Naxi Ethnic Minority

In the northwest region of Yunnan province, surrounded by the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the Naxi people have carved out an enclave over hundreds of years. Like the Tibetan, Pumi, and Yi ethnic minorities, they are thought to be descendants of the ancient Qiang[1] people, a nomadic tribe that once lived between Gansu and Shaanxi. 

Sometime between the 1st and 10th century the Naxi’s ancestors migrated south towards Tibet and had begun settling in modern-day Baisha and Lijiang by the year 3 AD. From there they are rumoured to have separated into three groups; those who remained in Baisha were known as the Naxi; those who went to Dali became the Bai ethnic minority; and those who moved to the region around Lugu Lake became the Mosuo people. That being said, the Bai and Mosuo people fiercely refute this origin story!

Not long thereafter a Naxi family known as the Mu clan rose to prominence in Lijiang but were eventually demoted to Tusi[2] by the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), taxes and tributes flowed from the Mu family to the Ming court and the court, in their turn, relied on the Mu family to keep the peace and control the ethnic groups of the region. In other words, the Mu clan still got to lead and the Ming court had someone else to do their dirty work for them! A similar arrangement took placing during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) but was gradually abolished not long before imperial rule collapsed.  

Nowadays there are approximately 300,000 Naxi people living in China. The majority are concentrated in Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County of Yunnan, but there are smaller communities throughout northwest Yunnan, southwest Sichuan, and the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Their spoken language has four tones, much like Mandarin Chinese, and is divided into two main dialects: Eastern and Western. The Western dialect is the standard, while the Eastern dialect is spoken by the Mosuo people and other related ethnic groups. Yet it is their written language that has garnered much fame.

They use two writing systems known as Dongba script and Geba script, both of which are over 1,000 years old. They may not sound so special at first, but Dongba script is the last known hieroglyphic writing system still in use today. It incorporates approximately 1,500 pictographs and is referred to as “Serjelvje” or “Wooden and Stone Script” by the Naxi. It is predominantly used by Dongba shamans, who are priests in the Naxi’s indigenous religion. Geba script is a glyphic writing system that is only used to transcribe mantras or annotate Dongba pictographs. Consequently there are only 686 Geba characters. 

The most famous example of Dongba script is a religious work known as Dongba Jing, which was written during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and consists of more than 2,000 volumes! It describes the progression of Naxi society from slavery to feudalism and covers a wide range of subjects, including their religion, language, local customs, literature, astronomy and geology. The work includes “The Creation of the World”, an epic about the origin of mankind, and “The Dongba Dance Manual”, which records 60 different styles of dance and is one of the oldest dance manuals in existence. So if you want to learn some of the oldest dance moves in the world, we suggest you start studying Dongba script right away!

The Naxi traditionally live in two-storey log cabins. The exterior is made up of a large courtyard and the interior is marked by “lanes”, with each “lane” containing three rooms joined by a corridor. The houses are often beautifully decorated, with intricately engraved wooden doors on the buildings and an abundance of fragrant flowers in the courtyard. The main house will always face south or east, as the Naxi believe this will trap good luck as it arrives! 


  1. This is not to be confused with the Qiang ethnic minority who occupy parts of Sichuan province.
  2.  Tusi: Chieftains or tribal leaders who were permitted to rule over a certain region and were acknowledged as imperial officials but who ultimately answered to the Emperor.

Shuhe Town


While Baisha Village was the birthplace of the Mu clan and Dayan Town (modern-day Lijiang Old Town) was the metropolis where they guided the ethnic Naxi people to prosperity, Shuhe Town trumps them both as the first known settlement of Naxi people in Lijiang County. It is unsurprising that, like its two historic cousins, Shuhe Town was included by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. This sleepy little town rests in the idyllic countryside about 4 kilometres northwest of Lijiang Old Town and sits at the foot of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which is pretty apt considering the Naxi word “shuhe” literally means “a village at the foot of a peak”! Though it may lack the bustling lifestyle of Lijiang Old Town or the abundant cultural artefacts of Baisha Village, its charm lies in its peaceful rural simplicity.

The town is made up of 1,000 households, each built using rocks that were harvested from the nearby mountains, and its 3,000 residents make a humble living from farming, tourism and leatherworking. Like Lijiang Old Town and Baisha Village, it was once an important trade hub on the ancient Tea-Horse Road. However, Shuhe’s originality lies in its history, as the town perfectly exhibits how the ancient Naxi people made the transition from an agricultural civilization to a commercial culture. While Lijiang Old Town and Baisha both effectively started out as trading centres of the Mu clan, Shuhe was transformed from a humble farming village into an instrumental transportation centre. This is evidenced not in grand murals or historic epics but in the architecture of the town itself, which slowly developed from simple wooden dwellings to elaborately decorated stone mansions.

