Looking at China’s cultural complexity. Food, colours and ritual: sensuous epistemology and the construction of identity in the “other” China
From Firenze University Book: Food issues 食事
Cristiana Turini, University of Macerata
The Hengduan system connecting the southeast portions of the Tibetan Plateau with the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau consists of large North-South mountain ranges separated by deep valleys that channel the waters of six great rivers: Min, Dadu, Yalong, Jinsha, Mekong, and Salween. One of the main component subsections of the Hengduan is the range running between the Mekong and the Jinsha rivers which includes at its southern end the Yulong mountains and the Jade dragon Snow Mountain.
This is the area inhabited by the Naxi people, whose population is today mainly distributed in a well-defined region extending along the border between Tibet, north-eastern Yunnan and south-western Sichuan provinces. The “six river basin” (liu jiang liuyu 六江流域) (Sun 1983) forms a geographically natural passage that was characterized throughout history by frequent migrations and complex flows of ethnic activities which have earned it the name of “ethnic corridor” (minzu zoulang 民族走廊) by Fei Xiaotong (Fei 1982, 4; Fei 1990, 207). Some migratory flows alternatively followed the East-West direction along a section of the corridor that from Yunnan headed towards Tibet through the ancient Tea Horse Road or chama gudao 茶马古道 (Sun and Previato 2016, 301). Since this corridor was the bordering area of contact between the Han and the Tibetans to the West and the Tibetans and the Yi to the East, it is also known as the “Tibetan-Yi corridor”, Zang Yi zoulang藏彝走廊 (Fei 1980, 157–8).
Further North is the region of the upper reaches of the Yellow River, corresponding to present-day Qinghai and Gansu provinces, from which the Tibeto-Burman languages spread southwards and across the Himalayas (Sun and Previato 2016, 296, 299). The Tibetan-Yi Corridor consequently became the site where, throughout the migration process, the cultural features of the Tibeto-Burman peoples gradually differentiated giving rise to the sixteen ethnic groups that are currently mainly distributed in Tibet, Yunnan and Sichuan, namely the Tibetans, Yi, Qiang, Bai, Lisu, Pumi, Dulong, Nu, Achang, Jingpo, Lahu, Hani, Jinuo, Menba, Luoba, and the Naxi.3 Traces of this common origin and of the history of the southward migration are preserved in the legends and myths as well as in the ritual life of some of these groups. For example, after somebody dies, the Naxi invite a dongba to celebrate the ceremony to escort the soul of the deceased to the realm of the ancestor. A Gods’ Road Map is laid out in the courtyard of the deceased’s house and the dongba lists in the reverse order the place names — and the relevant mountain gods — the soul has to pass through to reach the ancestors. Although toponyms and routes may be very different, the Yi, Hani, Jinuo, Lahu, Pumi and Jingpo all have similar paths, directed northward (Shi 2018).
The common origin characterizing these Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups also emerges from the reading of the Naxi “Creation Myth”, according to which the ancestors of the Tibetans, the Bai and the Naxi were brothers who spoke different languages. The Tibetan was the elder brother, the Bai was the younger one and the Naxi was the middle brother (He Limin 1985, 225). The rise on the Tibetan Plateau of the Tubo 吐蕃 dynasty between the 7th and 9th century, and its subsequent expansion towards the Tibetan-Yi corridor up to the upper reaches of the Min and Dadu rivers entailed that many originally scattered local tribes became part of a political and military entity whose rule would last over two hundred years.
This facilitated a strong process of political integration and cultural contamination, causing the gradual trend of “Tibetanisation” to occur in the northern part of the Tibetan-Yi corridor, a trend that was fostered by the dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau after the 10th century (Shi 2018). The northward expansion of the Naxi Mu chieftains6 during the Yuan and Ming dynasties led to an even closer mixing between the Tibetan and Naxi peoples since Lijiang consolidated its role of a major station of the tea trade to Tibet. The roads created by merchants connected communities in neighboring valleys and villages and became the communication links for southwest China while the Naxi gradually turned into an important bridge between the Tibetans and the peoples living in western Yunnan. Given this long history of interactions, the Naxi have a system of religious practices clearly showing the hybridization of traits pertaining to different traditions: elements of Bӧnist, Buddhist, and later even Daoist, ritual and symbolism were integrated into an indigenous system involving shamanic practices, the worship of ancestral spirits and deities mainly representing natural forces, legacy from their original nomadic culture. The large-scale contacts and interactions occurring in the area transformed the Hengduan system from a migration flow corridor into a channel for ethnic exchanges and cultural blending, characterized by fluidity and continuity, where borders were blurred, boundaries became places of multi-dimensional transition, and processes of mutually shaping identities took place.
Today, the region inhabited by the Naxi people is still a multicultural context, maintaining a great internal variety. Our travelling across the borders in history has set the stage for understanding some of the steps in the making of Naxi identity and for investigating to what extent traces of cross-cultural ethnic identity dynamics and adaptations can be preserved in food practices. The multidimensionality of food will be questioned to explore the extent to which Naxi consumption and religious uses of foods can contribute to the forging and transmission of their cultural identity. I will also consider wherein foodways can make clues available for detecting group-level traits that are maintained and transmitted within the group, thus making it possible to preserve individual ethnic cultures, alongside cross-group traits that make it possible for ethnic minorities of the area the preservation of the aggregate of their cultures. Finally, the exploration of the Naxi religious foodways and cosmology will be employed to gain an insight into their culturally different balances of the senses and their sensuous epistemology. This study will be based mainly on Naxi ritual manuscripts and videos of ceremonies, respectively collected and made during my fieldwork in Yunnan.
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