Fortress Village - The Ethnic Minorities of Southwest China  
Man and Heaven: Life, Ancestors, and Deities

People constantly change and readjust their social role throughout life. Through various “life rituals,” such as birth, coming-of-age, marriage, and death, one experiences each stage in life as he or she becomes a child, an adolescent, a parent, an elder, and finally, an ancestor. Humans have created various forms of religion to explain such processes, and have been marking the importance of each stage in life with ceremonies and rituals. The ethnic tribes of China’s southwestern region are no exception.

The lifetime of an individual is limited, and therefore many imagine themselves as part of a larger group with a history and life that will continue on with time. This results in historical accounts such as family histories, ethnic group histories, and many myths and legends regarding the creation of the universe and the origin of mankind. Historical accounts and mythology help to confirm an individual’s social identity and status, and at the same time define the meaning of life.

Life Rituals
In the exhibition gallery at the Institute of History and Philology, there are Miao and Naxi documents and scriptures related to marriage and childbirth, as well as scriptures for praying for a son and for the smooth passing of the ghosts of the deceased. All of these things reflect care and consideration for human life. In the past, some southwestern ethnic groups believed that all illnesses, misfortunes, and fatalities are brought on by various demons. Therefore, performing shamanistic rituals to get rid of the demons became a specialized knowledge and profession. The Han call these shamans “duan gong.” In the exhibition, there is a collection of dog and human figures made of straw, which are used by shamans of the Yi tribe during rituals. These tools were collected by Ma Xue-Liang. Another item, a “lumanlusa” scripture that the Naxi people chant while worshiping young lovers who die for love, was hand-written by Li Lin-Can himself. These displays also serve to commemorate the distinguished scholars who were closely involved with the Institute. Many documents and artifacts in the exhibition are related to shamanistic activities, such as eliminating illness and misfortunes, praying for rain, honoring deities, and making wishes, etc. Through these objects, viewers are seeing not just a “typical southwest ethnic minority culture,” but a rich mixture of Han, Tibetan Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, and indigenous cultures. Perhaps we could also reconsider which cultures should be categorized as “indigenous,” and what would be a proper way to define it.

Religious Beliefs and Rituals
Humans have always tried to come to terms with supernatural powers in order to heal pain and sickness, ensure the health and wellbeing of individuals and groups, and secure a peaceful and everlasting afterlife. This has resulted in various forms of religious practices and beliefs.

Religious practices and rituals are common in China’s southwestern region. They are also very diverse and disorganized. In the case of ethnic groups that have been more thoroughly Sinicized, local priests often pray for people by performing rituals heavily influenced by Chinese Taoism. This type of priest is referred to by the locals in Mandarin as “duan gong.” Tibetan Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Theravada Buddhism are popular in specific areas in the southwest. Tribes formerly known as the Xifan, Kutsung, and Mexie tribes are all deeply influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, while tribes such as the Shan and Shantouren are influenced by Theravada Buddhism to some degree. In modern times, Western missionaries have gone deep into China’s southwestern regions to spread their faith, and as a result many Miao and Yao people have converted to Christianity.

In addition to these religions, the most common indigenous religion involves belief in “guardian gods.” Guardian gods are a type of deity that protects the well-being of an individual or a group. Household gods, village gods, and mountain gods fall into this category. Specific deities that are worshipped in Buddhist or Taoist temples may also be considered local guardian gods.

The picture here shows the Qiang people performing their “New Year’s on the Seventh Day” ceremony, during which every household god, village god, and mountain god is invited by the village elders to a feast. This is followed by a ceremony which symbolizes the young and middle-aged men going off to war, and a ceremony where the young girls of the village honor the warriors with wine. These rituals help to strengthen the bond between people of the same ethnic group, gender, and generation.

Local History
Most Chinese ethnic minority groups live together in villages consisting of one or more clans. “Clans” are intimate groups that share and protect mutual resources, and through the continuing existence of a clan, an individual may also be able to extend his or her existence. Many tribes have the tradition of worshipping ancestors and household gods, which serves to keep members of the clan close to each other and to demonstrate the clan’s power.

The Naxi tribe’s “Scripture Dedicated to Ancestors” is believed to help escort the spirits of their ancestors back to their origin, and is particularly emphasized during funerals. Bringing members of a clan, or an even larger group, together is often done by stressing the existence of a common “ancestor origin,” which is believed by all members. This is essentially a “local history” that is often expressed through mythology and legends. For the more Sinicized ethnic groups, this type of “local history” is a blend of Chinese folklore and historical memories. Famous characters mentioned in Chinese history books, such as Pan Hu, the Bamboo King, Jiu Long, Lin Jun, and Zhuge Liang, Guan Yunchang, and Zhou Cang, etc., have all been incorporated into the local histories of each ethnic tribe by means of written and oral records.

Stories of Brotherhood
In the local histories of China’s southwestern ethnic minorities, brotherhood stories are very common. For example, there is an area that has three villages, and the locals believe that the residents of the three villages are descendants of three brothers who arrived a long time ago and constructed the three villages.

There are three “brotherhood tales” about a village in Aixigou of Songpan County: First of all, there is “The Story of Three Brothers,” which explains the close relationship between the villagers of three villages by saying that their ancestors were brothers. “The Story of Seven Brothers” connects the people living in Aixigou with those living in the neighboring six areas. Finally, “The Story of Nine Brothers” accounts for the “brother-like relationship” of the Qiang people living in the current nine administrative areas.

These stories are a form of historical account providing answers that explain where a close group of people, tongbao (literally, “from the same womb”), came from. Similar to the “ethnological history” that we firmly believe in, these stories try to explain the relationships between the people living today by referring to the origins of their ancestors. However, the different narrative style leads us to regard these tales of brotherhoods as folklore and legends, while considering accounts of heroic ancestors to be believable history. In fact, they both reflect the relationship between “history” and “ethnic group identity.”

Different groups imagine and construct different “histories.” Groups who believe in historical accounts of heroic ancestors are divided into those who are direct descendants of the heroes and those who are not; some are the descendants of the conquerors, while the others are the descendants of the conquered. Brotherhood stories, however, imply that all groups of people are working together and competing with each other on the same level.

In the first half of the twentieth century, many southwestern ethnic groups explained their connection with the Han and the Tibetans with brotherhood stories. Today, however, they tend to view these stories as mere legends, and believe in “real history” instead, which includes the saying that they are the descendants of the mythical Yan Di or Chi You, who was defeated by Huang Di.
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