Last of the Dongbas in danger of fading away: Teresa Poole visits Lijiang in China's far south-west to explore the ancient religious beliefs of the Naxi people

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AND THEN there were three . . . Ji Gu, 70, is the youngest Dongba in the world, and his religion, Dongba Fetishism, is perilously close to extinction. 'It's not too late, but it's quite urgent because us three Dongbas are quite old,' he said.

At the Dongba Research Institute in Lijiang in the north of Yunnan province, Ji Gu has for the past ten years been hard at work with his two fellow Dongbas, aged 74 and 85, translating and collating the ancient Dongba scriptures and customs of the Naxi people. Two other elderly Dongbas involved in the project died before it was completed. Ten scholars, trained in reading the pictograms, are helping, but the future of Dongba Fetishism - an amalgam of Buddhist and Taoist beliefs - looks uncertain; plans for a new generation were thwarted when government funds to train three apprentices failed to materialise.

Yunnan province, in the far south-west of China, is home to 24 of China's ethnic minorities, many of which have had to struggle to preserve their cultural identities as the country's modernisation has eroded old customs. Lijiang county is the centre of the Naxi people, a Tibeto-Burman race that originally moved south from the Tibetan plateau. Most of China's 250,000 Naxis live here and the Naxi dialect is commonly spoken. These days the ancient script is a dying art, and only remote villages follow Dongba Fetishism.

Ji Gu was born in 1924. Nineteen generations of his family were Dongbas. In Ji Gu's youth every Naxi village had its Dongba who conducted all religious practices.

Peter Goullert, a White Russian who lived in Lijiang until the Communist victory, recorded his (not entirely reliable) impressions in his book, Forgotten Kingdom, published in 1955. 'It cannot be said that the Dongbas represented an established church like Lamaism. They worked independently, the art passing from father to son . . . when occasion offered, they combined together for large ceremonies, and they were needed for the exorcising . . . of the demons of suicide and other calamities . . . They claimed control over spirits both bad and good, and as their performances always produced a trance or semi-trance they were a somewhat unbalanced people and were very heavy drinkers.'

Ji Gu started training when he was six and qualified as a Dongba when he was 20 after mastering the Dongba scriptures, dances and ceremonial practice. When he was not doing Dongba work, he was a farmer, carpenter, blacksmith, and traditional doctor.

For hundreds of years, the Naxis' culture was very resilient. According to Goullert: 'The Naxi, like the Tibetans, were the despair of missionaries . . . they were inconvertible.' But after 1949, Communism succeeded where missionaries had failed. Goullert described the advent of the new regime: 'The Dongbas were proscribed and many lived in fear of their lives, expecting to be arrested and executed.'

The first really severe blow came with the Great Leap Forward when Chairman Mao urged the whole country to concentrate on ambitious industrialisation. Ji Gu was assigned to a farming tools factory, a dreadful irony because there was no farming going on. In the subsequent famine that devastated the country, 16 of his village's 136 members died of hunger. 'According to custom, we should have had a religious funeral, but it wasn't allowed,' he said.

Then, in the mid-Sixties, came the Cultural Revolution when China's minorities suffered terrible persecution. The Dongba religion was regarded as 'cattle ghosts and snake gods', said Ji Gu. Naxi religious paintings, scriptures and idols were destroyed and attacked.

In the late-Seventies, economic reform brought better conditions for minorities. Lijiang's Dongba Research Insitute was set up in 1983. The ancient Naxi Dongba language has about 1,400 pictograms and bears little relationship to modern-day Naxi. Preserving the scriptures means translating them into Mandarin and phonetic script. It is an arduous task; there are 1,200 different volumes of scriptures, equivalent to millions of Chinese characters.

Dongba Fetishism has no temples and instead relies on idols of stone, wood, or figures made with wheat flowers. 'We worship nature and our ancestors. We believe in many gods and spirits. Sky, heaven is the most important, then earth, people and mountain gods,' explained Ji Gu.

The spirits of the dead can make contact with the minds of living people through mediums. This had its risks, as Goullert described: 'If it should ever be demonstrated that the life beyond is as happy and felicitous as it is pictured in Naxi scriptures, there would be the temptation to end it all and to migrate to a happier plane of existence in a hurry.'

The institute's vice-director, He Jisun, fears a premature end for Dongba Fetishism. 'I can't understand why, with only three Dongbas left and the religion in danger, the government can't provide money to train Dongbas,' he said. If the money had come through, Ji Gu's grandson would have been an apprentice.

(Photographs omitted)