Home Past Awards Daba

The religious life of the Na is guided by two types of coexistent beliefs: their own religion, whose priests are called daba, and Tibetan buddhism.

The majority of daba are men; before the l940s, there were a few women daba. In general, they work on the land. They proceed individually with their rituals, without any formal organization, and at the request of the villagers. When a daba is asked to carry out a ritual, he is paid, in money and in kind, according to the means of the household which has engaged him. The daba are respected members of the community but have no political power over others.

As the Na language has no written form, when they practise their rites they only use recitations, the words of which are often unintelligible even to themselves. What they know with certainty is the function of these recitations.2 The villagers told me an anecdote about daba writing: “Long ago, the daba had their canons written on parchment [pigskin]. One day, when they were on a journey, their masters got hungry. As they had no food, they cooked their books. That was when they lost their writing.”

Also, the interpretations of these recitations differ from one daba to another. With the result that two daba from different villages never appear together for the same ritual. For example, a young daba had been invited to take a funeral and I asked my friend daba Dafa to come with me to discuss the ritual with him on the spot. His “live” explanations and commentaries would help me to understand the meaning of what happened at a funeral, during which several complex rituals are carried out simultaneously. But Dafa refused outright, because, he said, his presence would be an inconvenience to the young daba. However two daba from the same village can participate together in a given ritual.

The instruments which the daba use during the rituals are: a hat; a cymbal from which hangs a bunch of the teeth of boar, tiger, deer, and elephant with eagle’s and owl’s claws; a drum; and one or two batons, 30cm. long and 2.5cm. square in section. On the four long surfaces are engraved the following designs; a man, a woman, an ox, a horse, a goat, a pig, a dog, a tiger, a leopard, a lion, a deer, a fish, a flower, grasses, a tree and benevolent spirits.

The daba’s most important instrument is called dgo. It is a wooden sculpture about l5cm. long and 5cm. in diameter. The dgo of different daba come in different forms, but the symbolism is always the same: the power of the shaman.

Only a daba who possesses such a statuette may accept three disciples, who first learn to recite the prayers and who act as assistants to their master during rites. When the master becomes too old, he carries out a ritual during which, sitting with their eyes closed, the disciples must recite the prayers. The one who sees the dgo during his hallucination inherits all the competence of his master.

The master hands over the dgo and a leather armour. Thenceforth, the new daba can carry out rites and instruct disciples. After this rite, the other disciples can also preside over rites, but they are not allowed to train disciples. However they may pass on their knowledge to their maternal nephew or their maternal niece (extremely rare). It sometimes happens that if a daba is married he hands down his learning to his son.

According to the daba in the village of Dapo, in the Yongning basin, on the day that the disciple acquires the dgo, his master orders the disciple’s brother to kill a russet bull and a black hen, with a view to a ceremony including a feast to which representatives of each lhe [unit of kinship consisting of brothers and sisters of the same generation] from the surrounding villages are invited.

In another version, according to a daba also living in the Yongning basin, a white cockerel is killed because the dgo descends from a white eagle.

A daba from Labai provides a third version. On the day when the master hands down his power to his disciple, he asks him to carry out a complex rite before the elders of the villages and before the daba. After this examination, a black bull is sacrificed. After this, the master takes his disciple up to the snow-covered mountains and secretly hands over his power. This is how knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next.

In the Yongning basin, at the present time, the lhe of the daba (who died in l995) of Dapo village possesses a dgo. At Waru, Luzo Dafa holds one. At Labo there is also a daba who has one.

It should be mentioned here that during my fieldwork I never saw or heard of a daba instructing three disciples, but only of such and such a daba teaching his nephew (or his son).

Events in China since l949 have had a important influence on the Na. In l956, land was distributed to each household. In l958, as in the whole of China, the Na of Yongning came under the system of popular communes. During this period of more than twenty years, the production brigade, as the local administrative unit, managed the villagers’ work and distributed grain at the end of the year.

Placing the land under the control of this administrative organization strengthened the hold of the government over the peasants. From then on, religions were viewed with more and more suspicion. Later, during the Cultural Revolution they were completely forbidden. During this period, daba were considered to be demons who lived by exploiting others, comparable with landowners and rich farmers and were reproached at meetings organized in the villages by the production brigade. At the request of the villagers, the daba sometimes organized rituals in secret. But if they were discovered, they were violently criticized in public. As daba Dafa says, “Carrying out rituals was considered a worse crime than theft.”

In l980, after the fall of the extremists, the land was redistributed to each household. At the same time, religion was allowed again. But it was first of all limited to the “great religions”; Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. The religions of other ethnic groups continued to be considered as superstitions and regarded with disapproval.

Until l992, during my fourth session of fieldwork in Yongning, the consequences of a quarter of a century of prohibition were that the villagers were no longer familiar with the daba’s rituals and that the daba were few and elderly.3 For this reason the daba themselves remain discreet about their activity and the cadres are very careful about what they say about the daba when they want him to carry out rituals. For example, the same year, I made contact with three daba. One of them told me that six days later he was going to carry out rituals for a lhe and invited me to attend. On the appointed day I tried to make contact with the head of the lhe, a cadre in the district administration whom I had met during my third fieldwork session. When I found him, he warmly welcomed me into his house to partake of a meal. He encouraged a long discussion. In the meantime, he cancelled all the rituals which had been planned.

During the period of liberalization in China in the l980s, the fact that the farmers owned their land weakened the influence of ideology and also, from the official point of view, it was difficult to specify the difference between the “great religions” and the other “primitive religions”, although the latter were still considered to be superstitions. Since l994 the daba have started to practise their rituals openly again. This is a general phenomenon which can be observed in the various ethnic minorities in China.

However, in the Yongning region and its surrounding districts, there are now very few daba. Dafa Luzo (66 years old) is the most learned and active. For several years now a young daba (28 years old) from the village of Woilabiai who learned from his maternal uncle (who died in l99l) has started to carry out rituals, but he is only a novice. There are also a few elderly daba in the villages of Wujiué and Lajiadzi, as well as in the Labo region, who continue to officiate, but they are less capable of mastering the recitation and the fabrication of ritual objects than the others.

For many years, because there was no daba, in several areas certain rituals were no longer carried out at all. For example, when the Laomi household of Baqi village invited daba Dafa to carry out the offerings to the water spirit, the drum and cymbal music attracted many village spectators. Elderly women commented: “This rite addressed to the water spirit that this daba is performing resembles what we used to see our village daba doing more than thirty years ago.”

Nowadays the rituals which the daba are still invited to carry out are the following: to send, during the funeral, the soul of the deceased to Sibuinawa, land of origin of the Na, so that it may join the ancestors of the lhe; to purify the bodies of all the members of a household to protect them from illness; to carry out the offerings to the water spirit; to recall a terrified soul; to conquer Nati – a demon who is particularly harmful to pregnant women; and to remove impurity from the body of a sick person.

It should be underlined that amongst these rituals, it is only for funerals that the villagers really insist on inviting a daba. When a lhe cannot obtain the presence of a daba, they always find someone, from their village or from a village nearby, who is familiar with the rituals. For other rites, the villagers only invite a daba according to their finances and his availability, otherwise they carry out the rites themselves. For example, the annual service of offerings to the ancestors for each lhe is always carried out by the head of the household (male or female).

Return to main page | Back to top