Naxi pictographic script


The Naxi have a pictographic script that has "now received worldwide recognition because it is the only living pictographic script in the world." (1) It is also commonly referred to as the Dongba script. It is called the Dongba script because is primarily utilized by Dongba priests and shamans when they carry out their different ceremonies, rituals and exorcisms

The Dongba script is believed to have arisen in approximately the 12th century, though some scholars have argued for a much later date. Although the Dongba religion is heavily influenced by the Bon Tibetan tradition, their writing doesn't seem to have Tibetan influences, at least in its purely formal aspect. The religious concepts defined in the pictograms, on the other side, are deeply influenced by the Bon religion, and by the Hindu cults that influenced both Bon and Tibetan Buddhism. The love of the Naxi for their culture is evident as, despite intense governmental pressure in the past, the Dongba religion and script continued to be embraced in the more remote Naxi areas. Now, following the advent and phenomenal growth of tourism in Lijiang, accompanied by a significant shift in governmental policy, the Dongba shamanic tradition and the rituals associated with it are now actively encouraged and taught to the younger generation. To whatever one chooses to ascribe the motives behind this, this intrinsic hallmark of Naxi culture is beyond doubt on the rebound, not only saved from near oblivion, but thriving. The Naxi pictographic script, deservedly famous, is by far the best known feature of this unique culture.

Now, as in the past, Dongba priests, do not abandon their productive activities. They cultivate their lands like other members of the community. Only when some member of the community requires their service, to expel the demons that cause an illness or misfortunes for a family, or to conduct a funeral or some other ceremony, they take up their sacred books, dress in their ceremonial robes, and they perform their responsibilities as religious specialists, usually rewarded with gifts of meat, alcohol and, nowadays, cigarettes.

The persistence of the Dongba spiritual tradition over more than eight centuries among the Naxi has created a staggering number of "Dongba Scriptures": The sacred writings of the Dongba religion amount, according to some scholars, at more than 50,000 volumes. These texts describe virtually every aspect of Naxi religion and culture, history, music, dances and medicines, and of course, of their myths and legends. When a Dongba leads a ceremony, he needs to narrate the origin of each one of the spirits or sacred objects that are summoned.

The construction of the Dongba pictograms is really curious. The little more than one thousand pictographs commonly used are possibly derived from only a hundred basic pictographs. For instance, we see that a person is represented much as in the basic lines of a person in a comic strip. To represent a person of the different peoples who live in their vicinity: Tibetan, Chinese, Bai, Yi, Lisu or Pumi, they stress some of their characteristics. If they want to express some of a person's activities, the part of the body affected is emphasized: the mouth, hand, leg, etc. In the above image, we see from left to right, the pictograms to represent: "person", "Naxi", "Tibetan", "Bai", and "Pumi."

Looking at this aspect of the Dongba script, it seems very simple, because it is possible to memorize the basic pictographs without great difficulty. But the reality is different.

In this example we see the explanation of the title of a Dongba ceremony extracted from the book (2) of the explorer and foremost proponent of Naxi culture, Joseph F. Rock. The manuscript is called "To relate the history of Do-sau-ngo-t'u". The reading of the symbols of this title is as follows:

"The first upper symbol is an ideogram and denotes the action of seeing = (do), the second is read ssaw = breath; both are used phonetically in the name of the Naxi whose history is counted. The syllables ngo= I and t'u =a trough which would be used ordinarily for the two other phonetics in the name are not written. Instead we have the figure of a man wearing a large hat, such as the Tibetan nomads still wear in the grasslands of the northeastern Tibet, especially in the region of the headwaters of the Yellow River. The last read dzo to record, to relate; dso ba means to speak about a man (behind his back), as well as to speak for a man."

From this example we can see that the Dongba script is much more complicated. It was not a writing system used for administration or literature, but only for ritual and religious activities. As the only people who could read them were the Dongba priests that had been trained in the foundations of the traditions, their ceremonies, and the use of the sacred books, these became in their hands, a mnemonic device intended not as narrative, but as a prompt to the Dongba towards a fuller, more embellished and undoubtedly personalized telling of the stories, the meanings of the rituals, as well as the rituals themselves.

Examine this fragment of "The War between Dong and Shu", one of the most important myths in the Naxi. Its first paragraph is translated into Chinese by the Naxi scholar He Limin (3):

"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, mountains and ravines had not still been formed, trees and stones had not still arisen… "

The Naxi don't think it is enough to have the most original writing system on the planet. They still use among them another writing system, the called Geba characters; a phonetic form of writing considered by the Naxi to be a little brother of the Dongba script, although they possibly have the same antiquity. The Geba system has 686 characters with a great potential complexity, due to the numerous homophonies of the Naxi language. In spite of its complexity, there are several hundreds books extant written in Geba characters. The origins of these characters are the Dongba pictographs mixed with Chinese characters. Here we show some examples.

According to one of the last encyclopedic works published in Chinese on the Naxi (4), there are still two others types of writing:

The Ruanke characters, used by the Ruanke branch of the Naxi, that live in the Eya region. Their culture is very similar to that of the other Naxi, but after the death of a person, it should be a Ruanke Dongba who conducts the funeral in the Ruanke dialect. For that they have 35 sacred books. Here we show a sample of their writing.

Nevertheless, the Masha writing system best demonstrates the Naxi people's love and appreciation of culture, because it was developed by a community of scarcely 100 families that arrived 200 years ago in the proximities of Weixi, from Dongba characters that a shaman taught them.

(1) Spensley, Alys. - Under the Snow Mountain: Development in Lijiang and Its Effects on Naxi Culture. In Mitchell, Sam. - Tourism and development in Yunnan. Kunming. 2003

(2) Rock, J.F. - The Na-khi Naga cults and related ceremonies. Rome. 1952

(3) Office of Publication and organization of old documents of the minorities of Yunnan. - Translation of the main old documents of the Dongba Naxi. Kunming. 1989

(4) Naxi zu wenhua daguan (Panorama of the Naxi culture). Yunnan Nationalities Press. Kunming. 1999

Back to Naxi main page

© Copyright 2007


Buy books related to China Ethnic Groups and help to develop this web