Go forth and study!

In the heart of Lijiang’s old town, before the now-famous gates of the Mu family mansion (home of the region’s ruling family during the Ming and Qing), lies an archway.


Four Chinese characters are inscribed on the horizontal beam of the arch: 天雨流芳tiān yǔ liú fāng.  Literally, this reads ‘sky / rain / flow / fragrant (the last two characters could be read together to mean ‘leave a good reputation)’, and I have long had a vague curiosity about its actual meaning as a phrase[1].  Only recently did I discover that it is a phonetic Chinese transcription of a Naxi phrase, t’e33 ɯ33 ly21 fæ33, which means ‘go and study’.

Here t’e33 ɯ33 means ‘book’, ly21 ‘to read’, and fæ33 is the imperative form of ‘to go’; the first three morphemes can in this case be combined to form the verb ‘to study’ – ‘to read books’, just like the Chinese 读书 dú shū。 A translation might be: ‘Go forth and study!’

Now in the Naxi script:


Note that here the character for ‘saw’ is used as a phonetic loan for ‘go’ (imperative).

[1] This could admittedly have been easily satisfied by simply asking any tour guide (of which there are many in Lijiang)

Naxi cosmology

The Naxi, descendants of hill tribes, believed the world to be flat.

The ancient Naxi believed the world to look something like this:



Naxi legend has it that after the nine brothers and seven sister, who were Gods, created the heavens and the earth, they erected five celestial pillars to keep the heavens from falling in. These five celestial towers, commonly perceived to be mountains propping up the sky, represent the four cardinal directions, as well as the central point, and are each associated with a certain element important to Naxi culture.

The five pillars each have a particular Naxi character associated with them – the valuable element that they represent.

1) whiteconch

ŋi33 mei33 t’ɣ33 p’ər21 to55 ʐər21ʦ’ɪ55

celestial tower of the white conch, standing in the east

2) turquoise

ji55 tʂi33 mɯ21 o21 hər21 to55 ʐər21 ʦ’ɪ55

celelstial tower of turqoise, standing in the south

3) blakjade

ŋi33 mei33 gɣ21 tʂ’u21 na55 to55 ʐər21ʦ’ɪ55

celestial tower of black jade, standing in the west

4) gold

ho33 gɣ33 lo21 hæ33 ʂɪ21 to55 ʐər21ʦ’ɪ55

celestial tower of gold, standing in the north

5) whiteiron

mɯ33 nei21 dy21 ly55 gɣ33 ʂu33 p’ər21 to55 ʐər21ʦ’ɪ55

celestial tower of white iron, standing between heaven and earth. This tower is also known as Mount Jjuna-shuala


All these celestial pillars (or mountains) play important roles in the various legends and stories of Naxi culture, themselves incorporated into Donga religious rituals.

Naxi land contract (part two: the meat and bones)

Here’s the second part of the land contract, rendered into English from the Chinese translation by Yu Suisheng 喻遂生 in his 《纳西东巴文研究丛稿》 (vol 2). I’m sure you’ve been waiting for this with breath a-baited! Land contracts are not the sexiest or indeed most inspiring of literary forms, and this is very bare bones as far as contracts go (I shall go out on a limb and suggest that Naxi legalese is very limited), nevertheless, it’s quite a fascinating insight into how things were done, and yes, how the Dongba script can be put to even the most mundane of uses. Sure beats tying knots in a string of old rope.

Yu Suisheng believes that the document dates to 1914 (see the first section for the explanation).

The contract (page 2):

I have subdivided the page into six sections as follows: landcontractp2

Continue reading

Naxi land contract (part one: the cover)

Aside from its primary function of recording the Dongba religious scriptures, the Naxi script was also used to write such things as medicinal prescriptions, accounts, contracts, notes and letters – what can be called “practical, everyday” documents. Exciting!

The following is a land contract written in Naxi, and published by Naxi scholar Yu Suisheng 喻遂生 in his 《纳西东巴文研究丛稿》 (vol 2, Sichuan Publishing Group 2008). It is the first Naxi language land contract to have ever been published. It was donated to the author in 2003 by an agricultural family from the Baidi 白地 region.


Page 1: cover


It was alleged to be already at least six generations old at the time it was donated; dating the document to the early twentieth century.

The contract is written on both sides of a single sheet of traditional Dongba paper some 26.5cm long and 20.5cm wide. One side has the title and a blessing, and can be understood to be the cover.

