A Dongba’s phonebook

[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.

Book review – Sons of Heaven, Brothers of Nature: The Naxi of Southwest China

Any new release concerning Naxiology in the English language publishing world is cause for celebration. Sons of Heaven, Brothers of Nature: The Naxi of Southwest China by independent researcher Pedro Ceinos Arcones is essentially a prospectus of the Naxi and their culture, their funerary customs, their religion, music and dance. There is no other comparable, one-stop English language book that contains all this information, and for this I commend the author.

It is a summary of what has been written about the Naxi, and looking at the bibliography we see that Mr Ceinos really has done his homework – as far as I can tell, the author has read every available work that has been printed in English about the Naxi, from Bacot, to Rock and McKhann, and much of the Chinese literature as well.

The book serves then as a great overview of this fascinating people: open the chapter on Naxi religion and you are treated with a systematic breakdown of the Dongba pantheon, with dense quotations from secondary sources. This over-reliance on secondary sources does not serve to hamstring the book, but instead to elevate it above the typical “I saw this…” style of travelogue that so plagues English-language China publishing.

Pictographs – although without Naxi pronunciations – are scattered throughout the book in relevant chapters. Unfortunately there are no Chinese characters in the text, and the romanisations for proper Naxi names jumps from Hanyu Pinyin back to Naxi romanisation, seemingly depending on the source that the author has used. Orthographic issues such as these have however plagued bigger publishers.

The real enthusiasm that the author has for his subject really does come through, and although it’s difficult to recommend it as a very well-written book (English is, after all, not the native language of the author), this is just the kind of introductory text that would suit an enthusiast who doesn’t have the time to trawl through old issues of Monumenta Serica in search of Rock’s articles.

One minor nitpick. Ceinos, if only in passing, perpetuates what I call the “mnemonic myth” that the Dongba script was only used in the scriptures as a mnemonic aid, saying: “As this script was not used for administration or literature, but only for ritual and religious activities…”

This has been the commonly-held view for decades, but as Yu Suisheng has shown, it is simply not true.

But no matter. This is a real labour of love, and for only six dollars for an ebook version, it comes very highly recommended.

*The author kindly provided me with a copy to review. Note that I don’t make any commission on sales via Amazon!



Escaping brigands with Naxi language skills

The Russian traveller Peter Goullart spent the better part of the 1940s living in Lijiang, and was a contemporary of the eccentric yet gifted Austrian explorer-ethnographer, Joseph Rock.

He wrote a book about his time in Lijiang, Forgotten Kingdom, which I recommend everybody interested in the region pick up and read. As the author doesn’t make much mention of the Naxi script one can only assume he wasn’t particularly familiar with it, but there is a particular passage that leads one to believe that he was at least proficient at a conversational level in spoken Naxi. The author is making the long and arduous caravan journey from Dali to Lijiang, and is waylaid by bandits upon nearing the Lijiang plain. His knowledge of the Naxi language helps him escape unscathed. I’ve always felt that this is the kind of dialogue they should teach in schools – it’s really simple, but the context is fascinating. Something like “Lesson 1: on extricating oneself from highway robbery in the native parlance’.


Plodding hour after hour in the oppressive silence and utter loneliness, we stopped talking.
At last we came to a turn, after which the dreaded temple should have been visible. A band of ten men, poorly clad but each carrying an old gun, appeared as if from nowhere. We did not stop and they fell in with us. At last one of them spoke.

‘Zeh gkv bbeu? (Where are you going?)’ he asked me in Nakhi.
‘Ggubbv bleu (Going to Likiang),’ I answered brightly. He pondered.
‘Nakhi kou chi kv (You understand Nakhi),’ he smiled.

A flood of conversation followed with my boy, the guards keeping discreetly silent. Hozuchi explained who I was, where I lived and where we were travelling from. I guessed at once who the strangers were, but kept my own counsel. I was not afraid of being killed, but I hated the idea of appearing in Likiang in only my underwear.


