Dongba Painting, Confucius Institute Online
Dongba painting, the oldest and most representative religious painting of the ancient Naxi people, is also their most special and characteristic artistic legacy. It is mainly found in the Naxi region of Lijiang City, Yunnan Province in southwest China.
Dongba painting originated from ancient Dongba hieroglyphs as well as from various Dongba religious activities. For instance, during the sacrificial ceremonies, the ceremony masters had to dress like Buddha, gods, animals, plants, or even demons. Dongba artists then would draw these images down on paper, creating a primitive form of today’s Dongba painting.
Dongba paintings, as an important part of Dongba culture, were mainly about gods and ghosts which the Naxi believed in. The paintings also reflected various aspects of people’s social lives.
The materials used are primarily wood flakes, Dongba paper, and flax. The outline of a picture is first sketched with a bamboo pen and ink made from pine trees, and then pigmented with various natural colors that are bright and colorfast.
Dongba painting incorporates the five classic artistic characters of hieroglyphs: the Beiye scripture form, exquisite lines, beautiful colors, dynamic expression and sharp features. It falls into different categories, with each one depicting one or several moving stories. The paintings can be categorized into the following kinds according to the forms employed.
1. Bamboo-pen Paintings
They were mostly used for the bindings and illustrations of Dongba scripts. These paintings were painted on a piece of bark-paper using a tipped bamboo plate as a pen with ink on the tip.
2. Wooden Plate Paintings
These were a special kind of Dongba painting that was used for sorcery. On a flat wooden plate, a Dongba artist would first draw the sketch with a brush and then add colors to finish the picture. Usually with ingenious designs, odd appearances, vivid expressions and bright colors, this type of painting possessed a unique artistic style.
These blended the painting styles of the Naxi, Han and Tibetan people. Scroll paintings were, as the name implies, long, multi-piece or single-piece scroll paintings. In ancient times, Dongba artists painted on flax, and later on calico. Sometimes, paper was also used. Compared with the above two types, scroll paintings were more accurate in design patterns, and richer in tableau and were sometimes sketched with gold or silver lines.
4. Card paintings
They were done in different forms. Some card paintings were done with bamboo pens, and so were also referred to as “bamboo pen paintings.” Yet there were also some colored ones done with a brush. A few of these paintings were done on paper flags, which were used for funerals.
Ⅱ. The Road to Heaven
Of all the Dongba paintings, “The Road to Heaven” is the most famous. With a length of over 14 meters and a width of 26 centimeters, it consists of four parts: hell, the human world, nature and heaven, vividly depicting more than 300 figures and dozens of rare animals and birds. Featuring bright colors and vivid characters, the piece, while influenced by Tibetan art, also boasts the styles and characteristics of the traditional Naxi painting.
“The Road to Heaven” was mostly used at funerals to release the deceased people’s souls from purgatory. The painting displayed the scenes of the souls going through hell, the human world, the natural world and heaven. It is a piece with high cultural and artistic value.
Dongba painting is distinguishable by its rough lines, primitive and crude patterns, and the mystical ancient Dongba hieroglyphs, which makes it an invaluable tool for research of primitive art.
In recent years, a contemporary Dongba painting school has appeared in China’s art circles, mainly consisting of young and middle-aged Naxi artists. While incorporating the quintessence of Dongba art, the artists strive to look at this ancient ethnic group and the culture of its people from a new perspective. The result has been the creation of numerous pictures with a fresh flavor of the times and a strong ethnic touch. Both bold and expressive in technique, the contemporary artists are able to create pictures with rich connotations, vividly displaying history and unique customs as well as the love and life pursuits of the ancient Naxi people.
Dongba paintings as well as the art of Dongba painting are invaluable treasures in the ethnic gallery. They have aroused the interests of art circles both at home and abroad because of the Naxi people and their religion and also because of the paintings themselves.
