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Naxi Conference

May 14-15, 2011

A conference to mark the opening of the museum's spring exhibition Quentin Roosevelt's China: Ancestral Realms of the Naxi (May 13–September 19, 2011). While the exhibition showcases the art and artifacts of the Naxi as they lived seventy years ago, at this conference anthropologists, linguists, preservationists, and other professionals will exchange knowledge and ask questions about the current situation of the Naxi and look to the future.

Browse Conference Media

Podcasts & Videos from the conference on iTunes






Friday, May 13

11:00 a.m.

Opening day of the exhibition Quentin Roosevelt's China
Dongba priest He Limin blesses the exhibition
View blessing ceremony

6:00 p.m.

Informal gathering in the K2 Lounge to meet participants and exhibition curators


Saturday, May 14

8:30 a.m.

Coffee and continental breakfast

9:30 a.m.

Welcoming Remarks
Martin Brauen, Chief Curator, Rubin Museum of Art

Dongba priest He Limin performs opening ceremony

9:45 a.m.

Keynote: Dongba Art in its Traditional and Modern Forms
Charles McKhann (Discussant: Christine Mathieu)

10:35 a.m.

Naxi Connections: The Relation of Naxi Traditions with Those of Other Himalayan Societies
Michael Oppitz (Discussant: Karl Debreczeny)
Launch Slide Presentation

11:30 a.m.

Naxi Heritage as a Tourism Commodity
Sydney White (Discussants: Mei Zhang and Charles McKhann)


1:00 p.m.


2:30 p.m.

Music of the Naxi
Helen Rees (Discussant: Sydney White)
Listen to Podcast

3:30 p.m.

Panel: The Myth of Matriarchy
Eileen Walsh, Christine Mathieu

4:30 p.m.


5:00 p.m.

Panel: Pictographs as Art
Karl Debreczeny, Michael Oppitz, and He Limin
View Video

6:30 p.m.


7:00 p.m.

Film: A King in China (Theater) and pictograph evening workshop (Lobby and Galleries)


Sunday, May 15

10:00 a.m.

Coffee and continental breakfast

10:30 a.m.

Panel: The Role of the Dongba Priest, Past and Present
He Limin, Yang Fuquan, Charles McKhann
Listen to Podcast

12:00 p.m.

Lunch: Naxi food samplings

2:00 p.m.

Panel: Mosuo Culture
Eileen Walsh, Christine Mathieu, and filmmaker Marlo Poras

Includes a screening of a rough cut of The Mosuo Sisters

3:30 p.m.

Open Forum: The Future of the Naxi
Yang Fuquan, Mei Zhang, Charles Mckhann, and Sydney White

Moderator: Cindy Ho

5:00 p.m.

Closing ceremony by He Limin

6:00 p.m.

Museum closes

Travel support for this conference has been granted, in part, by the Asian Cultural Council.



Participants and Papers

Charles McKhann: Sacred Artifacts, Secular Art: State-Minority Relations, Tourism, and the (Re) Visioning of Dongba Art

Cultural center for the Naxi nationality, the town of Lijiang has become a major domestic and international tourist destination in the last 15 years.  Demand for 'authentic' Naxi cultural products has led to a blossoming of 'dongba art', extending a trend that began in the early 1980s with post-Mao political reforms.  Dongba are traditional Naxi religious specialists whose ritual performances involve the use of numerous objects that might be variously classified as art or artifact, including written texts utilizing a unique pictocraphic script.  This paper explores the artistic and sacred qualities of traditional dongba artifacts and the emergence of more secular 'contemporary dongba art' (xiandai dongba meishu) in the last three decades, with particular attention to the role of the state in promoting a vision of 'harmonious' ethnic relations, and the creative search by Naxi artists and intellectuals for new forms of cultural expression.