Following Goullart’s generous transcription of the dialogue, I have reconstructed this exchange in both the Naxi dongba script and IPA – to the best of my ability (note that I am by no means fluent in spoken Naxi so if anyone has any comments or corrections, then please do speak up!).

1st line: Where are you going?

Ze21 kʏ 33 / bɘ33?

Winged demon, garlic = loan for ‘where’ / to go


2nd line: Going to Lijiang

gu21 be33 / bɘ33.

Dayan town (Lijiang old town), literally ‘granary [town]‘ / to go


3rd line: You understand Naxi?

Na21 ɕi33 / k’o33 / tʂ’i33 / kʏ 33.

Naxi / horns = loan for ‘speech’ / this / able to do

KFC in Naxi


I don’t think I will be inviting much opprobrium to suggest that food is not one of Naxi culture’s greatest achievements. Most esculents in Lijiang tend to be either too spicy or too salty, which is why the influx of western cuisine – and dare I say it, junk food – is not really the bane many purists imagine it to be. KFC may not be an Epicurean’s delight, but I dare say its brand of fried chicken has staved off the starvation of many a tourist over their brief stay in Lijiang. KFC does a roaring trade in the city (the last time I checked, the two KFCs were within a stone’s throw of one another around the square that marks the boundary between old town and new), and just in case you ever wanted to know, the Naxi for KFC (or more accurately, the Naxi transliteration of the mandarin 肯德基 kěn dé jī ), is this:



(Notice the English lettering, KFC, has actually been omitted here in favour of the Naxi.)

The first character is ‘dog’, kɯ33.

I trawled through all my dictionaries and couldn’t find the middle character. The closest I got in visual resemblance was dʑi33, apparently a kind of Chinese yeast (notice the indentation in the middle character on the sign). But its pronunciation is not really all that close to the Chinese ‘de’. This could be a mistake on the part of the translator, or perhaps the graphics company responsible for the printing. Anyway, I think the sound ‘tɯ’ is much closer, represented by the character for ‘to rise’: tɯ33 


The last character is scissors: tɕi55, a very close phonetic match.



I’m a big fan of these Naxi signs. Sure, the transliterations are haphazard at best, but at least some effort has gone into it, and it gives the place a bit of much-needed character.

Walking with Mao

This was originally posted on my former blog, Lijiang Times, in May 2009 (has it really been so long?)

On October 1st 1951, Naxi scholar and general historian extraordinaire Fang Guoyu went to Beijing, as part of a delegation of ethnic minorities, to attend the second anniversary of the founding of the PRC. Fang was a representative of the Naxi minority, and on the eve of the anniversary, he presented Chairman Mao with a silk banner, upon which the following sentence was written in the Dongba script:

ŋə21 gɯ33 zi33 be33 ŋʏ21 gu21 dʐi33 bə33
(click here for pronunciation, read by Naxi scholar Li Jingsheng)

Let’s break it down:

ŋə21 gɯ33 “We”
The character for ‘I’, resembling a person pointing at themselves. The character for crack/split (resembling a crack in a piece of wood), which here is a loan character representing the Naxi plural marker.

zi33 be33 “Always”
The character for grass and the character for ‘to do’; both loan characters that together mean ‘always’ in Naxi.

ŋʏ21 gu21 “behind you”

The character for silver, loan character for ‘you’, and the character for ‘carry on the back’, the meaning of which is extended to ‘behind’.

dʐ˧ bə˧ ”want to walk”
The character for ‘to walk’, followed by the character for ‘sole of the foot’, which here is a loan character for ‘want to go’.

So the whole sentence should be:
“We will always walk with you”, or, “we will always follow you”.

Here you can see the reliance on phonetic loan characters; and of course that the verb is at the end of the sentence – like Tibetan, Naxi sentences follow the basic SOV structure.

