The Wedding Planner Reviving Naxi Traditions in Lijiang


YUNNAN, Southwest China — As the wedding party steps out into Lijiang’s old town square, curious tourists flock to the group, dazzled by their traditional Naxi attire. Many question whether the pomp and ceremony is a performance.

In fact, the Saturday afternoon spectacle is the real wedding of groom He Libao, 29, and bride Duan Jing, 21, both members of the Naxi, one of China’s 56 official ethnic groups. The Naxi population numbers around 300,000; most live in Lijiang, while the rest reside throughout Yunnan province and in neighboring Sichuan province and Tibet Autonomous Region.

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He Libao and bride Duan Jing are surrounded by tourists in Lijiang during their wedding ceremony.  Aug. 5, 2017. Yiying Fan

Though traditional wedding ceremonies are still common in remote villages, the custom has faded in the city of Lijiang since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when cultural influences from the Han ethnic majority began to overwhelm the area. But now, a local wedding planning company called Xihe is reviving interest in the tradition — partly at the behest of tourists.

“Tradition is like a siege,” Wang Dejiong, a Naxi folk culture researcher, tells Sixth Tone. “People outside want to get in, while people inside want to get out.”

Most Naxi people follow the Dongba faith, which teaches that humans and nature are brothers. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, at important events such as weddings, the Naxi would invite a dongba — or shaman — to perform chants. Highly respected as accomplished scholars of Naxi culture, dongba pass down their duties within families from generation to generation.

Xihe organizes around two weddings every week, including the recent Saturday ceremony, which kicks off at the Yulong Bridge, where young couples would court in the old days. Groups of Naxi boys and girls sing in praise of the bride and groom. The newlyweds then release fish into the river to show their respect for nature.

After the fish are released, the bride is carried through the center of the old town in a fringed bridal chair — followed by a wedding party of close to 50 people — to a traditional Naxi house with three wings enclosing a courtyard.

In the courtyard, a dongba presides over the “soul-binding” ceremony — the most important part of the wedding. The dongba ties the couple’s hands together and announces that they can never again be separated. Afterward, dozens of young and old dance hand in hand, wishing the newlyweds happiness and prosperity.

I was so used to my own culture — all I wanted was to escape from it.

The ceremony does not include vows, as Naxi people are shy about expressing love verbally. “We believe actions speak louder than words,” the groom explains.

“Our souls are bound together,” the bride says after the ceremony. “If I ever got a divorce, I’d feel like I lost my soul.”

The ceremony venue is also the headquarters of wedding company Xihe, founded by Naxi woman He Yumiao — who is not related to He Libao. The company’s name means “joyful crane” in the Naxi language; Naxi people worship cranes and consider the sacred birds to be a symbol of a blessed marriage, as cranes are faithful to their mates. Once one dies, it is said that the other will starve itself and die for love.

Since its establishment in 2008, Xihe has arranged traditional Naxi wedding ceremonies for more than 1,000 couples in Lijiang. Wedding packages start at 6,999 yuan (around $1,050), and the ceremony lasts about one and a half hours.

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He Yumiao stands outside her company Xihe in Lijiang, Yunan.  Aug. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying 

He Yumiao, now 38, was born and raised in a Naxi household with three generations living under one roof. “I was so used to my own culture — all I wanted was to escape from it,” she tells Sixth Tone.

After graduating from high school, He Yumiao moved from Lijiang to Kunming, Yunnan’s provincial capital, in 1997 and worked at the city’s Naxi minority village tourist site as a performer. It was there that she wore traditional Naxi attire for the first time. Every day, she answered questions from tourists hailing from all over the world who were interested in the Naxi way of life. “It was overwhelming to see that they cared about my culture, which I took for granted every day,” she says.

A couple years later, He Yumiao moved back home to Lijiang and became a tour guide in the old town. In 2006, she met a Singaporean couple who had come to the city on their honeymoon. They were enamored with the local culture and asked whether she could arrange a traditional Naxi wedding for them. At the time, she knew didn’t know much about the ceremony — nor were there many examples in the city that she could follow — but she was determined to try. With the help of elderly locals, she organized a Naxi wedding in just a few days at Lijiang’s Black Dragon Pond Park.

