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The Unique Culture of the Mishmi Deng People in Nyingchi Zayü County

Zayü County is a prominent home to the Mishmi – Deng people. According to the 2020 census, there were 1,600 Deng individuals. The Deng (Mishmi), also known as the Dengba people, represent one of the smallest ethnic groups in Tibet, mainly settled in the villages between Upper and Lower Zayü. Shaqiong Village in Lower Zayü is an easily accessible settlement, showcasing the unique Deng (Mishmi) language (part of the Sino-Tibetan Tibeto-Burman family) and their distinctive method of recording events through knot tying and wood carving. They are Known as Yidu Lhoba by Tibetan.

Deng (Mishmi) traditional attire is as captivating as their language, with men donning long black wraps, silver earrings, and carrying a machete, while women wear large silver hoop earrings, hair buns adorned with silver decorations, and colorful tube skirts. A visit to Shaqiong Village’s exhibition hall offers a glimpse into the Deng (Mishmi)’s traditional hunting lifestyle and their vibrant costumes, providing a profound insight into this elusive ethnic group’s culture and history.

Language and Beliefs of Deng Mishmi

Interactions with the Han and Tibetan ethnic groups over the years have led many Mishmi Deng people to become bilingual, speaking both Mandarin and Tibetan. Their belief system is deeply rooted in animism, viewing all elements of nature as spirited. To them, misfortunes and disasters are the doings of malevolent spirits, necessitating rituals by shamans, known as “Gua” or “Ge Bu Ying,” to appease these spirits through animal sacrifices for peace and prosperity.

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Lifestyle and Agriculture

Agriculturally inclined, the Mishmi Deng practice two primary sowing methods: spot and broadcast sowing. They are known for their wild honey production. The Mishmi Deng society predominantly follows a patrilineal monogamy marriage system. Both men and women have a pronounced fondness for smoking and drinking, with tobacco pipes being a notable accessory. Chicken claw grain is a favored dish, often spiced with chili, and rodent meat is considered a delicacy for guests.

Dress and Accessories

The Mishmi Deng people, referred to as “Na Hong” by Tibetans, meaning “big earlobes,” due to the women’s practice of wearing large earrings, have distinctive clothing and accessories. Men carry a machete both as a tool and a defensive weapon. They wear long sleeveless tunics that extend below the buttocks, without pants, using a length of cotton or hemp cloth for modesty.

Women weave their clothes from wild or cultivated hemp, sometimes trading for cotton fabric, which they dye in red or black and adorn with geometric patterns. They wear short-sleeved tight tops that cover only the chest and long skirts. Accessories include a silver forehead band, hair inserted silver pins, necklaces, and ornate silver earrings.

Both genders keep long hair, go barefoot, and enjoy tobacco, often seen with intricately carved bamboo or silver pipes, adding to their unique cultural identity.

Travel Tips

  • Deng clothing has been recognized as part of the national intangible cultural heritage.
  • The art of making Deng silver jewelry has also been listed as a regional intangible cultural heritage in Tibet, cherished not only by the Mishmi Deng but also by local Tibetans and Naxi people. Each piece of jewelry is unique, showcasing the rich cultural artistry of the Mishmi Deng.
  • Others recognized intangible cultural heritage items include the “Zayü Wooden Bowl Making Technique” and “Zayü Ancient Jade Fruit Harmony,” highlighting the rich cultural practices preserved in Zayü County.

The Mishmi Deng people’s culture offers a fascinating glimpse into a way of life that blends tradition with the natural environment, showcasing the diversity and richness of Tibet’s cultural tapestry.

The Unique Lifestyle and Traditions of the Deng (Mishmi) People

The Deng (Mishmi) people, residing in Zayü County, Tibet, are known for their distinctive two-story stilt houses, marriage customs, and funeral rituals, reflecting a deep connection to their environment and cultural heritage.

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Culinary Delights in Zayü Deng Mishmi

While Zayü County might seem compact, it hosts a diverse array of dining options that include Tibetan, Sichuan, and Yunnan cuisines. A must-try in the Deng (Mishmi) inhabited areas is the traditional hand-pulled chicken rice served on fresh banana leaves, complemented by chili sauce and chicken claw millet wine. The special care taken to preserve chicken gizzards and livers signifies the Deng (Mishmi)’s utmost respect and hospitality towards their guests.

Chronicles of Zayü:

  • During the Tubo period, an official office was established in Zayü.
  • Under the Phaktu Dynasty, the authority established the Komei Zong, with Sichen Gyantsen as its first Zongben.
  • Komei County was formed in 1912, with its county seat moved to Jigong, under the jurisdiction of the Kashag’s Chamdo General Office.
  • It was assigned to Chamdo Prefecture in 1954
  • In 1960, it was renamed Sang’ang Qu Zong County, with the county seat in Lower Zayü’s Chitong Laka, under the administrative control of Chamdo Region.

Traditional Stilt Houses: A Peek into Deng Living Spaces

The Deng (Mishmi) live in two-story stilt houses raised half a person’s height off the ground. The upper level serves as the living space, while the lower level houses livestock. These elongated homes resemble a train’s hard sleeper compartment, featuring storage rooms at both ends, a corridor on one side, and individual rooms separated by bamboo or wooden partitions on the other.

The roofs are gabled, covered with grass or wooden planks, and feature windows for natural light. Each living room is about 9 square meters, with doors at both ends designated for men (east) and women (west) to enter and exit. Male guests are restricted to the guest room, whereas female guests can move freely among the rooms. The main room’s doorframe is adorned with animal skulls to ward off evil spirits.

Marriage Customs: Unity and Tradition

Deng (Mishmi) marriages follow a monogamous system, prohibiting matrimony between individuals with the same surname or related through aunts and uncles but allowing marriage between cousins through their mothers. Young people of marriageable age seek proposals through a mediator, agreeing on a dowry that includes items like barley, cattle, pigs, chickens, and dried meats.

During the wedding, the bride and groom sit in the center surrounded by friends and family performing traditional dances and offering blessings. Historically, Deng (Mishmi) society also practiced polygamy, with the house’s eastern room or the one downstream reserved for the head of the household. The number of wives a man could have depended on the family’s wealth, with dowries ranging from one to several cattle. The distribution of wives within the home was based on their status, with the highest-ranking wife living next to the husband. The husband decided which wife he would spend the night with, signifying his choice by hanging a bear skin bag on the chosen wife’s door.

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Funeral Practices: Respecting the Dead

The Deng (Mishmi) practice both burial and cremation but strictly avoid water burial. They prefer the “curled up” burial method, where the deceased is positioned in a fetal pose, with knees drawn to the chest and hands either clenched under the chin or placed beside the neck. A small amount of corn, barley, and chicken claw grain is placed on the deceased’s chest as a provision for the afterlife. The body is then wrapped in bamboo mats or clothes.

A small shed is constructed near the house to keep the body for 4 to 5 nights, after which a shaman performs rituals, and the body is taken to wasteland for cremation. The ashes are buried two days later. Another method involves placing the body in a hollowed-out log, burying it in a pit with a hemp rope tied around it leading to the surface. After a year, if the rope is loose, it signifies the deceased has departed; if tight, the body is exhumed, cremated, and the ashes buried.

Nowadays, the shift from cremation back to burial sees the use of wooden coffins buried directly into the ground without any mound above. During the mourning period, the entire village ceases work to pay respects. The deceased’s family prepares pigs, chickens, and alcohol for the mourners, marking a solemn tribute to the departed. The Deng (Mishmi) people’s lifestyle, deeply rooted in their traditions, offers a fascinating glimpse into a culture that harmoniously blends the past with the present.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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