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An annotated collection of Naxi Dongba Manuscripts

Just from the moment that the outside world knew about the thousands of Dongba scripts preserved in the before in the hands of some Dongba priests and later in the main Museums of China, Japan, America and Europe, every person that understood the richness of the thematic of these Dongba script agreed in consider them the Encyclopedia of Naxi history, religion, folklore and culture. If previous translations were not considered to have reached the aim to give the global reader (in Chinese) an outlook of this encyclopedia of Naxi life and culture, with this big project in which 100 books are translated, the aim is considered fulfilled.

The work is impressive in itself; libraries usually have one column of shelves devoted to store this opus magnum. The care with which the material part of the editing process has been carried out make this work a public homage to the Naxi culture. Gold colors are used in front cover, spines and fore edges, paper used of a remarkable quality, the legibility of the characters, pictures of the first page of each text, and even the complimentary summary in English of each of the books translated, all these details make this book a luxury item that makes the reader reach its first pages with the awe one can experience entering a temple: the temple of Naxi wisdom.

The amount of information provided in these books cannot be compared with any other publication, except, maybe with Chinese encyclopedias of the imperial age. The text will be a treasure for all the students of Naxi culture (especially if his price made it affordable in overseas libraries) and even for future generations of Naxi people. It is a monumental work.

The Chinese text is nice to be read, but the reader feels that he has no way to ascertain if the interpretation due to the Dongba text is correct or not. Though it cannot be doubt that the best specialists in the Dongba language and culture participate in this project, as they avoid to show the reader the reason why they choose to translate each pictogram in a due way, they close the way to any alternate reading or interpretation. We consider that this method do not provide to the reader a real understanding of the Dongba texts, and that did not allow the reader with knowledge of Chinese, the language of the books, to read by himself a Dongba texts. Arranging a page of a Dongba manuscript and below it the international phonetic transliteration of his Dongba sound and Chinese literal translation don’t provide any clue of the meaning of each of the pictographs that are translated.

Footnotes are so scarce that the reader read about names of gods, places and persons without an idea of who are they or where are this places, except if you are a Dongba that have learned by memory these texts, but in this case, you do not need the IPA transliteration nor the Chinese translation.

We consider that the method followed by Rock in his Nakhi Naga Text and Related Ceremonies and other books, is more faithful to the text, and can allow the reader to grasp the way the Dongba work out through the text and the polysemic value of some Dongba pictographs, other methods must have been developed to provide the Chinese reader with a real understanding of what is written.

A suggestion, maybe useful for further publications, would be something as to have a picture of the page, if considered needed, then follow a copy in which each of the pictographs in a paragraph (here there is no separation between paragraphs in the translations) is given a number. Below the translation of the text would be given in the order the Dongba would read it. A development of the explanations provided in p. 36 of my recent book.


(1) Tiger (beginning) (2) heaven (3) earth (4) no (5) sun (6) moon (7) not (8) stars (9) not.

And then the translation: "In the old times, when the sky and the earth had not still been formed, the sun and moon had still not been created, the stars had still not arisen (end of the first cell)" (Office: 1989).
In this way pictographs used by their phonetic value, will be pointed out, as well as those that are only part of what must have been written, or those referring to short stories known by all the Dongbas.

Without this clear probe of the translation provided the reading of the book constitutes an act of faith, something suitable for the general reader, that usually would not expend the money to buy so expensive collection of books, but in no way suitable for a researcher that, maybe 50 years later, start to research Dongba documents in one of the libraries where this treasure is deposited. 

Here we introduce a summary description of the contents of the Volume I, which deals mainly with worship to Heaven and Worship to ancestors. The first part: Worship to Heaven, contains seven manuscripts: 1. Return of the ancestors. 2. Offering wine. 3. Offering rice and magic medicine. 4. Promise to offer cows as sacrifice in the year to come. 5. Promise to offer chicken as sacrifice in the year to come. 6. Worshipping heaven for childless families offering animals and rice. 7. Welcoming ancestors to return to enjoy the sacrifice. There are another 4 manuscripts dealing with worshipping ancestor: 1. Welcoming ancestors to return to enjoy the sacrifice. 2. Offering animal sacrifice. 3. Offering cooked food. 4. Offering of Meng and En ghosts.
1. Return of the ancestors (pp. 1-65)
This book is the main scripture in the heaven - worshipping rite, when animals are slaughtered and offered in whole at the altar. The book mainly contains the story of Congrenlien, the legendary ancestor of the Naxi race. By recounting how he courted and married Cenhengbaobai, the daughter of Heaven and Earth, how after the marriage the couple returned to the earth, how their ignorance about ritual activities made them barren and how they frequently revisited the Father Heaven and Mother Earth for guidance about what they should do in order to have children, the book illustrates the importance and reason for the Naxi to hold heaven -worshipping rites annually. The book also gives details of the ritual procedures for such rites: (1) Purifying the sacrificial animals. (2) Singing praise of the Heaven, the Earth and the Juniper.  (3) Recounting the origin of the Tibetan, the Naxi, and the Bai races and the reason for the Naxi to hold heaven-worshipping rites. (4) Expelling disasters and suppressing ghosts. (5) Seeking divine blessings. Before the book starts the proper mythic narration of the creation the offering of a pig is explained. Each part of the pig's body is sprinkled by pure water asked to provide a good result, specially the blade- bone is asked to provide the ability to see the divination.