Page 1: The Cover


How it appears in the original:



And in Naxi IME:


Naxi: la21 / ʂə21 */ lɯ55 / lɯ55 / ʨhi33 / o21 / me33

Word-for-word: hand / Geba phonetic (*these first two characters combine to indicate the place, Lashi 拉市, just West of Lijiang old town) / place ( phonetic loanword, from ‘louse’)/ land / to sell phonetic loanword, from ‘thorn’) / to be (phonetic loanword, from ‘grain’) / female, here used as a modal particle

Translation: For the sale of land in the area of Lashi

It might be worth mentioning that here Lashi is depicted with the character for ‘hand’ alongside a Geba phonetic. There is a Naxi character for the place, Lashi, and it is a tiger (la33) with lean meat (ʂə33) above land (dy21): lashi



How it appears in the original:


And in Naxi IME:


Naxi: zɪ33 / ʂər33 / ha33 / i21 / ho21 / me33

Word-for-word: grass (phonetic loan for ‘life’) / seven (phonetic loan for ‘ʂər21′, ‘long’) / rice / leak (phonetic loan for ‘i33′, ‘to have’*) / rib, (phonetic loan for ‘ho55′, auxiliary particle) / female, used as a modal particle

Translation: long life of plenty

*Note that in the original ‘ha33 i21′, ‘to have plenty’, or literally, ‘to have rice’, appears as two distinct characters. In the IME, this common collocation is expressed with a single character – the ‘leak’ is coming out of the top of the rice bowl.

This is a common blessing in Naxi and can be heard frequently on birthdays and around lunar New Year.

Hoe down: a Naxi action verb

I have been reading a lot of J. F. Rock’s old monographs about Naxi rituals, and last week came across the following passage about a particular Naxi character:

bä means ‘to do’, ‘to perform’ and is written with the symbol representing a hoe which is raised thus:  be and shows the soil clods being thrown up; this would indicate that the character had been invented after they [the Naxi] had become a sedentary people and had practised agriculture.


Aside from the etymological titbit, I thought immediately of Fenollosa and Pound, and their assertion that Chinese is an inherently more poetic language because of its writing system.

…the great number of these [Chinese] ideographic roots carry in them a verbal idea of action … a large number of the primitive Chinese characters … are shorthand pictures of actions or processes.

The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry

‘To do’, of course, is the archetypal action verb.

The Naxi ‘be33′ is a very versatile character, and a strong, active verb, meaning to make, to serve as, etc.

What could be more denoting of action than the sharp hoe swiftly descending, rending the earth, causing clods of soil to fly up every which way?

But the be33 used today is subtly different than that recorded by Rock. Gone are the dots, denoting pieces of earth. In modern Dongba IPA the ‘clods of earth’ have been simplified into one elliptical shape:


The character has become an abstraction; no longer is it a hoe tilling the soil, it is now just a tool striking an object.

See this extract from Popular Dongba Script (the ‘be33′ is the last character):

 tongsu dongbawen

The English translation for this line (from a poem) would be: “The red tigers serve as our steeds”, with ‘be33′ meaning ‘to serve as’.

But when we consult the older scriptures (many of which were collected and preserved by Rock) we can see that the character has the form that Rock transcribes (highlighted in red).

 example be usage

If we go to Rock’s dictionary, we find that be does indeed have a variant, although the object beneath the farming tool is rectangular, not elliptical:

be rock variant

In fact, whilst we are looking at Rock’s dictionary, we see how be33 can be combined with other characters to form words and phrases:

be rock compounds

Both these images are scanned from the Chinese edition of Rock (as you can tell by the Chinese translation) which does at least preserve his original English.

And whilst we are on the topic of ‘be33′, it would be remiss of me not to mention its most common usage, at least in spoken Naxi – saying ‘thank you‘. In Naxi, ‘thank you‘ is:


pronunciation:  ʥə21 be33 se21 me55  (all the above characters are used phonetically)

So, don’t say I never tell you anything useful!

Update: reading the Naxi Dongba script

How can four simple characters represent an entire nine sentences? Here’s how.

If you follow the above link you will see that I have made some long overdue updates to the ‘Reading the Script’ page, featuring an extract from a Dongba scripture, together with original script, IPA, word-for-word and fluent translations.

Here’s a colour plate from 查热丽恩: 纳西族叙事诗  Chare Li’en: A narrative poem of the Naxi, as included on the page itself.