Charles McKhann is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Asian Studies at Whitman College, Washington.  His research on Naxi religion, kinship, cosmology, tourism, cultural history, and art, dates to the mid-1980s.  Among his most recent work includes Icon and Transformation: (Re)Imaginings in Dongba Art (2003) and a biographical sketch of David Graham, an American missionary, anthropologist, and museum curator, who lived and worked in southwest China for most of the early decades of the 20th century (Explorers and Scientists, 2010).


Michael Oppitz: Naxi Connections: The relation of Naxi traditions

The traditional culture of the Naxi can be recognized as an entity of its own. Each of its manifestions, such as religious practice, cosmological ideas, mythological narratives, social organization, artistic production, architectural design and technological skill, bears the stamp of its overall identity: the cultural style of the Naxi. As with the Naxi, so with other localized cultures of the Himalaya and elsewhere. Each society, no matter how small it is, has sought to imprint its signature onto all of its functions. This is the reason why we can talk of societies as if they were individuals. However, no society, past or present, stands isolated. Each has had connections with neighboring societies, exchanged goods and people with them, ideas and concepts, skills and practices. Such exchanges lead to mutual influences, to intentional or unnoticed transformations. Tracing some of these mutual influences amongst neighboring societies is the purpose of this paper.

Michael Oppitz was born in Silesia in 1942. After a classical school education in Cologne, he pursued university studies in Anthropology, Sinology and Sociology at Berkeley, Bonn and Cologne. Dr. Oppitz received his doctorate in 1974 with a thesis on the history of Structural Anthropology. He has conducted extensive field research in the Himalayas since 1965, in particular with the Sherpa of East Nepal, the Magar of Western Nepal, the Naxi of Yunnan and the Qiang of Sichuan.

His specialties, reflected in his writings and films are mythology and oral traditions; kinship studies; rituals and local religions; material culture; and visual anthropology.

Helen Rees: Contemporary Contexts for Traditional Naxi Music and Dance

Major Naxi genres documented from the first half of the 20th century include dongba ritual chants; solo and group folksongs; social dances accompanied by singing, or by flute or gourd mouth organ; jew's harp performance; and the funeral music Baisha Xiyue. Also prominent at this time in more Sinicized Naxi areas was dongjing music, a Han Chinese-derived repertoire performed both by socially elite ritual associations and by secular ensembles for private entertainment. After 1949, new ideological and social conditions led to the decline of many genres. A partial post-Cultural Revolution revival was hampered by the rapid influx of modern media, which drew youngsters away from traditional arts. Today, with China's government and people newly enthusiastic about intangible cultural heritage, one sees both old and new contexts for traditional Naxi performing arts. The former include revived dongba rituals and social dancing at festivals. The latter reflect ever-increasing Naxi engagement with modern media and the outside world. Lijiang's huge tourism business employs dozens of dongjing and other musicians to perform for visitors; Naxi folksingers have appeared on national TV to great acclaim; and Naxi dongba and musicians frequently represent Yunnan and China at international festivals, such as the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Helen Rees is a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA. Since 1989 her research has focused on traditional and tourist-oriented musics of southwest China, especially those of the Naxi and Han. She is the author of Echoes of History: Naxi Music in Modern China (2000) and editor of the essay volume Lives in Chinese Music (2009). She is also active as an interpreter, translator, and presenter for Chinese scholars and musicians visiting the West, most recently for the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. In spring 2008 she was a visiting professor at the Music College of the Yunnan Art Institute.

