The Nakhi (also spelled Nashi or Naxi) first came to the attention of the Western world in the 1950s with the publication of Russian explorer Peter Goullart’s travelogue “The Lost Kingdom”. In it, Goullart describes his time living in Lijiang, the traditional cultural center of the Nakhi, during WWII. Of course, the region and its people have had interactions with the wider Chinese world for thousands of years. Yunnan was incorporated into the Chinese state during the Yuan Dynasty by the successors of Genghis Khan (ca. 13th century CE). Previously it had been the site of numerous independent kingdoms that existed between the Tibetan and Chinese empires, reflecting both the diversity of the local population and the region’s status as a borderland. It was also famously a stop on the Tea Horse Road connecting the Indian subcontinent with Tibet, Sichuan, and Yunnan.
Yunnan in the Spotlight
It wasn’t until quite recently, however, that Yunnan found itself on tourist itineraries. Its location far from China’s traditional centers of gravity, coupled with its unforgiving terrain and exotic ethnic composition contributed to its reputation as an uncivilized backwater. With the domestic tourism boom of the past 10 years, however, these exact qualities have helped make it the premier destination for trend-seeking Chinese millennials looking for something less “mainstream”.
This tourism boom, fuelled by books, blogs, and movies about stressed-out city dwellers going to Yunnan and “finding” themselves in tourist meccas like Dali or Lijiang, has also put local minorities and their cultures in the spotlight.
A Unique Minority Culture
The Nakhi are one of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities. Today, they number around 300,000 and can be found in both Sichuan and Yunnan province, although they are concentrated around the city of Lijiang.
Their culture reflects a mix of Tibetan, Han Chinese, and Southeast Asian elements. For example, they have their own native religion, known as Dongba, named after the traditional Nakhi priests. This religion shows strong Tibetan influences and is primarily concerned with the relationship between people and nature. In addition, Tibetan Buddhism and some Chinese Taoist practices like fengshui are also popular among the Nakhi.
Another unique aspect of Nakhi culture is their language. It is written using special pictographs called Dongba script and is used primarily by priests for religious purposes. While most ethnic Nakhi can speak the Nakhi language, few can write it. Nevertheless, it can be commonly seen in Lijiang on signs, tourist shops and even on buses.
Today, the population of Lijiang is a mix of Nakhi, Han Chinese and other minorities like the Yi, Mosuo, Lisu and Pumi (and even a few foreigners). The Nakhi can be identified by their distinctive traditional dress (although they don’t necessarily wear it every day).
If Lijiang’s old town feels too commercialized, the best way to experience Nakhi culture is to visit one of the Nakhi villages outside the city center like Baisha. Here, one can experience the slow pace of traditional life and wander freely through the quiet, cobblestone streets.
Looking for more travel tips? Take a look at our previous blog articles about the Top 5 Places to Travel in China and The 10 Shanghai Must-Sees Your Tour Guide Didn’t Tell You About!
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