title. The Spectacle of Dongba Religion: Negotiating Minority Identity in Modern China

date. Summer 2007 - Spring 2008

location. Yunnan Province, China

Role: I completed this project as an undergraduate researcher for an Honors Thesis, under the guidance of Dr. Ivette Vargas at Austin College, made possible by Mellon Fellowship for Undergraduate Research and School of International Training. The paper was presented at the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies.

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Since the advent of economic reforms in the 1980s, the Chinese government has strived to construct an image of China as a ‘unified’ multiethnic empire in order to represent the country in the best possible light to both its citizens and to outsiders. Increasing commercialization of minority cultural areas and creation of idealized “Shangri-la” spots in southwest China reflect these efforts to foster nationalism and utilize its own cultural resources for certain strategic ends as an emerging economy.

It is against this background of political idealization, nationalist efforts, and touristic spectacle that this thesis explores how minority religious traditions in Yunnan Province reflect conflicting multiple cultural identities in a cultural marketplace. 

Through a case study of Naxi people, and to some extent Lisu cultures, this project examines how the creation of new “traditions” couched under the old reflects the ambiguities of representing and reconstructing identity in modern China. 

This comparative historical and cultural study addresses how religions that have complex minority status struggle to compete and preserve their changing traditions in an atmosphere of modernization and development.  Based on historical and narrative studies, interviews, and observations in urban and rural areas as well as cultural institutes, this project attempts to reflect on the historical changes and modern transformations of religion in an economically profitable zone of China.

Given the dramatic changes that the Naxi peoples’ dongba religion has been subject to in the last half century, including the recent economic reforms passed by Deng Xiao Ping (leader of China who arose after the Cultural Revolution), and the official opening of the city to international travelers, the Naxi people are facing the crucial problem of negotiating their identity amidst the transformations of their culture occurring in a modern, rapidly changing economic atmosphere. It is in this milieu that the dongba religion has been re-presented as a static preserved tradition, a primitive and exoticized animistic practice, as well as an authentic thriving tradition that is intricately a part of Naxi culture - now sold in various forms at market places like the historic site of Lijiang Old Town. I have focused on how the Naxis’ Dongba Religion has been represented through the different lens of performance arts, academic institutions, and other businesses, paralleled with the varied responses I received regarding Naxi image and meaning of Dongba today.

During the span of this project, the driving questions that I sought to explore were:

To what extent have the Naxi people compromised their identity in the midst of modernization pressures?

To what extent do minorities have agency outside the Chinese state constructed narratives?

How have religious rituals changed in practice and how much do the Naxis continue to value their traditions, even as chosen remnants of their culture are being displayed in the tourist industry?

How have the Naxi redefined and reintegrated their own cultural pride and identity as they begin to use and profit from their culture?

Have the tourist industry or preservation projects such as the Dongba Research Institute distanced religion from the people or revived interest and practice in tradition?

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