Two Rites

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In July l997, I returned to Na country to study their own religion. I chose to stay in the Dafa4 household, whom I had met ten years earlier. Daba – Na shaman, was filmed mainly during this stay. Here is the description of the two rituals presented in the film.

Nati diji

This rite is called Nati diji. Nati is the name of an evil spirit who is particularly harmful to pregnant women, diji means “the house”. The aim of this ritual is to drive Nati away so that he is satisfied with lodging in the newly built house and cannot cause problems for the pregnant woman.

Generally speaking, when a woman is six or seven months pregnant, her lhe sends someone to invite a daba who chooses by divination the day he will come. This ritual has three parts: preparation, prayers for the pregnant woman and the conquest of Nati.

In the courtyard of the lhe,at about ten in the morning, the daba begins to prepare diji, a symbolic house made of the following elements:

1) A square of turf, 8cm. thick and 30cm. wide. This forms the foundation of the house.

2) Twelve planks 5cm. x 5cm. x 40cm. The four planks at the four corners of the foundations are the pillars.

3) Two nets in the form of spiders’ webs 25cm. in diameter and a triangular net, installed one on top of the other on a 50cm. bamboo pole, one horizontally and the others vertically. These nets are to keep Nati in.

4) A string to which chickens’ feathers are attached, two by two, each in a different direction. This string represents chickens.

5) Lengths of bamboo pole stuck in the turf around the planks. They are offerings for the water spirit so that he does not harm the woman.

6) A strip of linen, l5 cm. wide and 2 m. long. It surrounds the lower part of the house and symbolizes the wall.

7) Small strips of coloured fabric 4cm. wide which represent the woman’s clothes.

8) An artificial pearl symbolizing the woman’s necklace.

9) A reel of linen thread to tie up Nati and his assistants: chosi, binggu and ladogudgu, as well as two evil spirits ji tsikwa (demon of the clouds). When the evil spirits attack human beings they use threads, but men beat them at their own game and use the same thread to catch them and then kill them. The reel also symbolizes the woman’s necklace.

10) Two eggs. One of them represents the woman’s soul. It must be brought back to the house at the end of the ritual. The shell represents the pregnant woman and the white and the yolk represent the foetus.

ll) Five small flags made of coloured paper to open the way.

Once Nati’s house has been built, by about midday, the daba takes it into the main room of the house and places it on the shelf behind the high hearth. From then on access to the house is forbidden to strangers.

The daba prepares flour on a tray and makes a statuette symbolizing the pregnant woman and orders meat, walnuts and fruit to be put on another tray as offerings to the good spirits. Then he puts several little fish in a bowl of water which will help the pregnant woman to cross rivers.

Also on the shelf behind the hearth, daba starts the ritual of the service of offerings to the good spirits. After mixing milk and water with pine needles in a little cup, daba starts the prayers. Here are the dialogues between the daba and the members of the lignée, and the prayers: 

Daba: Your sign is ox, isn’t it?

Mother of the pregnant woman: Yes.

D: Your name is Tsier what?

M: Tsier Qidgu.

D: Good. Throw these three bowls against the garden wall, in a clean place, not by the road. You ought to know that. Go on.

Today, I pray for your lhe, for Tsier Qidgu, sign of the ox, for your birth orientation, your month, your life, the date you give birth.

Sit down here, with your back towards me.

Pregnant woman: Shall I take off my jacket?

D: No.

Holding the statuette symbolizing the pregnant woman the daba recites the prayers: Today I pray for your lhe, for you, for the dangerous months and days.

Addressing Nati: An evil soul on the left and a demon on the right, when you sleep you will have nightmares and when you sit up you will feel anxious, so go to see the little statue of Jidudzener.

Tsier Qidgu, a girl with the ox as her sign, is only 3.3 pounds, the statuette is 66.6 pounds; this person is only a shell and the flour has substance; the bird is less good than the nest, the person is less good than the replacement. Go and see the statuette rather than Tsier Qidgu, sign of the ox. Go and see the statuette clothed in gold and silver wearing a necklace of pearls instead of this woman. I have already prayed for her, that she be liberated once, twice, three times, four times, five times, six times, seven times and seventy-seven times. From head to foot, from her clothes, from her belt, may all the evil go towards the statuette.

