Saturday, August 16, 2008

Little Whirlwind

Things are going well... especially because I finally started to interview Naxi Elders!

My friend Lily (Naxi ethnicity and Lijiang area native) is helping me as an interpreter... and it’s a win-win combination. As she runs tours in this area, it's important for her to know local culture and history, so that she may tell accurate information to her tour-guides and guests. On my side, I could do nothing without her, her Naxi+Mandarin+English abilities, and her comforting personality. As she chats it up with the Grandmas and the Grandpas, I feel like I’m not doing any work!

As I haven’t had enough time to really reflect on the 2-days worth of interviewing we have done... here are just a few things I've noticed so far.

In some ways, this interviewing is easy. Most elder Naxi women wear the traditional blue hat, blue shirt, maroon vest, and black and blue apron over black pants. A melding of mostly blue and black, they then layer this look with the sheepskin cape that protects their back from heavy loads, and that keeps them warm in the cooler temperatures. All in all—very easy to recognize. The elder Naxi men, too, are quite easy to spot. Lounging back on benches, cane in hand, & often with long beards a-pipe a-suckin’, these men are waiting targets for our questioning goals. Most elder people in the old town delight in a relaxing life nowadays. As they love to congregate together to relax and have fun—it’s easy to know where we can find people to interview. In the morning, they stroll around Black Dragon Pool for exercise, and in the afternoon, they dance in Sifang Square… or play cards or sing songs or chat amongst themselves or laugh at the little kids or—as of now—entertain us in stories of their childhoods & water, as we all perch on benches among a big shady tree.

Oddly enough, the men are much more eager to talk to us, while the women are rather timid about answering questions. While I at first assumed that the boisterousness of Naxi women in society would lead them to giving all the answers—this doesn’t seem to be the case. While just speculation, there seem to be some reasons for this. First, these Naxi women are very modest; many say that they do not know anything worthy of such structured questions. Second, because they spent so much of their lives working hard for their families, they maybe did not spend much time thinking critically about where there water came from, about the history of water in the town, etc. Third, they might be less educated than the men are, and so perhaps less critical or opinionated about the ongoings in this city. (Please remember though, these are just speculation.)

This oddity has led to some barriers in interviewing. While I believe Naxi women hold a wealth of knowledge in how they accessed water for their families in the past compared to now… their hesitancy to answer questions permits this information from reaching my ears. Through easy-going liao tianr (chatting), they have no problem divulging these sorts of clues…yet when we politely wonder if we can ask specific questions, or have their permission to record their voices (oh, IRB!), this fluid conservation shuts down, and an ending nod of the head and a referral takes its place.

Still, despite barriers, there is one thing in particular that I find stunningly interesting. Through our conservations, we’ve learned that very few of the Elders (aged 60-80+) believe in the Naxi Dongba religion. In the past, Dongba priests taught people to protect their environment through ritual, but after the Cultural Revolution, the number of Dongba priests SEVERELY dropped. Many Elders said that when growing up, their home villages had maybe two or one or none Dongba priests, and this number is continuing to decrease today. More specifically, according to the Dongba Research Institute, there are only 9 true Dongba priests alive today (though I need to fully confirm that number). As true Dongba-ism is passed down father to son—a veritable religious inheritance—the disappearance of the Dongba religion is all too present.

So, instead of religion and ritual teaching these current Elders as it had past generations, environmental & water protection was bestowed to them "from generation to generation." And, since today even this “generation to generation” tradition is not being passed down, without religion to back them up, the younger generation no longer has a comparable "code" to live by. All in all: a gradual loss of environmental protection among the Naxi people, (though I'm taking it to extremes here to make my point, of course.)

Now, it’s time for me to be a little lame. Ideally, I wanted to draw a diagram to illustrate this idea... but that just doesn't work on Blogger. So, an equation will have to do---

A = Passing down Tradition from Generation to Generation
B = Dongba Religious Beliefs

A + B = Why Past Generations took care of their water
A = Why Elder Generation takes care of their water
ZERO = Why the Younger Generation is not taking care of their water (+ impacts of tourism and immigration of course!)

TA DA! Problem Solved! …Yeah right. But you can see how without the buttress of religion or tradition, the younger Naxi generation does not easily protect their environment as they had in the past.

This makes me wonder though: what do the Elders think they can still teach the younger generation? And, why aren’t they doing it—have they lost hope? Each Grandma/Grandpa we interviewed said, “The older people always told us that…” and to them they listened. And So, my question is:

Are they being those same wise older people to their younger inheritors of beautiful Lijiang?

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