Living in the foothills of Tibet, the Na have a population of approximately 40,000. Na speak a Tibeto-Burman language related to other languages found in this region. Many Na consider their closest ethnic cousins to be Tibetans, and point to shared religion and similar lifestyles. Na practice Lamaism (predominantly Gelugpa) as well as their own shamanism, "dabaism." Until the 20th century, the Yongning basin area was predominantly Na. Trade between Tibet, the Liang Mountains, and the LiJiang area flowed through this region. In the 1920s and 1930s, trade in opium (Shih & Jenike, 2002) and other goods carried by horse teams flourished. Starting from this time period, other ethnic groups became more numerous and populous in the Yongning region. However, the Na are still the dominant group in this area with approximately 37% of the population.
In 1956, the People's Liberation Army entered Yongning to establish the area firmly as part of the People's Republic of China (P.R.C.) and end the long-standing feudal system. Prior to this time, social strata consisted of the aristocracy (5%), commoners (48%), and slaves (47%) (Yan & Song, 1983). The county is officially listed as "impoverished" and receives development aid. However, this aid, as well as other economic projects, is usually controlled by the county government, which is dominated by Yi, the majority ethnic group in the county. The historically strained relationship with the Yi affects the relationship of the Na with their current county government.
The wetland basin is the agricultural and economic heart of the Yongning region. Into the 1990s, over 90% of the population engaged in agricultural production. The area experiences a rainy season in the summer. The dry season, the winter, is marked by intense sun, strong winds, and very little precipitation. Primary crops in the basin include rice and corn (used predominantly for feed), while secondary crops include wheat, buckwheat, oats, and potatoes. Nearly all households own several pigs.
The cultural traits for which the Na are best known in China are their large matrilineal households and sese, consensual visiting sexual unions. If a couple agree to relations, the woman receives her lover at her residence in the evening and he leaves to return to his in the morning. Both remain socially and economically attached to their natal households, and either can end the relationship. Children normally remain with the mother, take her family name, and are considered part of her household. Since the 1960s the government has used both persuasion and coercion to try to end sese and alter traditional family structures. Sese relations continue today in Na communities, alongside legal marriages.
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