The Script of the Naxi.

Dr Duncan Poupard of the Chinese University of Hong Kong has a post at the Asian and African Studies blog of the British Library on “some of the most extraordinary, mysterious and visually interesting manuscripts we hold in the Chinese section of the Library”:

The British Library holds a modest but important collection of religious texts from a lesser-known people: the Naxi of the Himalayan foothills in southwest China. Among China’s officially-recognised ethnic minorities, the Naxi are a relatively small group, especially when compared to their more populous neighbours to the north, the Tibetans. But the Naxi are nevertheless significant, not least for the unique way in which they record their religious literature: the dongba script.

This script can probably be dated to at least as early as the Mongol period (1253 -1382). The Naxi ritual texts, hand-written in books and read from left to right, form the basis for what we know about the culture and beliefs of the Naxi people. The dongba script is often touted as the world’s last living pictographic script, although this classification is problematic as they are not really in active use, and are not strictly pictographic either.

There are a number of images along with a considerable amount of information; I was particularly struck by this passage about “a manuscript titled Ssee zhul: El-miq Rherq Zhail (Increasing longevity: calling upon the power of great dongba El-miq), recited at a ceremony held after a funeral to prolong the life of the surviving members of the family”:

This first section is an opening benediction, an incantation that is supposed to bring about good fortune for the ceremony to come, but also contains much of the cosmological wisdom of the Naxi people. These ten characters, when read out during a performance of this text (for all such ritual texts are to be orally performed, not read silently), will become 40 spoken Naxi words. How can this be so? Simply because the relationship between what is written and what is said follows no clearly defined rules. The characters are often called in to use more than once, and much of what is said is not actually written. Despite this, every dongba would be able to recite this section without any problems.

The post ends with this fairly depressing passage:

Anthony Jackson has suggested that a dictionary (as yet undiscovered) was compiled from this translation work, which would have been used to translate more of the texts without going through a Naxi intermediary. This was probably wishful thinking; to this day, Naxi dongba are required to give a reading of a book before it can be translated. This is because the texts are fluid: there is so much that is not written, there are graphs that are written and not read, and there are incantations that are recorded in a phonetic system separate to the picture-based graphs.

Translation of the Naxi texts is a practice that has all but died out in the modern era, as the remaining dongba grow fewer in number and their traditions become less relevant to modern life in Lijiang. This makes the library’s collection all the more invaluable, for there will come a time when such translations will be all but impossible to carry out.

We discussed the Naxi and their script almost exactly fifteen years ago, and by “we” I mean me and one commenter, taz. Those were lonesome days at the Hattery. (Amazingly, all the links still work.) Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Andrew Dunbar says

    I was in Lijiang briefly about nine months ago (on my way back to Southeast Asia after some adventures in rGyalrong territory).

    There seems to be some local bylaw that all signs must be bilingual. I’ve noticed the same in certain other areas with local languages like Inner Mongolia, Xishuangbanna, some Yi automonous areas, Zhuang speaking areas, etc.

    But those all have known languages with known writing systems.

    I was wondering how on earth they decide how to translate the signs in Lijiang. Is it kind of all made up? Is it based on some official dictionary or transliteration made up by the local government?

    (In Xishuangbanna some of it seemed to be real Tai Lue, some seemed to be systematic transliterations of Chinese, some were gibberish, and one was upside down.)

  2. Trond Engen says

    (In Xishuangbanna some of it seemed to be real Tai Lue, some seemed to be systematic transliterations of Chinese, some were gibberish, and one was upside down.)

    Lameen recently had a couple of posts on Tifinagh signs in Algeria, e.g. Tokenistic Tifinagh #fail 2″.

  3. David Marjanović says

    From the article:

    The first character above means ‘star’ (gee, depicted as three stars), the second and third graphs being phonetic loans, the flower (bbaq) and the dog (kee) together approximating the sound of the English ‘bucks’; it is a combination of literal and phonetic translation.

    That’s evidently inspired by the Chinese version (Xīngbājīng kāfēi), where likewise the first character means “star”, the second is very common in transcriptions (Bālí “Paris”), and the third was probably chosen for its velar consonants (it’s gīng in various nonstandard Mandarins through Cantonese) though it also means “capital city”.

    some adventures in rGyalrong territory

    Tell us all about them! As it happens, research on the Naxi language and the rGyalrong languages is being carried out by the same people such as this guy.

  4. Isn’t it Xīngbākè for the Chinese version?

  5. Yes, it’s 星巴克 xīngbākè, not 星巴京 xīngbājīng. And it seems to me that bbaq-kee is mostly based on bākè, although there might be some influence from English ‘buck’.

  6. David Marjanović says


    Now that I’m unstuck, I remember that 克 is also used in transcriptions a lot.

    (Something looked vaguely odd about it… but…)

  7. I am rather surprised that Poupard, who is Assistant Professor (Translation) at Chinese University of Hong Kong, should have characterised the sign as a translation from English. It is no such thing; it is manifestly a translation from Chinese.

    This is pretty standard in parts of China where there is a legal requirement for signage to appear in minority ethnic languages. For example, in Inner Mongolia, ‘MacDonalds’ is rendered in signage as something like maidanlao, based on Chinese màidāngláo rather than on the English name.

    This fairly clearly demonstrates that Chinese, not English, is taken as standard for ethnic minorities. This is reflects practical concerns (it would be confusing to have ethnic minorities living in China referring to màidāngláo as makdonald), ideological considerations (China positions domestic languages differently from foreign languages; for example, dictionaries of domestic languages are expected to consist of equivalents to standard Chinese terminology to facilitate translation from Chinese), mentality (it’s just assumed that Chinese is standard), and ignorance (the people in the business of providing signage don’t know English; often even their renditions from Chinese are the crudest kind of literal translation, and sometimes just plain wrong). Andrew Dunbar’s experience (some signs upside down) is fairly typical.

    I have a collection of photos of signage from Inner Mongolia that I hope to put up one day. They are quite interesting.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Full disclosure: I had also drastically misremembered the tone of 巴, but at least had the good sense of looking it up before posting…

  9. I was wondering how on earth they decide how to translate the signs in Lijiang.

    Dongba script can’t be used to write arbitrary texts, and the geba syllabic script could be so used but is in fact only used to write mantras. Ordinary Nakhi is written with a tonal-spelling Latin orthography; Fraser script was used in the past. In general, though, Nakhi-speakers are illiterate in their own language.

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