The Falconers of Lijiang

A little publicised but deep-rooted Naxi heritage is the passion for falconry. Naxi culture traditionally allows for men to have considerable leisure time, and hunting with birds of prey is treated as an important pursuit. It’s estimated that there are around a thousand falconers in and around the town, and some even attend international events. Along the Tea Horse Road and its many cultures, falconry is only here.

On any given morning, especially in the hawking season, groups of Naxi falconers gather to buy, sell, admire each other’s birds and talk about the craft and skills of hunting — near the market entrance in Dayan, or by the bridge called Dashiqiao, traditionally known as the ‘Hawk Market Bridge’. Several species are favoured, including the falcon and sparrow hawk, but the bird of choice here is the goshawk, one of the larger hawk species, reaching almost the size of a buzzard, and ideal for catching rabbits and pheasants. For most Naxi falconers, the ideal is a female goshawk less than one year old, called locally a 'Yellow Hawk’,and the easiest to train. A male goshawk is called a Golden Hawk and ranked as a lower grade.

But why only here around Lijiang? One reason is that the plains south and east of Jade Dragon Mountain are on a migratory flyway, and the seasonal passage of birds naturally attracts birds of prey. The autumn sees flocks flying south, and this coincides with the Naxi hunting season, from September to March. The second reason is how the Naxi were introduced to what, elsewhere in the world, was always a sport of nobility. It’s widely believed that the Naxi adopted hawking from Kublai Khan’s army, which crossed the Yangtse in 1253 on its way south to conquer the kingdom of Dali, and encamped here. Falconry nowadays has lost its aristocratic lustre, and not everyone in the world approves, but its legacy as a tradition of ordinary people survives here in Lijiang.