Mythology of the Dongba people:
The Descent of Man from ethnic-china.com
The Descend of man, Creation of the world, or The Migration, is the main myth of the Naxi people. This myth is usually told in their main ceremonies of their Dongba religion and especially in their Sacrifice to Heaven, the annual ceremony to honor the heavenly gods. Both myth and ceremony are central to the Naxi traditional culture, keys to understand their most important ethnic characteristics. This myth is also the heroic history of the ancestors of the Naxi people and of their Tu Kings.
In the myth, sound and breath transformed themselves in a pair of eggs, one white and one black, which transform themselves also in the ancestors of the human beings and demons. After some generations of human beings, Congrenlien and his five brothers and six sisters pair between themselves annoying the gods. Congrenlien knows of the coming flood and the way to avoid it, becoming the only human being that survives it. He wanders alone looking for a woman to marry. In his first encounter with two goddesses he choose, against the advice of the gods, the good looking one, that is unable to born human beings. He wanders alone again and met with Cunhongbaobai, the daughter of the Heavenly god Zhilao Apu, who has been promised to a family of deities she dislikes. Love surges between and Cunhongbaobai takes Congrenlien with her to her heavenly home. Though she hides her human boyfriend, her father discovers him. Before allowing the marriage of a heavenly princess with a human being, Zilao Apu probes the abilities of Congrenlien, asking him to put fire in a field, to cut the trees, to sow the seeds, and harvest the grain, tasks that Congrenlien is able to complete only with the magic help of Cunhongbaobai. When he thinks his tests are over, he must survive a dangerous hunting expedition and a fishing evening. At the end he must get three drops of tiger’s milk.
The couple them leave their heavenly home and go down to earth with the five grains and the domestic animals as dowry, on their way they are harassed by the weather deity to whom Cunhongbaobai was formerly promised, but they appease him with some offerings. After some time in the earth they have three sons, who cannot speak until their fathers make the Sacrifice to Heaven to honor their heavenly ancestors. These three sons are the ancestors of the Tibetan, Naxi and Bai peoples.”
“According to Naxi myths the ancestors of men and Shu nature spirits were brothers from the same mother and different fathers. They separated the realms of their dominions, but latter men continuously trespassed to the Shu dominions, and enmity surged. Dingba Shilo was called to descent from heaven and restore peace and harmony between man and Shu nature spirits. To remember the need to preserve this harmony Sugv ceremony is performed every year on one dragon or serpent day of the second lunar month. During the three days that last this ceremony, that is celebrated with the village as unit and presided in turn for members of the different families, the people pray the Shu spirits to forgive all their transgressions and to provide good fortune.
The first day the Dongba that has been invited to perform it by the annual president, will arrange the ceremonial ground, he will set up the tress and branches that would represent the nature spirits and will draw the more than 100 pictures needed. The main activity of the second day is to expel the impurities. Later the Shu spirits are welcomed and locked in a room to not been disturbed. Then the people go to have their meals to the ceremonial ground. On the third day, when the proper ceremony is carried on, the people go to the ceremonial ground carrying their offerings, usually some grains of wheat, a hen that would not be sacrificed, etc. When all the offerings are ready the Dongba will narrate again the origin of the Shu nature spirits and their relationship with the human beings, he will remember the taboos associated with them and will ask them to provide good winds and rain, and a good harvest for the coming year. Then the ceremony ends. Some times, if some people or their domestic animals are sick, a minor ceremony would be performed.
The myths and ceremonies related with the worship of Shu nature spirits show that the Naxi people knew for long time the need to keep the equilibrium between man and nature to ensure the sustainability of the agricultural production in a region. As the Naxi myths emphasize man and nature are two brothers; that is, if men harm their Shu nature brother, they are harming themselves. …”
Most of this information is based on Li Jingshen “Ssugv” ritual and its social function. In Guo Dalie and Yang Shiguang. Research on Naxi Dongba culture. Kunming, 1991
By Pedro Ceinos Arcones @ethnic-china.com
“A Road Close to the Gods – Dongba Painting “The Road to Heaven”, of the Naxi People“. Yunnan Fine Arts Publishing House. 2001. Review by ethnic- china.com
“A wonderful book about one of the most important rituals of Dongba religion, “The Road to Heaven” is a treasury now accessible to the global public. It is a reproduction of the longest and best preserved of the old Dongba scrolls. The book is folded in a way that on one side you can enjoy the scroll, and in the back a summary explanation of every painting, in Chinese, English and Japanese.