Qinglong Bridge is just one of these stone structures and dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). This 400-year-old bridge is about 25 metres long and its worn flagstones serve as a reminder of the many thousand feet that have tread its length over the years. It is considered to be the first old stone bridge built in Lijiang County but, in spite of its age, it has yet to retire!

shuhe ancient town 01Shuhe is sometimes referred to as Longquan or “Dragon Spring” Village because of the sacred spring at the end of its main street. This bubbling spring, known as Jiuding Dragon Pool, can supposedly be heard from miles away and the local Naxi people believe the fish that reside in this pool are the spirits of gods. That being said, eating the fish will not give you godlike powers so don’t go fishing in the pool or you’ll be chased out of the village! The spring was considered so sacred that a temple, known as Beiquan or “North Spring” Temple, was built just behind it. The locals still pray here and the majestic Sansheng Palace, the most architecturally unique part of the temple, is decorated with art handcrafted by Shuhe’s master leatherworkers.

The town is wonderfully tranquil, but take a trip to the square on market day and you’ll be met with a cacophony of footsteps, laughter, and the shouts of vendors plying their wares. It’s the perfect opportunity to embed yourself in the daily life of the Naxi people and peruse the local stalls, where you may pick up a few souvenirs. Though your suitcase may be weighted down with handcrafted leather bracelets and Naxi embroidered silk portraits, your wallet will certainly end up a little lighter!

Along the main waterway, there are a number of restaurants serving Naxi and Western-style food. With the verdant mountains above you and the trickling streams below, be sure not to get too carried away admiring the landscape or your food might go cold! The peak tourist season in Shuhe is between May and October but, if you have the chance, we recommend visiting the town outside of peak season to avoid the crowds.

Dongba Culture Museum

dongba musuem

The Naxi ethnic minority have thrived in Yunnan for centuries and their complex yet fascinating Dongba culture is evidence of this. Dongba culture refers primarily to the written language, sculpture, artwork and architecture related to the Naxi religion known as Dongba. What makes Dongba culture so fascinating is that it encompasses the only known hieroglyphic writing system still in use; Dongba script. This script is made up of over 1,400 characters and symbols that are unique to the Naxi people. The Dongba Culture Museum is home to over 10,000 antiques, including more than 2,400 Dongba relics, making it the foremost institute for the preservation and research of Dongba culture. With its wonderful mixture of indoor, outdoor and live exhibits, the museum is sure to enliven as well as enlighten your day.

The Naxi people have lived in a number of towns scattered throughout Lijiang for centuries and thus played an instrumental role in commerce along the Tea-Horse Road. They prospered by selling their locally grown tea and handmade embroidered silk, which enabled them to build up a legacy and culture that many other ethnic groups of similar size weren’t able to achieve. This also meant that, as part of the major trade route, they came into contact with a myriad of other Asian cultures, from the Chinese Bai ethnic minority to traders from as far away as India. This intermingling of other, diverse cultures with their own has resulted in the captivating history, clothing, artwork, writing system and architecture that you can find in the museum today.

The museum is only about 300 metres from the back entrance to Black Dragon Pool in Lijiang Old Town, making it the perfect stop on your day out in Lijiang. It was founded in 1984 and built in the style of a traditional Naxi courtyard house. Its architecture is particularly stunning, with a charming arch and wide open spaces that allow it to host a myriad of exhibitions that even the largest indoor museums couldn’t dream of.

Within the indoor exhibits you’ll find many of the artefacts that have come to make the museum famous, such as Naxi paintings, Dongba holy books, religious sacrificial tools, and traditional festival clothing. The open air exhibits provide access to beautiful replicas of Naxi architecture throughout the ages, from ancient caves and wooden nest buildings to modern-day homes. Some of these dwellings look so cosy that you may be tempted to settle there but be forewarned, they have no central heating or internet access!

At set times during the day, local Naxi people descend upon the museum and re-enact Dongba religious rituals, such as the mystifying “sacrifice to heaven” ceremony, as part of their live exhibits. These performances are sure to take you back to a time when ancient elemental deities held sway over earth and shamans wrote their glyphic, unfathomable holy books, powdered herbal poultices for the sick and engaged in rituals to appease the gods. Just don’t interrupt a shaman at work, or you may end up as their next sacrifice!