The daba places the statuette in a basket, the bottom of which is covered with buckwheat, then he says to the woman: Don’t move. I haven’t finished.

Then he takes two eggs in his right hand and continues his litanies: Do not look at this woman, the egg replaces her. Blood for blood, breath for breath and flesh for flesh. The eggshell replaces the body of the mother, and the yolk the foetus. Everything is ready. See the egg instead of the woman, that she may be rid of all possible illness.

The daba puts the two eggs in the basket with the statuette and takes a thread saying to the woman: Turn to me and hold the thread taut.

I pray for your tranquillity and your security, if there are rumours about you, I cut them like this thread, if there is an unkind word, a curse, a sorrow, devils, I cut them …

The daba puts the thread cut into little pieces in Nati’s house and says to the woman : It will soon be finished.

The daba continues: If there is the river in front of you, the fish replace you, if there are mountains in front of you the deer replace you.

The daba says to Nati: Do not look at this woman. If her body is worth a thousand yuan5, I have given twice that. In front of the river, take the bridge, in the mountains take the path, go there and may everything leave the path free. Demon Nati, leave Tsier Qidgu in peace.

To the pregnant woman daba says: Touch the buckwheat with your hand. (Buckwheat is considered to be a purifying agent.)

After these prayers, the daba throws maize all around the inside of the main room to chase away the evil spirits which might have crept in, and the uncle and the brother of the woman take away Nati’s house and the other objects. Holding the basket (containing the buckwheat, the statuette and the two eggs) and a bunch of burning sweet chestnut leaves, the daba makes three circular movements over the pregnant woman’s head to remove all ill omens.

Then, at about two o’clock in the afternoon, they go into the garden to conquer Nati. During this time, the pregnant woman must stay in the main room so that Nati cannot see her.

When the place for the ritual has been chosen in the garden, the daba, playing his cymbal and his little drum, orders the members of the lhe to throw buckwheat and to blow conch shells towards the four cardinal points in the direction of the sky, which is where the good spirits live, in order to call on their aid. These good spirits are Tabumila dwchu, Tsiesipi Yongkesong who are particularly powerful subjugators of Nati, Mabudziru who is the daba founder, dga who gives the power of the shaman to the daba and Abodgu who is the creator of Man. Then daba pronounces five recitations for each of which he prepares ritual objects.

The first is dgo dzi. As he recits the daba places dgo in a basket full of brown rice. The second is dga dgin. Through this recitation, the daba acquires the shaman’s power and becomes able to communicate with the ancestors and with the good spirits and thus conquer the bad spirits. After this recitation, the daba makes statuettes with flour which symbolize the four good spirits already mentioned, then he places them around dgo in the basket with dgo. Then the daba pronounces hinnago, the third recitation whose function is to acquire the protection of the good spirits so that all goes well for the household. The fourth recitation is Kwaiçuyi which is used to shield the pregnant woman against any possible accident. After this recitation the daba takes Nati’s linen thread to tie up Nati himself. The last is Jïda cho which follows a series of offerings to the good spirits and also to the bad spirits.6 Apart from Kwaiçuyi, the four other recitations are in fact prononced during every ritual that the daba carry out.

Let us now look more closely at the offerings which the daba prepared before reciting jïda cho. First of all, eight balls of dough representing all the kinds of nourishment to be dedicated to the water and mountain spirits. The daba sends them in eight directions: east, west, north, south, north-east, north-west, south-east and south-west where these two spirits can be found. Then comes Jïda, an important offering. She is about l5 cm. high and 5 cm. in diameter. The four balls of dough which are stuck on her are thrown into the water in the direction of the four cardinal points. Her upper part is dedicated to the spirit of the sky, and her lower part to the spirit of the earth. She sits on a fragment of tile. A little tea and a little milk are poured out before her. The tea is intended for the plants and foliage and the milk is for the water spirit who may be living in the mountain lakes. Three little pieces of butter stuck on the top of Jïda are dedicated to the sun and the moon.

