Naxi culture and life.

Cook, Richard S. (2007). Naxi Pictographic and Syllaborgraphic Scripts. Unicode. California, USA. Retrieved from:

Fitzpatrick, Joseph & Voeller, Elizabeth. (2011). Renewing an Environmental Ethic for the Naxi of Lijiang, China. In Lakes and Reservoirs: Research and Management, 16 (3), 223–229.

Wang, Ge. (2016). Pains and Gains of Ethnic Multilingual Learners in China: An Ethnographic Case Study. Multilingual Education: 17. Springer.

West, Barbara A. 2010 Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Infobase Publishing.

Yang, Y. H. (2005). A study on the inheriting the Naxi language and culture. In He, Z. H., Guo, D. L., & Bai, G. S. (Eds.), The collection of second international academic conference of Lijiang Dongba culture and art festival, 234–238. Kunming: Yunnan Ethnic Publishing House.

Yu, Haibo. (2010). Identity and Schooling Among the Naxi: Becoming Chinese with Naxi Identity. United Kingdom: Lexington Books.

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