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The New Shangri-la

I asked Zhao if there were still any dongba in Yuhu, and he told me that the last shaman had died in the 1980's. Later, I talked with Li Xi, director of the Dongba Museum in Lijiang, about the dwindling number of Naxi holy men.

The museum is one of the city's highlights. Set on the bank of a mountain stream, the complex comprises an exhibition hall, as well as traditional Naxi wooden houses reconstructed on the premises. "Museums in China tend to be enclosed," Li said, as we walked in the shadow of Elephant Hill. A former schoolteacher, Li, at 47, still had the lecturer's boundless energy--an energy that occasionally overwhelmed him, sending him into fits of giggles. He spoke excitedly, gesturing at the surroundings: the stream, the mountain, the rhododendrons that clung to the lower slopes. "When you came in, was it through a gate?" he asked. "No! Things are usually locked away in museums, but here I've destroyed this concept. It's all open; everything is outdoors. There's a mountain right there, and trees, and a stream. It's alive."

To prove his point, he introduced me to He Xuewen, an 80-year-old Naxi shaman who was literally living on the museum grounds. The old man spent his days in a simple cabin next to the main building, and we arrived as he was wrapping up a tutorial with a 27-year-old aspiring holy man named Mu Qilong. "I'm here because I want to spread Naxi culture," Mu told me. "Eventually I want to be a dongba, like my teacher."

Currently, there are only 10 dongba left in Lijiang County. Two of those are at the museum, and another performs rituals for tourists in the Old Town of Lijiang every night. It struck me that exactly 30 percent of the Naxi's highest-ranking spiritual men are involved in the tourist industry, and I asked Li if there was a risk of losing the living culture.

"Tourism is necessary for us to preserve it," he said. "That's how we can support this museum." Li had recently been part of a group sent to Graham and Moresby islands, north of Vancouver Island, to inspect the cultural preservation of the Haida Indians. "So much of their traditional culture was lost," he said, shaking his head. "The cemetery was the place that had most of the cultural relics. The people themselves had forgotten everything. We Naxi shouldn't become like that."

To illustrate his point, he handed me a pamphlet that outlined a plan to preserve Naxi culture. It was a classic Chinese government document, everything carefully defined and numbered, a culture outlined in 22 pages. Flipping through the first section, I noticed that the word religion was missing.

"You're right, we didn't use that word once!" Li said. "There's a debate about that. Some people say we should call it an ancient religion that is still functioning, and others say it's a post-primitive religion. But why call it anything at all?If you have a doll, do you have to put a sex organ on it and say whether it's a boy or a girl?Who cares?This is culture! Traditional culture!"


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