The offerings which are placed in Nati’s house are first of all fishes, swallows, squirrels, martens, white monkeys, foxes and stags as well as doema, slabs wrapped in white fabric, symbolizing the twelve astrological signs (normally, apart from the doema, there should be nine of each of these objects, but the daba has restricted himself to three of each), and then there are statuettes representing all the farm animals and poultry. Then the daba places the statuette and an egg whose shell represents the pregnant woman and whose inside represents the foetus. He addresses prayers to Yonkesong so that he will bless the baby and so that he does not change its sex as it comes out of its mother’s belly.7 Lastly, as he puts in Nati’s replacements and Nati’s helpers: chosï, binggu and ladobudgu, the daba starts to persuade Nati to go into his house: It is a house of gold and silver and pearls. It is a raiment of gold and silver.

At this point the spoken ritual ends. The daba gestures to his helpers to blow the conch shells again, while he plays his drum and cymbal. At the same time, another helper removes the strip of linen from around Nati’s house and spreads it downwards before diji to make a bridge. Another helper puts a tile, on which sweet chestnut leaves are burning, and a little flag, in front of the bridge, and he puts jïda at the end of the bridge. Then he takes another piece of tile, on which he ignites a little oil, which is taken behind the house of the lhe, to the place where the fox has his earth. The Na think that behind each house there is always a fox’s earth which may cause disaster to fall on the inhabitants. Each time a ritual is carried out, the fox’s earth must be destroyed.

Then a helper throws jïda onto the wall of the garden. This signifies the accompaniment for the return of the good spirits and, at the same time, the opening of a path for sending away Nati. The daba then says, I am going to send Nati’s house away. If there are black clouds, may they disperse so that he has a way. If the storm blows, may it cease an instant to let Nati pass.

But Nati is in no hurry. Then the daba turns towards Nati: Hesitate no more. To the left there is a house of clay, and to the right a house of wood. There is nothing to keep you there. Forget them. Go! If you meet people in the day or Luçitsi [the daba does not know who or what this is] at night, do not worry and continue on your way. After the sunset, there is the moon. After the moon, a very bright star. Go fearlessly.

And still Nati fears the wild wind and the downpour. The daba says to him, Now there are white clouds in the sky, so there will be no rain, and there is only a breeze so there will be no gales. Go!

But Nati still does not want to leave. So the daba invites him to play a game. They will each produce dough balls and the one who takes out balls of the same colour will stay. The land where the daba is sitting is human beings’ land, the land where Nati resides is demons’ land. Man, represented by the daba, begins the game. He takes out one, two, up to the one hundred and thirteenth ball and they are all white. As for Nati, his first ball is white, his second is black, his third is red. So the demon has lost the game. The daba says to him: You have lost, you must carry away all illness, all filth, all that can provoke death, in short all ill omens.

The ritual ends with a helper carrying Nati’s house away up the mountainside to put it high up in a tree.

In general, each household chooses a tree up the mountain behind the village for perching Nati’s house after the ritual of Nati diji. It must be a fruit tree, often a sweet chestnut or a pear, and it symbolizes the prosperity of the household in spite of Nati.

Busï nin

Busï means “branch of sweet chestnut”, nin means “to tame”. Traditionally, it is the title of an annual ritual organized at the level of the lineage and intended for carrying out the service of offerings to the ancestors of the lineage.8 This ritual takes place on a day during the lunar month corresponding to October, chosen by the lineage. During the ritual, a daba who knows the names of the ancestors of the lineage is invited to recite their names so that they return to share the Na New Year feast with their descendants. The aim is to honour the ancestors so that they only do good to their descendants and never cause harm. For without offerings they would be angry and would harm their descendants. Before l958, each lineage owned a piece of land and the harvest served to feed a pig. Each household of the lineage took turns to look after the pig. On the appointed day, all the households belonging to the lineage gathered at the house of those who had raised the pig that year, to carry out this ritual.