2. Offering wine (pp. 65-86).
The book is chanted when wine is offered to gods in the heaven-worshipping rite. Thus it contains exuberant eulogies of the gods of Heaven, Earth, and Jupiter. As this ritual is held in the open, offerings are also made to the gods of the mountain.

3. Offering rice and magic medicine (pp. 87-118).
It is chanted when food and magic medicine are offered to the gods of Heaven, Earth and Juniper. The first part contain eulogies to the three gods, while he last part gives detailed accounts of the origin of the magic medicine that are offered to them.

4. Promise to offer cows as sacrifice in the year to come (pp. 120-158).
This book is canted during the kuhy ceremony. Kuhy means standing by as sacrifice and it refers to the animals that are promised to be offered as sacrifice in the year to come. A young cow is brought before the altar while the book is chanted. The scripture   includes the following details: (1) cleansing the cow of impurities. (2) Expelling and suppressing the impure and evil spirits. (3) Recounting the origin of humans and other beings and reinstating the importance of holding Kuhy ceremony. (4) Showing reverence to the Heaven, the earth and the Juniper and seeking their blessings.

5. Promise to offer chicken as sacrifice in the year to come (pp 159-192)
It is the same but using chickens as kuhy. The chickens that stand in this ceremony will not necessarily will be sacrificed in the year. The ritual follows the following steps: (1) Cleansing the chicken of impurities. (2) Narrating positive and negative examples to show the importance of holding kuhy ceremony. Offering cooked food and Heaven, the earth and the Juniper and seeking their blessings.  According to some Dongbas cows were the only animals used in a kuhy ceremony as well as in the heaven-worshipping rite. In modern times, however, pigs are used instead of cows.

6. Worshipping heaven for childless families offering animals and rice (pp. 193-220).
Is a kind of special worship heaven ceremony performed in Lijiang, Ludian, Tacheng and Xinzhu. When a family is stricken with bad luck or disease, and when through divination it is learned that it is the Heaven of the childless families that is causing all the troubles and only holding this special rite for Heaven can the disaster be expelled. This rite is more about exorcism than to worship heaven. The development of this ritual is very similar with other ritual to heaven but the reason to holding this rite must be explained.

7. Welcoming ancestors to return to enjoy the sacrifice (pp. 221-258).
It is also a special ritual for worship heaven in which cooked food is offered to the three main deities of this ritual.

The other four manuscripts of worshipping ancestors ceremony.

1. Welcoming ancestors to return to enjoy the sacrifice (pp. 259-298).
Every year the Naxi hold three ancestor-worshipping rites: One in the third (or second) lunar month, and others in the sixth an eleventh months. This scripture is chanted in all these rites. It begins with accounts of the reasons for holding the rite: "Firstly to express gratitude for ancestors who established homes and left rich legacy to their offspring", and secondly to express the wish that the ancestors would continue to bless and protect their descendants. Then the scripture extends welcome to the ancestors who have come to enjoy the sacrifice. The routes by which the ancestors return home are described in detail. Some scholars think that these are the same routes the Naxi ancestors followed when they migrated from the north.

2. Offering animal sacrifice (pp. 299-336).
Chanted when animals are offered the scripture summons the dead souls of ancestors to come and enjoy the sacrifice, and praise their deeds when they were alive. It points out that without making the offerings the family would be left with no protection.

3. Offering cooked food (pp. 338-369)
Chanted when cooked food is offered to the ancestors its contents are similar to the previous one. Here the ambivalence of the relationship with ancestors is shown as they ask them to give protection and blessing and also to not disturb their life and they ask them to leave the world of the living as soon as they finish eating their food. In this book is perceived a will to make the ancestors loaners and in debt with the living ones.

4. Spring rite - Offering of Meng and En ghosts.
This scripture is used in the ancestor-worshipping rite that is held in spring time. Is chanted in order to summon the ancestors to come and enjoy the sacrifice offered to them. What is different is that in this scripture there are accounts of the origin of Meng and En ghosts and the ways to expel or kill them, for it is a Naxi belief that when the ancestral spirits come to enjoy their feast, these ghosts will come and loot the offerings and even keep the ancestral spirits in captivity, so they must be dealt with when an ancestor-worshipping rite is performed.

Two sample pages of the books
Two fragments of a sacred paper slab from Lijiang Dongba Museum

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