It was then that He Yumiao decided to devote herself to preserving the Naxi wedding tradition. “I finally found where my heart belongs,” she says. “Folk customs are critical to an ethnic group, and a wedding celebration is of the utmost importance because it reflects the values of the [Naxi] culture.”

Tradition is like a siege. People outside want to get in, while people inside want to get out.

Naxi couple Li Jixing, 35, and He Dong, 38, stumbled upon the Singaporean couple’s wedding ceremony while they were strolling in the park, discussing their own wedding plans. Though they had heard elders speak of traditional ceremonies, it was the first time they had witnessed one for themselves. “I had never seen such a happy and glorious wedding in all my life,” Li tells Sixth Tone. The couple watched the entire ceremony and asked He Yumiao to arrange a similar one for them. “We always wanted a traditional wedding, but we couldn’t find a wedding company that offered such a service,” He Dong, Li’s husband, says.

The couple held their wedding ceremony in 2007 in their courtyard at home. Because He Yumiao’s business hadn’t officially launched yet, the ceremony was simple and brief. “But at least we had a ceremony,” He Dong says; otherwise, they would simply have had a banquet with family and friends like most couples of their generation.

After He Yumiao launched Xihe, she didn’t book her first wedding until six months later, when a transnational couple from Scotland and central China’s Hubei province asked her to arrange a wedding ceremony in Lijiang that brought together Naxi and Western customs. Photos of the ceremony posted online brought her many new customers.

But for the first five years of running her business, He Yumiao was frustrated that most of her clients were tourists, while many Naxi people paid little attention to their own traditions. “Locals would rather pay thousands of yuan to have a Western wedding at a church,” she says.

She credits tourists for helping to turn the tide. “The tourists have made Naxi weddings trendy and fashionable, which piqued locals’ interests,” she says. Now, half of her clients are locals, as more and more Naxi young people have begun to take pride in their traditions.

Yet the romance of the Dongba ceremony continues to draw many outsiders. Yang Cailing and her husband are both Han but have lived in Lijiang for the last decade. Though they had a Western wedding in 2012, Yang always felt something was missing. She decided she wanted a second wedding after finding out that the Naxi language had no word for divorce.

“At first, [my husband] was against the idea because he thought it would be like a performance for tourists in the old town of Lijiang,” Yang laughs. Meanwhile, she hoped the ceremony would spice up married life, which had begun to feel dull after a few years. The 31-year-old persuaded her husband to have a Dongba ceremony in January, and one month later, she found out she was pregnant with their second child.

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Yang Cailing and her husband hold a traditional Naxi Wedding in January 2017. Courtesy of Yang Cailin

He Yumiao started her company mainly out of curiosity, but she has since developed a deep sense of cultural responsibility. “We are probably the last generation of Naxi people to be raised in our local culture,” she says. “If I didn’t do something to save our wedding ceremony traditions, who would?”

But cultural researcher Wang still has doubts about the tradition’s prospects. “Naxi minorities are sinicized and tend to worship anything foreign,” he says. “It’s hard to revive the tradition, but at least [He Yumiao] is doing something.”

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China’s Neglected Problem: Student Kicked Out for Being Autistic


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A young boy from Henan was sent away from school for being autistic, leading to furious reactions from Chinese netizens. China’s education system is failing our children with special needs, they say.

In Puyang (濮阳, Henan Province) an 8-year-old boy named Xiaoxuan (an assumed name) was kicked out of school after over 40 parents opposed to him to studying in the same classroom with other students because of his ‘hyperactive’ and ‘weird’ behavior, Henan Sina reports.

According to Xiaoxuan’s parents, their son suffers from autism and hyperkinetic disorder linked to birth complications.

Xiaoxuan was unable to start school last September, at the age of 7. After his parents took him to Beijing for a year-long rehabilitation training, the doctors reassured them that Xiaoxuan would be able to attend a mainstream school. They took him to a regular primary school in Puyang this September, hoping their son could attend school like every other child. But he was nevertheless forced to go home in late October.

 

“Everyone should have equals right to learn. What those 40 parents did negatively affects their own children too.”