From l958 to l980, the popular commune, having taken control of all the land, distributed the annual ration of grain. This put an end to the traditional form of this ritual in the majority of the Na villages. Since then until the present time, each lignée carries out this ritual as best they can. The following description is based on the ritual presided over by daba Dafa at his home on 21st October by the lunar calendar (i.e. 20th November) l997.

On the eve of busïnin, daba Dafa calls together all the members of his lhe in the main room of the house, in order to distribute a task to each — person in preparation of the ritual. He has invited a villager who often accompanies him as an assistant bidza when he carries out rituals — for others.

On the morning of the day of the ritual, the members of the household start by setting up a tripod, a cauldron and a high table on which the ancestors’ vessels are laid out. After having lit the fire under the tripod, the daba purifies, over the fire, branches of sweet chestnut which have been cut down in the mountains and washed in the stream by one of the members of the household, and from which the bark has been removed at the cut end. Then the daba plants them along the edge of the pavement in front of the main house. A black stone from the river is placed at the foot of each branch. These stones, considered to be the hardest available, symbolize the foundations of the house. Durable in all weathers, sweet chestnut wood is considered to be the best building wood. The stones and branches together represent a house. In front of this house a door serving as a table is laid out, on which all the offerings are placed.

There is a legend concerning this house. In the beginning, during the annual ritual such a house was not built. At the beginning of the ritual, therefore, the ancestors mingled with the living. At the end of the ritual, they no longer wanted to return to Sibuinawa (the place where they reside). So Abodgu, creator of human beings and of all the rules of life, ordered that such a house should be made to separate the dead from the living.

The bidza prepares the tea and fries beancurd, with which the daba carries out the first service of offerings (breakfast) to the ancestors who are still in Sibuanawa. At the same time he tells them that today the household is to kill two pigs as offerings.

Meanwhile, the others set out two big jars of solima (Na beer) decorated with sweet chestnut leaves for the ancestors, a wooden vase in which some gold and silver and grain has been placed and a piece of bamboo pole hung with strips of coloured fabric. These fabric strips symbolize clouds and wild ducks which can bring riches to the house. The vase is accompanied by a tray containing a piece of bocha (boned and salted pork), tea, brown sugar, salt and a few banknotes. All these things signify that the household is rich. Then wheatcakes and ricecakes, yellow wine and fruit are added.Pine needles (incense), intended for the heavens, are burned by the bidza in a little hearth set up by the foot of the wall of the main building.

The second phase of the ritual begins after breakfast. The daba pronounces a recitation to purifiy all the foods and all the objects used. The bidza makes circles over all these objects with fronds of cypress. The men kill two pigs and shave off the bristles in the garden using boiling water.

The daba, holding a long bamboo pole, directs the members of the household during the ritual. If anyone makes a mistake, he hits the culprit with the pole. The men bring the two dead pigs into the courtyard and lay them with their heads facing the main building. They place a yuangen (a type of turnip) in the mouth of one of the pigs. This means that food is not lacking in the house. While the daba continues the purification recitation, the bidza inscribes circles with azalea leaves over the pigs. Then he cuts off half the ear of a pig and puts it in a plate at the end of the prayer. Now the offerings laid in front of the “house” include cooked and raw food which represents the lunch offered to the ancestors.

Meanwhile two men bone the pigs, and two women spin linen thread to sew up the boned carcasses. Other women salt the fat and put it back into the stomach of the pig. Once the pigs are boned they are generously salted so that they can be kept for years.

A man lays the sternum of a pig with the offerings. This means that those who serve the offerings are born of the same bone as those who are served, therefore they are naturally consanguineous relatives. The bone is considered by the Na to be the vehicle of the hereditary characteristics of the individual.

