Lijiang old town is a warren of curved narrow streets, attractive stonework and two-story buildings in traditional Naxi ethnic minority style, nestled in a mountain–ringed valley in northwestern Yunnan. Wall-to-wall stores fill the old town, turning the setting into a theme park for scarves, silver jewelry, knickknacks and Congo drums (made in Thailand). One and a half million well-heeled Chinese tourists flock in annually to eat, drink and spend money.
One bit of culture amid the merchandizing hoopla is the Naxi Orchestra, which plays music preserved from the Han, Tang, Song and Yuan Dynasties every night. It is Chinese music before it was changed by the Mongolian conquest dynasty. Several of the musicians date from the era. Who can blame them for nodding off while the narrator spoke and introduced songs?
Okay, there were only a handful of octogenarians. But once this scowling, yawn-stifling group of thirty musicians started playing their pipas, erhus, huqins and sugudus it was a mesmerizing waterfall of sound, a shimmer of strings punctuated by bells and gongs, whistles, drums, throaty vocalizations and flutes. It was more like a gamelan than what you think of as Chinese music, capturing the rhythms of birds and wind, society and social order. A Tibetan soprano soloist and a clowning bit of Yunnan opera rounded out the evening which left me transported.
In Naxi culture women are the shopkeepers and business-oriented, the men tend toward music, gardening and child rearing. When Kubulai Khan came through to conquer this part of China with his fierce cavalry and novel tactics the Naxi read the writing on the wall and simply acquiesced. Their society was spared decimation and in their cultural bubble preserved the music of the era, which over time was lost in greater China. They preserved it for centuries and once again during the “crazy years” of the Cultural Revolution, apocryphally burying the ancient instruments. Whether this marvelous music will survive Lady Gaga and disinterest among the young is another question the band director openly pondered.