In his dictionary, Fang says that of all the times he used the Donbga script, this occasion was the most profound.

A Dongba’s record of a prescription payment

First of all, many apologies for my extended leave of absence from Naxi blogging. Has it really been four months?

I’ve always wanted to translate some more examples of secular Dongba text as there are plenty of people who still believe the script to be not much more than a ritual tool. The following text (essentially a record of a prescription payment) was collected and published by Naxi scholar Yu Suisheng 喻遂生 in his Naxi Dongbawen Yanjiu Conggao 纳西东巴文研究丛稿 (pp 264-66). It is an extract from the notebook of an old Dongba priest, who would jot down notes to help him remember important pieces of information. The text is not dated, but is a good example of everyday use of the script.

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Worship of the family God – the wedding ritual of “Suzhu”

The following article will be published in the third issue of Dongba Culture 《东巴文化》, the newsletter of the Lijiang Museum; many thanks to the Museum and Zhao Xiuyun, the translator. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of any of the original scriptures mentioned in the article.

A note on some of the terminology
The article was originally written in Chinese, and did not contain any Naxi phonetics or Dongba script. Proper Naxi nouns are therefore transcribed in pinyin. Using my dictionaries I have traced the original Naxi for some of the terms: Continue reading

Polishing one’s jade instrument

One of my favourite quotes from the three character classic is 玉不琢,不成器。 人不学,不知义. In English:

If jade is not polished,
it cannot become a thing of use

If a man does not learn,
he cannot know his duty towards his neighbour

(translation by Herbert Giles)

Interestingly, this can be rendered in Naxi thusly (according to my collection Dongba aphorisms 常用东巴文字明言俗语
, written by He Baolin 和宝林):



o21 tʂ’u21 me33 ze33 na21 me33 piə33

so21 bɯ33 me33 ɣ33 du21 me33 sɪ33


English word-for-word:

green jade / black jade / not / cut (phonetic loan from ze33, flying ghost) / item, instrument (phonetic loan, from na21, black) / not / become (phonetic loan from piə33 seashell)

study / want (phonetic loan from piə33 kɯ55, belt) / intention (phonetic loan from ɣ33, dance) / wisdom (this character represents the male God of wisdom)/ not / understand (phonetic loan from sɪ33, sage)


So the Naxi is roughly equivalent to the English “jade that is not cut will not become an instrument, [he] who does not have the desire to study will not understand wisdom”.

I find it odd that the three character couplets have been mangled in the Naxi by the seemingly unnecessary insertion of extra characters: the first line uses two characters for jade (one for green, one for black), and the second line by the use of both ‘want’ and ‘intention’, which again seems superfluous.

Of garlic and cauldrons

On a recent visit to Shaoxing, we had the good fortune of being given a tour around the Mausoleum of Yu the Great (大禹陵), which was refreshing in that there were far fewer tourists paying their respects to Yu the Brilliant (I like to think of him as a kind of backwards version of King Canute) than there were visiting Lu Xun’s ‘former residence’ in the main part of town. Lu Xun’s old gaff was mobbed.

On a path leading up the hill that is, according to legend, the final resting place of the mythical tribal leader, we passed a large ceremonial cauldron with two characters inscribed on its front (see below).

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Shop signs in Dongba script

I’ve been meaning to write this post for some time, but work, and an increasingly busy schedule, have been constantly getting in the way.

I noticed on a recent trip to Lijiang that the shop signs along some of the city’s major shopping streets have all been redone – now with added Dongba script – sometime over the past half year. Previously a majority of shops in the old town proper had shop names translated into the Dongba script on their signs, but now most of the shops on Minzhu Road 民主路 (a busy new-town thoroughfare that loops round the western edge of the old town) boast Dongba script on their signage as well. I assume this is the result of local government policy.

This is interesting because many major brands have been forced to come up with Dongba names, but it’s also slightly irrelevant because the vast majority of people will have no idea what the script says.

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