When everything is ready, the bidza adds pine needles and alcohol to the fire in the little incense burner, and two men blow in the conch shells; at the same time the daba starts to evoke the ancestors so that they come from Sibuinawa. He recites the names of the ancestors starting with the oldest generation. Each time he pronounces a name, the bidza puts a piece of each food and a little beer in big plate. The number of generations that he evokes is eighteen. Then he throws grains of wheat. This symbolizes the offerings made to the ancestors. At this point, the ancestors are considered as already having returned. The bidza throws tea and — alcohol on the burnt incense to provide drink to quench the thirst of — the ancestors.

Then the members of the household begin to cook meat, fish and vegetables in the cauldron in the main building. When it is all cooked, it is the daba himself who carves the meat and puts various foods on the offerings table. He orders his assistant to paint the stripped stalks of sweet chestnut with the pigs’ blood. By this act the members of the household testify before the ancestors to the fact that they have actually killed the pigs as offerings to them. Without this act, the ritual would not be considered as truly solemn, it would be as if the pigs had not been offered to ancestors, who would then be discontented.

These offerings represent the dinner offered to the ancestors. While he indicates to others to play the conch shells and to throw alcohol on the incense intended for the heavens, the daba recites the names of the ancestors again. After each name, the bidza puts a little of all the sorts of food and drinks on a large plate. But this time, the daba only recites the names of the three most recent generations of ancestors starting with the most recent. At the end, the daba adds alcohol and a little piece of meat to the plate, which symbolizes the provisions given to the ancestors. Then the youngest child of the household lights the lamp on the offerings table, and all the members of the household prostrate themselves before the ancestors. After this recitation, all the members of the household touch the purified wheat and drink the beer which has also been purified. This bestows the protection of the ancestors on each one. This gesture also signifies a farewell to the ancestors.

Lastly the household sends the ancestors back to Sibuinawa: a man plays the conch shell, the daba throws grains of wheat towards the table of offerings to open the way. A young man pulls up the branches of sweet chestnut while another carries the large plate of food; they both climb onto the roof. The first man wedges the branches under two slabs of stone on which the second man empties the food. The branches and the food represent the house and the nourishment sent to the ancestors at Sibuinawa. After this, the sooner the food is taken by the crows the better, crows being considered good birds who take rations to the ancestors.

It should be noted here that the household throws a bowl of food in front of the main door, for the ancestors who have suffered a violent death through suicide, murder, accident etc. They are not considered to belong among the ancestors.

In the courtyard, two members of the household bring the boned pork back into the main room. Then a procession is formed to bring in the riches. At the head of the procession, blowing into the conch shell, the bidza carries the vase of riches, a young boy also plays a conch shell, and another man carries the tray with the boned pork, tea, brown sugar, salt, alcohol and money; the other members of the household follow.

When the procession arrives inside the main room, the tray is placed in front of the spirit of the lower hearth. The bidza puts the vase back in its place on the sïtu, a sideboard in the corner opposite the door of the main room, he takes flour out of a leather bag and throws some on the walls and the pillars, and then two spoonfuls on the fire in the lower hearth. This gesture signifies that he is closing the house so that the riches of the household are not lost, but also so that the evil spirits cannot enter the house. The evil spirits are particularly frightened of white dust.

This is how busïnin ends. The members of the household clean up the courtyard and start preparing dinner so that they can invite guests to a feast. These are usually friends from the same village.9

At the end of this description it is worth noting that it was as head of the household and not as daba that Dafa Luzo presided over this ritual as seen in the film.

Ancestor worship is particularly important for the Na. They always make an offering to the ancestors before they partake of any food or drink, which means several times each day. Each year, after the wheat, maize and rice harvests, they make offerings to the ancestors which are more formal than the everyday offerings so that the ancestors may taste the new grain.

The living look after food for the ancestors, who in turn protect the living so that their prosperity is ever greater. The ancestors, or at least their souls, are thus separated from the living but at the same time in daily contact. There is reciprocity between them: the fortunes of the living and their ancestors are interdependent.

As we can see, the crux of this film is that Dafa Luzo wishes his son rapid success in his apprenticeship as a daba. But the essential question is: will the son succeed? If his son cannot succeed him, the fact that the household will be less prosperous is only a secondary consideration; the more serious being that, with no daba, it would become particularly vulnerable to the demons who would seek revenge on all the daba who, in the past, from one generation to the next, fought against them so zealously. Thus for a lhe which includes a daba, there is a parallel in regard to continuity; not only does the lhe need descendants, but it also needs a daba successor for each generation.

