DONGBA - CHINA'S FORGOTTEN PRIESTS
2000, 52 minutes
|TRAILER||ORDER DVD||DONGBA SCRIPT||LITERATURE|
the first half of the 20th century, an Austrian-born explorer by the name
of Joseph Rock discovered a people in Southwest China unknown to the
western world, whose religion and pictographic script were unique. Rock
was so fascinated by this culture that he spent the next twenty-seven
years of his life there and produced the first-ever scientific studies on
the Naxi and their religious Dongba cult. His works are today still the
basis of any anthropological consideration of the Naxi Dongba cult, since
much was lost during the Cultural Revolution and the religion almost died
out. During this time fanatics roamed the country to rid China of its
"feudalistic superstitions" and consequently burnt thousands of
Dongba texts. The priests were forced to become farmers and had to work in
the fields. It was only in 1983, when the terror of the Mao era was over,
that the Naxi priests were again allowed to read and consult what was left
of the old texts.
The Naxi are one of the 55 officially recognised National Minorities who live in today's China. Their home is the fertile Lijiang plain in the province Yunnan in Southwest China. They are related to the peoples of the Tibetan plateau and speak a sino-tibetan language. Today there are only a handful of Naxi priests left who can still perform the rituals and ceremonies, and read and write the Dongba script. In the middle of the 1980s, the newly-founded Institute of Dongba Culture in Lijiang asked the surviving priests to help in the translation of the remaining texts into Mandarin, of which the institute had collected more than 5000. In the 1930s and 1940s Joseph Rock brought many of the texts to the West, thus saving them from destruction, albeit unknowingly. Today these Dongba scripts are to be found at Harvard University, the Library of Congress and the State Library in Berlin.
The Dongba religion had originally developed from an older shamanistic religion called Bön, the prebuddhist religion of Tibet. Various other religions contributed to the development of Dongba, especially Tibetan Lamaism and Chinese Taoism. What emerged out of this was a unique religion combining god, demon, ancestor and nature worship with complicated rituals and ceremonies. The word Dongba is used for the religious cult and script of the Naxi. The priests, also known as Dongba (sage), are the only ones who can read and write the script, which is over a thousand years old and consists of around 1400 individual pictographs. The script is reminiscent of the hieroglyphic scripts of earlier cultures and is perhaps the only pictographic script left in the world which survives true to its original form and which can still be written and read. However, the pictographs are not related directly to the spoken language of the Naxi. Instead the script is used to recount the myths and legends, religious beliefs and history of the Naxi, and it is used to guide the rituals.
The film delves into the Dongba cult of the Naxi from Lijiang and presents a world on the brink of extinction. It tells the story of Rock's discovery of the culture and looks back to the years that Rock spent among the Naxi. The film centres around a special Dongba ceremony performed to appease the demons of love suicide. In old Naxi society the custom of love suicide was common. If one had been promised in marriage and yet loved another, one would take one's own life rather than live in unhappiness. The souls of these people would then become angry demons who would wander over the earth and cause mischief and disasters: animals would become ill, crops would not grow and other people would be driven to commit love suicide or would find another violent end. To prevent these latest victims from also becoming demons, a ceremony would have to held for them so that they could enter the ancestral kingdom. Only in this way would the dead be able to rest and the living continue to live in peace.
The film poses the question of the survival of the Naxi Dongba cult and looks at the attempts of the last remaining priests to save their culture. Over the last few years the Dongba cult has been experiencing a renaissance. Young priests are being trained again and there is an increased western interest in the culture. This recent western interest in the script and traditions of the Naxi has also promoted a new anthropological awareness of the Naxi in the People's Republic of China. But can the religion survive the pressures of the commercial and modern world? Although a few young people have taken it upon themselves to become Dongba priests, with an apprenticeship of up to ten years, it is unsure whether the the Naxi Dongba cult can be handed down in time and continue to exist.