 

Xiaoxuan’s story has sparked heated discussions on Sina Weibo. The topic “hyperactive boy required to leave school” (#男孩爱动被要求离校#) has been viewed about 60 million times, attracting over 40,000 comments since November 11. Many netizens are angry about what happened to Xiaoxuan and call for equal rights in education.

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User Timfrk speaks out: “Don’t you have kids yourself? Can’t you put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Everyone should have equals right to learn. What those 40 parents did negatively affects their own children too.”

“The primary education period is a crucial time for kids to build perspective on the world, and it determines their outlook on life and values,” user Minoz explains: “Having a ‘special’ kid in the class is a wonderful opportunity for other kids to learn how to be understanding and tolerant. They now missed out because of their selfish parents.”

 

“Perhaps this boy is super smart, but his talent is burned out by China’s school system. This demonstrates how the education in China is failing.”

 

According to article 4 of China’s Compulsory Education Law (义务教育法), school-aged children and adolescents have equal rights to receive education. This means that children entering the education system are protected by the law, making it illegal to deprive them of the right to schooling.

In addition, according to the provincial law in Henan Province, Xiaoxuan’s school must take him in as a student, as there is no special school for him in the local area.

User Ahuang indicates: “These parents deprived Xiaoxuan of his right to education, which is against the law. What’s more, their behavior might make him diffident, withdrawn, and pessimistic. Who is responsible for that? Perhaps this boy is super smart, but his talent is burned out by China’s school system. This demonstrates how China’s education is failing.”

An important cause for the rejection of children with special needs is the Chinese approach of an exam-oriented educational system. The desire for high scores is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Parents are concerned that the academic performances of their ‘normal’ children will be affected by the presence of ‘special’ children.

 

“A good learning environment is crucial to us. If there is a kid who talks a lot and interferes with others during class, not only the students but also the teacher will be affected.”

 

Students from Henan Province particularly suffer from the great pressure of the China’s college entrance exam system (gaokao). As higher educational resources (number and quality of universities) are distributed unevenly across China, it is said that students are not treated fairly during the admission process, which is called “regional discrimination“. A university usually sets a fixed admission quota for each province, with a higher number of students coming from its home province. But because Henan province has fewer universities per capita than for example Beijing, an applicant in Henan needs a significantly higher score than his Beijing counterpart to attend the same university. Therefore, fierce competition starts from grade one. Parents have no choice but to make sure their kids have the best learning environment.

Weibo user “Original” shares: “Parents and children from China, especially from Henan Province, are dealing with the huge pressure of schoolwork and college entrance exams. A good learning environment is crucial to us. If there is a kid who talks a lot and interferes with others during class, not only the students, but also the teacher will be affected. I sympathize with Xiaoxuan, but others should not shoulder responsibility for this problem.”

Another user named Lao Li writes: “We have to consider the enormous pressure that the students of Henan Province are facing. Schools are also extremely stressed about the high enrollment rate. The children are victims of the education system, generation after generation.”

 

“We should follow the Japanese example where schools put kids with special needs together in a class, and assign extra teachers to teach them and provide extra care.”

 

Though some users try to argue in favor of the 40 parents and the school principal, the majority of Weibo users condemn their decision and question the principal’s ability to cope with Xiaoxuan’s issue. “The school principal seems useless. He should have calmed the parents down, and should have resolved the problem with the right solutions instead of asking Xiaoxuan to leave school,” says user Lanear.

Weibo users also suggest their own solutions to the issue. For instance, user “Rabit9104” purposes: “We should follow the Japanese example where schools put kids with special needs together in a class, and assign extra teachers to teach them and provide extra care. This then also gives them the chance to engage with other students in a regular school. This is called inclusive education.”

Xiaoxuan is not alone. A similar case has happened before. In 2012, a boy with autism was refused by four regular schools in Shenzhen after principals received complaint letters from other parents. The number of special schools in China is limited, and mainstream schools don’t always have the facilities and funds for special education. Special needs children face considerably more difficulties in accessing education than their fellow students.

Zhang Xiujuan, an expert on special education at Shenzhen University, pointed out in 2012 that all teachers from regular schools should receive training on special education. She also suggests that teachers should be given a monthly compensation if they have special students in the class, since they will need to put in extra efforts. Local education departments should also increase the penalties and punishment for schools that refuse to enroll special needs students.

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This article was published on What’s on Weibo.