The relations between daba and lama

The daba and lama share certain rituals; for example: those for divining; calling back a terrified soul; curing; service of offerings to the mountain spirit; funerals etc. When a daba falls ill, he may call on a lama, and vice versa. However, as far as relations with the ancestors are concerned, all the prayers for sending the soul of the deceased to join its ancestors in Sibuinawa, can only be carried out in the daba ritual; for the two religions do not send the dead to the same place. The traditional Na religion treats the deceased as a member of a kinship group, i.e. a member of a lhe, while Buddhism treats the deceased as an individual, with kinship playing no part. When I ask the villagers the question: As the daba and the lama do not send the deceased to the same place who do you think will succeed?, they reply with a smile saying: We don’t know. But both religions suit us.

When a daba dies, his household sends for a lama to carry out the funeral. But on the death of a lama who has taken his vows, a daba cannot be asked to participate in the funeral ceremony.

Each Na household has a special room for statuettes of various Buddhas, posters of the Dalai Lama and Banchan Lama, silver or bronze bowls for use as lamps, and other Buddhist objects. The room is usually nicely decorated. The more well-off the household, the more elaborate the decoration. Dafa’s household is well-off, but they only have a few lamaist objects placed on a little table in the corner of a room where many other belongings are stored. During one of his lessons to his son, Dafa Luzo clearly expressed his anxieties. Remarking that lamaism has developed rapidly in the area in the last few years and that the number of daba is falling, he hopes that in general the daba can gain ground. However, he shows not the slightest intention of training the children of others, at least not up until the time of my last stay.

In order that Na shamanism as presented in this film can be understood in context, here is a short presentation of the characteristics of Na society.

Who are the Mo-so?

Before the l950’s, four groups of agricultural peoples living on the borders of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces were called Mo-so10 by the Han, the ethnic majority of China.11 Each of these groups called themselves by their own name and continue to do so. The first group call themselves Naxi (approx. 210,000) and resides in Yunnan in the town of Lijiang and the surrounding areas. The second group call themselves Na (approx. 30,000) and lives in the Yongning12 basin and surroundings in the north of Ninglang district (in Yunnan) and in the west of Yanyuan district (in Sichuan). The third group, the NaRu (approx. 7,000) reside in the districts of Muli and Yanbian (in Sichuan). The last group call themselves Nahing (approx. 3,000) and lives in the south of Ninglang district and in Zhanzidang village in Yongshen district (in Yunnan).

Originally, the Mo-so descend from one of the branches of the early Qiang, an ancient population of the Tibeto-Qin plateau in north-west China. At the end of the second century A.D., the Mo-so were already living in the Yanyuan region. During the fifth century, they also appeared in the Lijiang area, and during the eighth century, they spread further south to the Bingchuan region, to the east of Lake Er (Erhai) where they founded Yuexi zhao13 (also called Mo-so zhao), one of the six celebrated principalities of Yunnan. In 738 A.D. the Nan Zhao principality conquered the five other principalities, thereby forming a kingdom. After this, there is no further mention of the Mo-so in Chinese texts, nor is there any evidence in reality of their presence in the Erhai area; from then on they are only to be found in the places where they live today.14

When using their own names, these four groups share a common syllable na the meaning of which, as a name, is unknown. In their spoken language, as a general term, na is always used as an adjective of quality and means “black”. As for xi, Ru and hing these terms all denote “people” or “human beings”.