Below we transcribe the English foreword of the book.
“The Road to Heaven paintings is a kind of long scroll paintings used for funeral and “releasing the souls of the departed” rituals in the Dongba religion of the Naxi people. It describes a long journey on which the souls of the departed have to be tortured in every possible way in hell, before being reincarnated as a man again, and finally joining the world of gods and the thirty-three- storeys of heaven. This kind of painting is regarded as the longest ancient scroll painting by academic circles from home and abroad. During the ritual, the Dongba spread the painting “The Road to Heaven”, and chant the words of the scripture entitled “Guiding the A Road Close to the Gods – Dongba Painting souls of the departed on the Road to Heaven” standing beside it in order to release the souls of the departed.”
“This “Road to Heaven” (during the Qing Dynasty) is kept at the Lijiang Dongba Cultural Museum. It is 14,35 meters long and 0,34 meters wide, painted on white cotton cloth treated with starch. More than 410 demons, deities, Dongba specialists and over 100 varied images of animals can be found in this painting. It shows people a mysterious world of demons and deities, it could therefore be regarded as a great work of ancient religious culture.””
On the affinity of Naxi people to other groups in ethnic Sichuan.
Not many researches have been published in western languages about the scarcely known ethnic groups living in the Zang-Yi corridor of western Sichuan. In China, due to the fact that most of these ethnic groups are officially classified as Tibetans, its study has been kept out of the major state sponsored ethnographical projects.
The intrinsic interest of the cultures of these ethnic groups, however, has made its study a potent attraction to some of the leading scholars of China. From the linguistic field, thank to the studies of Sun Hongkai (1) and his school we know that most of these not recognized peoples (12 according to some sources) speak languages related to those of the Qiang and share a good number of cultural features. The Qiangic branch of the Tibeto-Burman languages is now firmly established.
We know also from the times when Joseph Rock (2) was arranging its materials about Naxi culture and history about the relation between the culture of the Naxi and that of the Qiang nationality.
In a new paper recently published Yang Fuguan (3) proposes that these peoples must be considered to belong to the same family that the Naxi (in fact he considers the Naxi nationality to be composed by five ethnic groups whose cultures and languages are related to whom he calls collectively Naq)
He introduces a new batch of facts asserting his theory that can be broadly divided in:
– Relationship between the Naq and the Na Mu Ji in the history and ethnographies.
– Relationship of their religious and cultural customs.
– Relation in their folk literature and artistic works.
Of these facts maybe the more understandable for a no specialist are those related to myth, religion and ceremonies. Among them can be highlighted the similarities between Naq and Na Mu Ji, as both have:
– Illustrated scrolls to guide the souls of the dead.
– Washing of the horse ceremony to take the soul out of the purgatory.
– The existence of a kind of priest devoted to formal rituals and other, usually female, dedicated to divination practices.
– Myth of the recreation of the human beings after the deluge and the celestial marriage of its only survivor, and of the names of the main protagonist of these myths.
We hope that the interest that these leading ethnologist from China (Yang Fuquan is the Vice-president of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences) are taken in the culture and language of these ethnic groups will allow a broader knowledge of their cultures.
(1) See The Nationalities of the six valleys and their language branches. In Minzu Xuebao, Kunming, 1983.
(2) The Muan Bpo ceremony or the Sacrifice to heaven as practiced by the Na-khi. Monumenta Serica, vol, XIII, 1- 1948
(3) Yang Fuquan.- Reflections on the relationship between Na Mu Ji and the Naq ethnic groups. In He Ming and Li Zhinong “Review of Anthropology and Ethnology in Southwest China. Social Sciences Academic Press. Beijing, 2009”