(The following post is by Jeffrey Wang, Reference Specialist for the Chinese Collection, Asian Division)
The Asian Division’s Chinese rare book collection is home to a beautifully illustrated, hand-painted book that documents the fascinating history of the Mu, a leading Naxi family who served for centuries as imperially designated chieftains in the region of Lijiang 麗江 in southwestern China. The Naxi have traditionally inhabited in Lijiang region in the present-day province of Yunnan. “The Biographical Records of the Royal Mu Family” 木氏宗譜 is a faithful copy of an album of ancestral portraits that records the Mu family chieftains from the first generation through the thirty-third generation in the early-eighteenth century.
The replica album was produced by a painter in the Mu family who had been commissioned by Joseph Rock (1884-1962) to create a copy. Rock was an explorer, adventurer, and scientist who was born in Austria and later became a U.S. citizen. He spent 24 years in Yunnan Province from the 1920s to the 1940s studying the culture and writings of the Naxi people (also written Nashi or Nakhi) in the Lijiang region and collecting manuscripts, including this magnificent work. His research activities were sponsored by several prominent institutions, including the National Geographic Society, the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the University of Hawaii. The Library of Congress purchased his Naxi materials between 1924 and 1935, which made great contributions to the Library’s Asian collections.
The historical background of the Mu family’s rise to chieftain status stretches back to the 10th century. In 937, Duan Siping 段思平 (893-944), a powerful leader from the local Bai ethnic group, established the Dali nation 大理国 (937-1253) in the Yunnan region. The nation endured for more than 300 hundred years, until 1253 when Mongol forces led by Kublai Khan invaded the Yunnan region and overthrew the Dali regime. The Mongol-led Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), now in control of China, established a native chieftain system in the Yunnan area as a strategy for governing the numerous non-Han Chinese ethnic groups there. Regulations were issued to guide the activities of local chieftains, in terms of awards, punishments, abolition, and succession. Moubao Acong 牟保阿琮, a local leader of the Naxi people in Lijiang region, had peacefully surrendered to the Mongols, and his family was placed in charge of local governance as a reward.
Following the rise of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Naxi chieftain Ajia Ade 阿甲阿得 (1311-90) swore allegiance to the Ming. In return, Emperor Hongwu 洪武 (1328-97) granted him the Chinese name Mu De (木得) and appointed him the magistrate of Lijiang. From then on, the Mu family retained the position of native hereditary rulers and became the most powerful ruling family in present-day southwestern China. In the late-Ming and early-Qing periods, the growing threat of self-governance by local chieftains and the demographic transformation brought about by Han Chinese immigration to the region led the central government to institutionalize the native chieftain system. Ultimately, the Ming government decided to replace the native chieftainship with direct governance by assigned officials according to a policy known in Chinese as gaitu guiliu 改土歸流. Implementation of this policy was completed in 1723 during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng 雍正 (r. 1723-35) of the Qing dynasty (1636-1912). The chiefdom of Lijiang was abolished, and the Mu family were left with the ceremonial title tu tonpan 土通判, which lacked any administrative authority.
“The Biographical Records of the Royal Mu Family” is available online as part of the Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection. Readers interested in learning more the Naxi people and their language may be interested in visiting the website “Selections from the Naxi Manuscript Collection.” If you have questions about any of these works, please contact the Asian Division through Ask-a-Librarian.