Linguistic classification

The Jingsha river, the upriver Yangzi, divides their region in two. Those living on the east side of the river, the NaRu, the Na and Nahing, understand one another. However they and the Naxi, who live on the west side, do not understand each other and Chinese (spoken and written) serves as a common language. For the time being, Chinese linguists consider that these are two dialects of the same language.15

Their languages all belong to the yi branch of the Tibeto-Burmese family. The western group uses the dongba pictographic script, and another written form geba, which only the shaman know how to use. The eastern groups have no written form of their language.16

Official Identification

In l958 the central government organized investigations in order to identify various ethnic groups. The authorities in each province were put in charge of identifying their inhabitants. In Yunnan, as the Naçi (Naxi in pinyin17) are the biggest group, their name was authorized by the central government to cover the three Yunnan groups. Consequently all Na, Naçi and Nahin living in Yunnan province are classified as Naxi.

Whereas the NaRu and Na living in Sichuan are identified by the provincial government of Sichuan, confirmed by the central government, as being part of the Mongolian ethnic group. This designation is only justified by the fact that they claim descent from those who remained in the region after the departure of the army of Kublai Khan.18 Since this official identification, villages belonging to the same ethnic group but located on different sides of the provincial border, are classified as two distinct ethnic groups.

For example, in the north of the Yongning basin, less than one kilometre apart, certain villages became Naxi and others Mongolian. However, these “Mongols” have nothing in common with the Mongols in Mongolia: no-one there knows a single word of Mongolian.19

Who are the Na?

The political system and the agrairian system before l956

Before l956, the area in Yunnan inhabited by the Na was governed by a Na chief called zhifu (head of the prefecture). He was appointed by the central government from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) onwards. During the Ming dynasty, power was handed down from maternal uncle to nephew, and from father to son from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) until the Guomingdang era (l911-l949). In l956, in the Yongning region, fields, moors, fallow land and pastures where entirely divided amongst the inhabitants. The land was divided into two types, that of the Office of the zhifu (prefect), and that of all the households.

The kinship system and the visit system

In Na society, past and present, women and men can freely engage in sexual relations with different partners and change partners whenever they wish. The man visits the woman at night in the house where she lives with the sisters and brothers of the different generations of her lhe, and in the morning he returns to the house of his own lhe, the only economic unit where he works, produces and consumes.

Between partners there is no economic bond. The children born of these sexual encounters belong invariably to the mother’s lhe, whose members bring up the child with no intervention whatever from the genitor [presumed biological father], who is often only “identified” by his resemblance to the child. Sometimes he is not even known as the women have different partners. In fact, I have never found in the Na language, a term which covers the notion of father, as their kinship terminology is strictly consanguineal and matrilineal. Inheritance is collective, with property and possessions passing down from all the members of one generation to all the members of the next.

As a form of sexual behaviour, there are two types of visit, the hidden visit and the open visit. Apart from these two forms, cohabitation (or concubinage in the traditional sense of the term) and marriage also exist in this society. Cohabitation is an auxiliary measure undertaken only if attempts at adoption fail, in order to perpetuate a household which lacks a member of one of the sexes, and especially when a household lacks a daughter. Marriage was imposed indirectly following the change in legislation concerning the transmission of hereditary authority under the Qing dynasty. However it should be underlined that the majority of the Na population live only according to the visit system, and that those who cohabit or marry also practise the hidden visit at the same time.

The particularity of this society is therefore the fact that the institutionalized form of sexual behaviour is completely dissociated from any economic bond. The elementary kinship and economic unit is the purely matrilineal and consanguineal lhe. It is composed only of the brothers and sisters of each generation. The Na thus represent the most extreme case of matrilineality that has ever been observed in anthropology. Diametrically opposed to marriage society, it constitutes a visit society. Strictly speaking it is these two categories of society which represent the true elementary structures of kinship, which can be illustrated by the diagram suggested by Claude Levi-Strauss for the kinship atom: and by that which I suggested for the Na kinship model.20

Claiming Identity

For more than two decades, the Na living in Yongning in Yunnan province have lodged demands with the government at every level, from local to central. They request recognition as an ethnic group distinct from the Lijiang Naxi. The Yunnan provincial assembly has already agreed that the Na from Yongning should be called Mo-so ren (the “Mo-so people”) but not Mo-so zu (the “Mo-so ethnic group”) 21. Ratification by the central government is necessary for recognition as an ethnic group.

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