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Published: January 5th 2011
Musical tradition is cherished amongst the Naxi people. In traditionally a matriachal society, Naxi women controlled businesses and did most of the work. Men were expected to while away their time as musicians and this art form was passed on from father to son. A well-to-do Naxi could only be accepted as a real gentleman if he knew the ancient music and was a Chinese scholar. So while women worked, men turned their hearts to the attainment of culture and the understanding of the beauty of things. Music was considered to be a way to express the joy they felt at living.
Nowadays the Naxi orchestra plays for tourists in Lijiang. We filed into the cold, old hall for the evening performance. The stage was set. Black-necked white storks hovered on an inky blue backdrop. A large gong hung on a tall stand in one corner. Instruments lay idle. And then a group of ancient looking men - some of them well into their eighties, with wispy white goatees, spectacles, and magnificent brocaded satin robes, shocking pink, turquoise blue, and traffic-light red, all emblazoned with gold motiefs, took their places. Photos of deceased colleagues, edged with black borders, framed the
top of the stage - eternally enjoying the music. The old men held flutes and gongs and intricately carved long-necked lutes. They began to play - centuries-old music - music that has almost been lost in China and can now only be heard in Lijiang. We felt no emotional attachment to the music, it was too strange to our ears, but it was likeable. Although regarded as ancient Naxi music, it's roots go much further back in time - to the Tang and Song dynasties - from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries. The pieces had wonderful poetic names - 'Song of the Bound Feet', 'A Wind Rustling along the River', and 'The Sheep on the Hill'. A piece called 'Waves Washing the Sands', was originally performed in the Tang court to accompany the offering of incense in Taoist rituals. The lyrics were written later by the last Song emperor during his imprisonment.
This would all have been lost - but for one man, Xuan Ke. The Chinese government wants to control ethnic minority cultures and their beliefs that they feel offend Chinese culture, that are not really Chinese; that do not agree with Socialist practices. During the Cultural
Revolution unconditonal obedience was to be given to Chairman Mao and the Communist Party. There was no room for free thinking or individual artistic expression. Xuan himself was denounced as an enemy of China, tortured and sent to prison for four years. After the initial four years he was sent to work in tin mines near Vietnam; altogether he was in prison for twenty-one years. When he was released the Cultural Revolution was over and Mao was dead. He returned to Lijiang and began to meet with the musicians his father had known - men who played the old traditional music. These men had been brave enough to hide their instruments, some burying them in their garden, some hiding them in the rafters in their houses. They began practising together and noticed that people stopped to listen, that people were still interested in the old ways. When Lijiang became an open city in 1986, they eventually gained permission to play for tourists.
What does the future hold for the Naxi orchestra? Nowadays the Naxi orchestra is remarkable for three things - the age of the musicians, the age of the instruments, and the age of the music itself. A
school has been established, and four youngish women took their places among the venerated bespectacled gentlemen, but many people are no longer interested in this kind of music. Will the music remain a living breathing art, or is it destined to become a museum piece - a relic of a culture that is no more?
Something of the Naxi culture, does however, still exist. On a sunny afternoon in the main square, women in traditional dress danced in a group. Not completely for the tourists benefit. The pleasure on their faces was clear, during brief breaks they chatted, laughed and clapped each other on the back. It was a social occasion, anyone was free to join in, everyone could enjoy. A glimmer of hope? The spirit of resistance?
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