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Ancient Music of the Naxi

The Naxi people hidden away in Yunnan were able to do something the imperial families forgot about—saving their music


There are plenty of ethnic minorities in the South of China, many of whom market certain cultural traditions, skills, or crafts for the tourist market. But in some cases it may be the tourist market that is helping to continue certain cultural traditons from dying out, such may be with the music of the Naxi people of Lijiang. The Naxi (also spelled as Nahki or Nahi) minority which totals some 300,000 people, are located in the northwestern part of Yunnan province and the southwestern part of Sichuan Province, mostly around the city Lijiang. While already famous for their written language Dongba, one of the few remaining pictographic languages, a remarkable part of Naxi culture is their music which not only includes their own traditional folk tunes but is in many respects one of the best musical records of ancient China.

Naxi classical music, which is also known as ancient music or Dongba music, is one many types of music the Naxi people play. However, because of the Naxi people’s isolated location they were able to presrve some of the instrumental music and lyrics from Mongolia and central China that otherwise have been completely lost to history.There are three distinct types of Naxi ancient music; Baisha fine music, Dongjing music and and Huangjing music.

While Huangjing music has unfortunately faded out of existence, Baisha and Dongjing music continued to exist and are performed by the Naxi people, a living record of the movements of different dynasties throughout the centuries. This is especially true for Baisha fine music, a form that came to the Naxi people as legend goes by the great Kublai Khan. As the first emperor of the Yuan dynasty was traveling to Dali he apparently had some sort of trouble fording a river and the leader of the Naxi people of that time helped him. To show his thanks the emperor reportedly left behind half of his orchestra, their instruments and numerous musical scores to the Naxi people. Baisha music is orchestral in form and has 24 qupai or tunes.

Dongjing music on the other hand is believed to be the Taoist music of the Han Chinese  that was cultivated during the Tang and Song dynasties before falling out of popularity and disappearing from China. Dongjing music is believed to have been introduced to the Naxi people during the Ming and Qing dynasties through the old Tea-Horse Road which passes through Lijiang. While Dongjing music is considered a more simple and elegant musical form, it incorporates more of the Naxi local musical style and influence than Baisha music.

Naxi ancient music can be performed either sitting or walking and their seated orchestras are usually composed of more than 20 instruments including but not limited to the  reed flutes, slit drums, cymbals, gongs as well as shawms, Chinese lutes, zithers, and plectrums. Today Naxi ancient music is played all over the world for international audiences, around Lijiang as a tourism attraction while at the same time remaining an integral part of many local Naxi celebrations and customs. While there are currently a few Naxi ancient music orchestras in existence, there was a period of time where they almost disappeared entirely. During the Cultural Revolution many Naxi musicians were put in prison and to keep their musical instruments (some of which are over 100 years old) from being destroyed by the Red Guards, they had to bury them to guarantee their safety. Today there are worries that the difficulty and skill level required to play Naxi ancient music will result in a lack of musicians and eventual loss of Naxi music. Still, in the meantime Naxi ancient music is still around giving all of its listeners insights into ancient Chinese music as well as the music of the Naxi people.


Cover image from Baidu Travel

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