Sydney White:  Naxi Heritage as a Tourism Commodity: The Political Economy of Ethnicity and Representation in the Lijiang Basin

This paper explores the ways in which various state, local, media, popular culture, and tourism industry representations of Naxi ethnicity and cultural identity have played out in the dramatic tourism boom that has emerged in the Lijiang basin since the late 1990s, and it situates these representations in terms of the historically shifting political economic positionalities embodied by basin residents along lines of village versus town residence, ethnicity, gender, education, and generation. The impact of this relatively recent large-scale (approximately six million annually) and primarily domestic (i.e., PRC) ethnic tourism boom is explored as it has played out in both the gucheng (or 'old town') part of Dayanzhen (or Lijiang Town)-the original epicenter for Lijiang's epic tourism town development project-and Longquan village-the epicenter of the more recent 'Shuhe' epic tourism village development complex. The paper additionally ventures north of the basin to engage and culturally deconstruct the also epic spectacle of 'Impression Lijiang'-a performance narrative directed by Zhang Yimou, Wang Chaoge, and Fan Yue that endeavors to re-create the history of the Lijiang area through the choreographed song, dance, and drama of hundreds of locally recruited and trained performers.

Sydney D. White is currently Associate Professor of Anthropology, Asian Studies, and Women's Studies at Temple University, and she received her PhD in Medical Anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1993 based on more than 20 months of dissertation research conducted in the Lijiang basin. Her research interests include multiculturalism narratives, medical pluralism and the politics of medical knowledges, the anthropology of the body, the politics of public health and healthcare, the politics of cultural identities (in particular gender, ethnicity, class, urban versus rural residence, and generation), and narratives of modernity and governmentality in the People's Republic of China.


Other Panelists

Limin He

Professor, Institute of Naxi Dongba Cultural Studies, Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences

Christine Mathieu

Ethnohistorian and anthropologist.  Mathieu began to study Naxi culture and religion in 1989, and was one of the first foreign anthropologists to return to northern Yunnan after the Chinese Communist revolution of 1949.  She lived in China between 1989 and 1993, and has returned regularly to visit.  She has contributed chapters to several anthologies and authored two books, A History and Anthropological Study of the Ancient Kingdoms of the Sino-Tibetan Borderland, based on her doctoral work, and  Leaving Mother Lake (co-authored with Mosuo singer Yang Erche Namu) which may be described as a fictionalized memoir and a work of literary anthropology.  Leaving Mother Lake has been translated into fourteen languages.  She joined Cindy Ho on the preparation of the exhibition Quentin Roosevelt's China in 1997.  

Marlo Poras

Filmmaker Marlo Poras worked as an apprentice and assistant editor on indie films such as Ripe, Daytrippers, and Grace Of My Heart. While in Vietnam producing AIDS education videos for teenagers, a group of high school students about to embark on a year abroad in America captured Marlo's imagination and inspired her to make Mai's America, her first film. She is in post-production on a documentary The Mosuo Sisters.

Gaofeng Shi (Lamu Gatusa)

Associate Professor, Deputy Director of Institute of Ethnic Literature, Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences

Eileen Rose Walsh

Lecturer in socio-anthropology at the University of Sydney, Australia, with specializing in the anthropology of contemporary China, in particular on topics of gender, ethnicity and development, civil society and law in China, tourism and consumption, modernity and nationalism. Her past research in southwest China has looked at tourism as a nexus of globalization and development. Specifically, her publications describe the transformations which tourism has brought to an ethnic minority group, the Mosuo, and the area in Yunnan Province in which they live, as well as the complex negotiations between various levels of governance, the tourism industry, and locals in managing this area and the changes which tourism has brought. She is currently researching the developing legal professions in China, and the ways in which they bridge the state and the public. Dr. Walsh previously taught anthropology and China courses at the Institute for Chinese Studies, University of Oxford, as well as in several universities in the United States.

Fuquan Yang

Professor, Vice-President of Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences

Mei Zhang

Founder of WildChina, a Beijing-based premium sustainable travel company offering distinctive, ecologically sensitive journeys throughout China. A native of Yunnan province in southwest China, Mei earned her MBA from Harvard Business School and worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company. While serving as a consultant to The Nature Conservancy, Mei witnessed the push and pull between economic development and conservation of both nature and culture in Yunnan. She strongly believed that there was a solution: providing a sophisticated interpretation of Chinese culture and nature, and therefore creating experiential travel that was unheard of in China.