Colour print from Ge Agan’s 查热丽恩, uncredited. The picture shows the hero, Co Ssei Lee Ee and the three animals he saves.

Colour print from Ge Agan’s 查热丽恩, uncredited. The picture shows the hero, Co Ssei Lee Ee and the three animals he saves.

I will update the page with examples from other kinds of text (i.e. non-mnemonic, word-for-word texts) in due course.

Reading: Heaven and earth

Here’s a short reading from a Dongba scripture: Heaven and earth, and which appears in the book Tongsu Dongbawen 通俗东巴文 ‘Popular Dongba Script’, by He Limin. Written from left to right.


Now listen to the Naxi, as read by Li Jingsheng, native of Lijiang, and distinguished Naxi researcher. The first three characters (the title: Heaven and earth) are not read.

The translation should go something like this:

Heaven and earth

In the high heavens, the stars appear;

the stars shine bright today.

On the broad earth, the grass grows;

the grass is green today.

Line by line:


Naxi: mɯ33 ne33 dy21

Word-for-word: sky / and (phonetic loan, from ‘amaranth’) / earth

Translation: Heaven and earth


Naxi mɯ33 ʂua2121 tʂ’ɪ33 dzɪ33

Word-for-word: sky / high / star / these (phonetic loan, from ‘to hang’) / appear (phonetic loan, from ‘perimeter wall’)

Translation: In the high heavens, the stars appear.


Naxi: kɯ21 dzɪ33 tʂ’ɪ33 ŋi33 ɤɯ33

Word-for-word: star / appear / today / bright (phonetic loan, from ‘camellia”)

Translation: the stars shine bright today.


Naxi: dy2121 ʐə21 tʂ’ɪ33 y21

Word-for-word: earth / large / grass / this / grow (phonetic loan, from ‘monkey’)

Translation: On the broad earth, the grass grows;


Naxi: ʐə21 y21 tʂ’ɪ33 ŋi33 hər21

Word-for-word: grass /grow / today / green

Translation: the grass is green today.

Naxi character stroke order

The Naxi Dongba characters are often mistaken for pictures; and the fact that they are called ‘pictographs’ by most doesn’t really help clear the muddied waters.

The written form of Naxi characters is generally fixed, and there is a certain accepted way to write them.

While the number of strokes in any given character is not something anyone has done quantitative research into, and I assume hard-and-fast rules don’t exist for (thus making a Naxi dictionary with entries indexed by stroke count almost impossible to compile), stroke order does have certain guidelines.

Stroke order in Naxi is not an exact science, but the rudiments of how the characters are written is taught in schools in Lijiang, as the following extract from a local textbook attests. In fact, the term ‘Stroke order’ may be a little misleading. The guidelines reproduced below are closer to ordering various constituent parts of a particular character, not the individual stokes.

From Naxi Pictographs (纳西象形文字), volume one of Lijiang’s Dongba Culture School Textbook series (丽江东巴文化学校教材), edited by Li Xi 李锡:

“When writing Naxi script we should generally abide by the following two rules: strokes should be written from left to right, and from top to bottom. There is no fixed stroke order. Which part come first and which part comes after depends on whichever order helps to best create a complete grapheme.

Generally speaking, the main part of the character should be written first. Followed by the subsidiary or decorative parts.

For example:

kɣ33 garlickv

bi33 sunbi

dzo33 shelf



When writing characters that depict human form we first start with the head, and follow with any adornments of the head, before following with the rest of the body and then any other additional parts.

For example:

dæ21 capable, generaldae

py21 to read scripturepy


When writing characters that depict animal heads, we first start with the eye, then the mouth, then the cheek, followed by the horns, then the ears, then the crown (or any other fur atop the head), before finishing with the neck.

For example:

k’ɯ33 dogdog


When writing characters that depict a whole animal, we start with the head, and then continue to add other parts of the body.

For example:

ɤɯ33 bird



Some characters are written from the bottom up, but the direction of the individual strokes is always left to right, top to bottom.”

For example:

mi 33 fire


Dongba Chess!

Nearly one full calendar year after my last post, I finally resurface with something to share.

I have always liked novelty chess sets. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a horrendous chess player. I tend to get consistently out-thought by first-timers. Still, there’s something that appeals to me about chess sets.

