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Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E14): Rose Niu on Naxi Culture—and China’s Growing Passion for Nature, 8.5.21

Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E14): Rose Niu on Naxi Culture—and China’s Growing Passion for Nature, 8.5.21

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.


Season 3, Episode 14 featured Rose Niu who explored the Naxi people of Lijiang, who reside at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in China’s Yunnan province, and their eco-conscious culture and Dongba religion. Niu, who herself is ethnic Naxi, shares her culture and the growing passion for nature that is sweeping China today in a virtual program from August 5, 2021.

Rose Niu (RN) is Chief Conservation Officer at the Paulson Institute, where she manages the planning and execution of initiatives to protect globally significant biodiversity and ecosystems and to promote sustainable management of natural resources, particularly in China. Before joining the Institute, Niu was Managing Director of China Programs at World Wildlife Fund-US, where she coordinated all China-related work for the organization. She founded the China program at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and served as Country Program Director in China and represented TNC in its partnership with the Government of China. Niu is a native Naxi, an ethnic minority group in Lijiang, Yunnan Province, and is fluent in English, Mandarin Chinese and Naxi.

Selected Quotes from Pieces of China, Season 3, Episode 14:

Dinda Elliott (moderator): Tell us a bit about Naxi traditions and the we see script here.

RN: Lijiang in China means ‘Beautiful River.’ I grew up in a traditional courtyard home. My village was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Naxi is one of 26 minority groups in Yunnan. There are 300,000 Naxi living in this area. We are based in animism. We believe in nature, we believe in many different gods.

Our Dongba religion teaches nature and to respect the nature god. We believe that human and wildlife are sisters and brothers who both rely on mother nature for survival and prosperity. Naxi people have been practicing protecting water sources, and there are rules for protecting water, not hunting wild animals…we also ascribe all natural disasters to disrespect for nature. We believe you will be punished…when the time is right. So nature is in the center of our culture.

Rose Niu’s ancestral village in Yunnan

Yunnan is located on the southeast slope of the Himalayan Mountain range- the roof of the world. Yunnan became a refuge for many of earth’s plants and animals during the Ice Age. So that is why Yunnan enjoys so many [plants and animals]. The number of plants in Yunnan [number more than all of North America! You can find both rainforest…and towering [snowy] mountains.

DE: Talk about China’s growing environmental movement. Is it coming from top down or bottom up?

RN: It is both: bottom up by people and top down by President Xi Jinping and the government. After 40 years of rapid development and a huge population base of Chinese people, it posed a heavy environmental impact on the natural resources and pollution. Water and air pollution caused a lot of sickness and death. So people can no longer bear those costs.

DE: Tell us about the work of The Paulson Institute’s work on China’s wetlands.

RN: We are filling a gap to develop a blueprint for China’s wetlands and coastlines. We were very successful in persuading people to conserve these areas. That blueprint influenced the government to stop all the land reclamation in the land’s coastal regions.

DE: Let’s now talk about the national parks! Can you talk about this project bringing Chinese experts to the U.S. national parks?

RN: In 2015, China decided to establish a system of national parks. The U.S. is the first country to establish these, and it has the best in the world. This is a great opportunity [for cross-cultural understanding and partnerships]. We have 18 research projects around the establishment and management of national parks.

We spent 10 days in the Tibetan plateau exploring [this area of Sanjiangyuan, where the first national park is located.] In China, the challenge is to protect nature while also taking care of local people’s livelihood. Let local people benefit from national parks, for example. In this national park, 17,000 local Tibetan people are hired as local rangers to manage this park- which is the equivalent of 3-4 Yosemite parks- it is huge!

DE: Are there things we can still learn today from Naxi traditions?

RN: Yes- humans should respect, and live in harmony, with nature. This core concept applies to all human beings living on this planet. 100 years ago, Westerners went to Yunnan to explore and learn about traditional culture.

Quentin Roosevelt went to Lijiang in 1939 and spent 4 months in my hometown. This is one of the art pieces he brought home.

Joseph Rock from National Geographic, he spent 27 years in Lijiang living in my hometown. Some of the engravings and art he brought home are in The Rubin Museum [in New York City] and other museums.

I hope this cultural heritage can teach all of us to live in harmony with nature.

You can reach me at [email protected]


Full Video of Pieces of China with Rose Niu


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