[This post was originally written in June 2009 for my old blog, Lijiang Times.]
One of the common misconceptions about the Dongba script is that it’s not really a living, working writing system. Phish!
Whilst tactically avoiding instant inebriation at the hands of the Dongba priest He Xiudong’s self-brewed paint stripper (baijiu) one afternoon, I discovered his phonebook. Now, He Xiudong can’t write Chinese, so everything he notes down is in the Dongba script – including the phonebook. This means all the names are wrriten in Dongba, and Chinese names are transliterated phonetically. The phonebook is written on traditional Dongba paper.
Looking at the phonebook you can see that the most common family name is ho33 (Chinese 和 he), the Naxi character for which means ‘ribs’. Ho is a traditional Naxi family name (and incidentally the name of all the Dongbas at the Lijiang Dongba Culture Research Institute). Ten out of the twenty-two names listed on these two pages share this same surname.