Tsongbacun museum: restore a culture of Naxi

By By He Hongcan / 08-02-2013 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Tsongba people dancing


The essence of the Tsongba culture is religion. The origin of the term is very straightforward: “Tsongba” is the name for the person who hosts religious rituals in the Naxi area. Tsongba hieroglyphs, paintings, singing, dance, divination, sculpture, dress, tie-dye and religious instruments are some of the manifold elements composing this complex Tsongba culture. In different seasons, on different occasions, and in performing various rituals, the Naxi invoke these cultural elements to narrate the composition of the cosmos and the location of humans in the universe, to articulate a blueprint for harmonizing the contradictions in the universe and to commemorate Naxi ancestral heritage.


Baidi village (within Sanba town in Shangri-la county) in northern Yunnan Province is admired as Tsongba’s holy land by its practitioners. It is the hometown of Amin, the founding master of the Tsongba religion, and many other Tsongba masters have come from and practiced their religions in Baidi village.


Since it is located deep within the mountains, travel to and from Baidi village and other Naxi areas is very inconvenient. Consequently, Naxi traditional culture, including the Tsongba religion, has been preserved relatively well, with little impact and disturbance from the outside world. However, since the completion of a road connecting Baidi village to major throughways in the 1980s, this natural haven has been disrupted and the culture has faced conflict.


Perceiving this threat, He Shangli, a Baidi village native, devotes his time to search Tsongba culture traces and was able to convince a successful businessman to invest in a museum of “Tsongbacun” (Tsongba village).


The Tsongbacun museum, which literally encompasses an entire village, is located on the mountain slopes beneath the Baishuitai (White water terraces), a famous natural landmark. The physical area of the museum covers about 185 acres, and is divided into three distinct spaces: architectural space, ritual space and natural space. 100 wooden houses, most of which were purchased from villagers, compose the main component of the architectural space. During repairs and refurbishing of these homes, the interior structure and layout—a central pillar and fire place—were kept intact.  Even the furniture, such as a, large bed and a bamboo basket, were left in the homes. Additionally, the architectural space includes various dwellings that the Naxi have inhabited through history, including cave-homes, lean-to style shed homes and tents, and exhibits different lifestyles the Naxi have had, from hunters, to nomads, to farmers. 


In the northern area of the museum, on the highest terrain, is the ritual space. It has sections for worshiping heaven, worshiping the nature God, worshiping the village God and worshiping the wind, and an altar to burn holy incense. A sculpture of Amin has also been built in this area, along with a 50 meter mural carved into the east side of a cliff contained within the space.


The natural space is located in the southern part of the museum, on slightly higher ground than the architecture space. From the natural space, one can see the Baishuitai in the distance and overlook the pastoral village scenery of Baidi village.


As a museum, collection and exhibition are the major functions of the Tsongbacun museum. Currently, it has a collection of twenty sets of Tsongba scriptures including nearly one thousand individual volumes. It also has a large number of paintings and religious instruments. In addition to these materials, the Badongcun Museum has various exhibitions, including an exhibition on Tsongba paper making and one on the Naxi technique of spinning and weaving linen. These exhibitions demonstrate these technical processes by displaying actual objects used employed in the processes coupled with illustrations of how they are conducted.


The Tsongbacun museum is now ready to be open to the public. Tourists, scholars and young people who wish to learn about the Tsongba culture can all share in the precious heritage passed down from the Naxi’s ancestors. Its “opening” reservation policy is most likely an adaptive response to globalization, which simultaneously is the best way for Tsongba’s practitioners to regain cultural confidence.

He Hongcan is from the Institute of Ethnological and Anthropological Studies at Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.


Translated by Feng Daimei

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