I think my first novelty chess set was probably an imitation set of Lewis chessmen that I bought on a family holiday in Scotland, but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered novelty Chinese chess sets. The game of Chinese chess doesn’t really lend itself to interesting pieces: generally speaking, the pieces are all the same size, and the same lozenge shape; and the different pieces are distinguished by written characters printed on their topside.


Taobao is a wonderful thing. You can find nearly anything on Taobao; and ‘Chinese Chess with Dongba Pictographs’ is one such thing. This comes from a shop that also sells Oracle Bone chess sets and Bronze Script chess sets, both of which are also very cool.

Anyway, it’s just a chess set; but it’s rather well presented. You get a leaflet explaining the pieces (even though the Chinese characters can be found in the corner of each piece) and a nice box, with a cloth map that has the Dongba character for river on it too.The pieces are ‘imitation stone’, whatever that means, and of course, the Dongba script serves to differentiate them.


The Naxi script works for Chinese chess because it is so visual.A horse is depicted by a horse’s head, so the ‘horse’ piece is very easy to spot. Likewise the elephant. The ‘chariot’ is the Dongba character for ‘vehicle’ – two wooden wheels connected by an axle, and the ‘cannon’ is the Dongba character for, yup, ‘cannon/artillery’ which shows a barrel with fire coming out of the nozzle. All the various human pieces are depicted with their Dongba equivalents – stick-figure generals with flags, bodyguards and soldiers waving spears, seated ministers…


The characters themselves are taken directly from the Naxi script IME, which itself is derived from Fang’s dictionary. There’s a case to be made to make this character set the ‘standard’ for Dongba, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. These are the pieces, with their Naxi pronunciation, meaning and Chinese chess character:

dae  dæ21, general (將)

g  ga33, victorious commander (帥)

bedae  be21 dæ21, courageous soldier (士)

mu  mu21, soldier (兵)

ts'o  ts’o21, elephant (象)

u  u21, minister (相)

tseie  tʂɘ33 iɘ33, chariot (車)

mibv  mi33 bɣ21, cannon (炮)

zua  ʐua33, horse (馬)


I’m not sure how often this will get used, but it’s a great addition to my collection of Naxi paraphernalia nevertheless.




Naxi divination: selecting a wedding date

The following is a diagram used to select an auspicious date (Chinese zeri 择日) for holding a wedding ceremony – and to avoid having evil spirits bedevil the bride or groom. The picture and a gloss can be found in Wang Shiying 王世英, Naxi Dongba Zhanbu Dianji Yanjiu 纳西东巴占卜典籍研究.

The Naxi believe that spirits exist everywhere around us, and that these spirits must be placated when disturbed – large events such as weddings tend to disturb the harmony between the human and spirit world.

The diagram shows who, or what, will become disturbed by evil spirits depending on which day of the lunar month the wedding is held.

In a lunar month of 30 days (  he3 me33 dɯ21), a ‘large month’, the diagram is navigated clockwise. This is depicted by the person moving to the right in the top right corner of the chart. During a lunar month of 29 days, ( he33 me33 ʨi55), a ‘small month’, the chart is navigated counter-clockwise (the person moving to the left in the top left corner). Direction of navigation is depicted by the character ʐɪ33 ʥi33, literally ‘to set off on a journey’, with the journeyer facing either left (counter-clockwise) or right (clockwise) as required.

If the wedding is held on the first day of a ‘large month’, evil spirits will haunt the groom. On the second day, spirits will haunt the mothers and maternal aunts of the couple; on the third day, the new house will become haunted; on the fourth day, the paternal grandfathers and maternal uncles; on the fifth day the residence and surrounding plot will become haunted; on the sixth day the cook; on the seventh day, the bride; on the eighth day, the cook’s assistant. On the ninth day, the groom will become haunted, and the cycle starts again until the end of the month.

If the wedding is held in a ‘small month’, we move counter-clockwise. On the first day, the bride will be haunted. On the second day, the cook will become bedevilled, and so on, counter-clockwise…

We can see then that there are no ‘safe’ days – on every day of the month that the wedding is held, come rain or shine, spirits will end up haunting someone. I think you have to feel sorry for the cook’s assistant, who seems to be the safest bet for a haunting – he’s not a family member, nor is he presumably as important as the marital house itself. Even so, there are ceremonies that can be performed to appease the spirits that are disturbed during a wedding, so all would not have been lost for the chap who kept the stove burning.