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A collection of Dongba Pictographs in Different Forms

Dongba pictographs are mainly used by the Dongba priests to write their Dongba scriptures. A germinal secular use of the Dongba pictographs has been discovered in some land contracts, medicine prescriptions and other documents. As the Naxi people inhabit some different regions with difficult communications, along the centuries some  local traditions developed, as well as local ways to write (or paint) the Dongba pictographs. These local ways sometimes show considerable difference from what would be called the central traditions. Inside a certain regions variations are also found, due mainly to the personality and the artistic abilities of different Dongbas.  

Madame Xi worked during the last 2o years translating Dongba scriptures. When she found pictographs in different forms she used to paint them and kept them in her drawer, gathering in this way a huge amount of Dongba pictographs and its variations.

In the short introduction the author exposes her view about Dongba pictographs.  “Dongba pictographs in different forms indicate characters that are homophone, synonym but varied in written form. Dongba pictographs reveal a transitional period from painting character to pictograph… It stresses visual sense from the façade and flank of the character, for instance, when buildings and shape of people is presented it is façade and meanwhile profile when birds are portrayed.” During her research on the Dongba pictographs she found some interesting features: including high variability, with some characters written in almost ten different ways; different degrees of complexity and simplicity, asº some Dongbas are more gifted for drawing than others; different calligraphic styles, mainly based in the different cultural and natural background of the Dongbas, their relative isolation and communication and the influence of well known masters.

The book is not aimed at giving a complete guide of pictographs variations among the Naxi but to call the attention of the reader to the same existence of these variants forms, and maybe to offer some clues about the patterns of variation. To compile these pictographs she stressed the variation in the forms, its 460 pictographs are collected in 1800 different forms, and to the thematic of the pictographs, being those included in the book mainly related with astronomy, geography, human body, tools and religious tools.

Among these pictographs, it is interesting to remark the many variations of the pictographs for flower (p. 34), peacock (p. 37), horse (p. 46), frog (p. 54), bat (p. 57), or dragon (p. 58), which could suggest that for many of the practitioners writing Dongba characters was not far from painting. Differences in the way clothes are written could point out to variations in clothing styles. Variations in the writing of helmets and ceremonial hats could be due to similar reasons.

It is interesting to remark that the author, being a researcher of gender issues in Naxi traditional society, unequivocally considers the Shu nature spirits, central to the Naxi religious traditions, as “Nature Goddesses” (p. 60).

I consider that this book can be interesting to read to all those who like the Dongba culture, but its reading would be absolute necessary to those wishing to translate Dongba scriptures, because it will provide some of the variations already found and  will show some variations patterns.

Xi Yuhua. A collection of Dongba Pictographs in Different Forms. Yunnan Fine Arts Publishing House. Chinese, English, Japanese. Kunming. 2004. 119 pp.

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