Thus far, the Dongba Research Centre in Lijiang has managed to translate over 1,500 volumes of Dongba script. They have provided researchers with great insight into the history, culture and religion of the Naxi people, and this information has been passed on to visitors in the form of various introductions and exhibitions throughout the museum. With only about 30 Naxi people left in the world who can still write Dongba script, we recommend you head to the museum as soon as possible or risk missing out on this mysterious culture.

Baisha Village

Baisha (白沙), or “white sand”, is named for the powdery white sand that decorates the surrounding countryside. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that Lijiang Old Town and Shuhe Town both belong to, yet somehow has managed to avoid the crowds and tourist traps that plague its two historic cousins. It has become a favourite haunt for those travellers who want to engage in an authentic cultural experience without having to force their way through throngs of tourists or suffer the swarms of souvenir vendors! With its many temples, rich cultural heritage, stunning frescoes and zany homeopathic doctors, Baisha is one of the many must-see attractions in Lijiang County.

Baisha was the birthplace of the Mu clan, who were renowned for their skill and experience in city planning. They began expanding Baisha during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and by the Song Dynasty (960-1279) it had blossomed into a thriving town. It remained the political, commercial and cultural centre of the local Naxi people for over 400 years. The Mu clan ingeniously channelled water from the Jade River into a canal system within the village to provide locals with fresh water. This waterway system, coupled with the village’s beautifully preserved architecture, is what cemented its status as a World Heritage Site.

During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the Mu clan were demoted by the Emperor to “Tusi” or chieftains, as oppose to rulers of the region. By the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), they had moved their base of operations to Dayan Town (modern-day Lijiang Old Town) and Baisha became their religious centre. Like Dayan, Baisha played a focal role as a trade hub along the ancient Tea-Horse Road. The local Naxi women were known for their exquisite silk embroidery and this precious export allowed the town to prosper and grow. This Naxi tradition carried on until 1972, when it was banned during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Many of the Naxi embroidery masters were imprisoned and tragically died in jail. The art was later revived and now thrives thanks to the Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute.

Nowadays, the village serves as the ideal place to learn about Naxi culture and ancient Buddhist history. In the central district of the village, there are a group of temples known as “Mudu”. Many of them boast access to the stunning Baisha Frescoes, of which there are only 55 still in existence. While the frescoes are scattered throughout villages in Lijiang County, the vast majority of them can be found in Baisha. They are religious paintings reflecting famous stories from Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Taoism. What makes these murals so unique is that they were painted by artists from the Han, Naxi, Tibetan and Bai ethnic minorities, meaning they are a mixture of ethnic styles. Imagine how much a painting by Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso would be worth, and you get the idea!

Dabaoji Palace was built by the Mu clan in 658 AD and houses 28 of these fresco groups, featuring over 100 religious figures from various tales. They date all the way back to the Ming Dynasty and are so delicate that the flash of a camera could potentially damage them, so it goes without saying that photographs are unfortunately off-limits. The remainder of Baisha’s frescoes can be found in Dading Pavilion. The pavilion itself was built in 1572 but most of its 16 mural paintings date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

You won’t be able to take a memento of the frescoes with you but, if you want a beautiful souvenir, you need go no further than the Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute! This institute was established with the aim of reviving, protecting and passing on the skill of Naxi handmade embroidery. Here Naxi embroidery masters are free to carry on this majestic art and pass their skills on to the next generation. Some Naxi embroidery masters will spend years working on a single project. One of the masters was even commissioned by Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, to embroider a portrait of President Obama and his family, which was then presented as a gift. The students sell their work for around 250 yuan each (about £25) but work by the grand masters can go for thousands of pounds!

However, by far the most fascinating resident is Dr Ho. He’s currently 93 years old and has achieved international fame as a practitioner of ancient Chinese medicine. His clinic is plastered with newspaper articles about him, including pieces by the BBC and National Geographic. He’s fluent in English and will happily treat any ailment with his homemade herbal remedies or just talk to curious visitors about his work. His motto is “optimism is the best medicine” and, looking into his sagacious, smiling face, it’s hard to disagree!

If you fancy a longer stay, there are a handful of hotels in the village that vary in quality and price. Around the village, there are a plethora of cycling trails that provide access to temples, natural hotspots, and other charming villages. The streets are littered with stalls selling Tibetan craftworks, Naxi embroidery, and t-shirts hand-painted in either Tibetan script or the rare Dongba script[1]. Some of the best Naxi-style cuisine can be found in Baisha, as it is a paradise of restaurants and small eateries. You’ll even find a few Western-style restaurants and cafés dotted about its ancient streets. A rural paradise where you can still get a good cup of coffee; what more could you ask for?

[1] Dongba Script: The written language of the Naxi ethnic minority. It is the only known hieroglyphic writing system still in existence.