Naxi evolutionary theory?

In his 《纳西族象形文字东巴经中关于人类自然产生的朴素观》 or, loosely, ’The simplistic view that human life was naturally occurring, as found in the pictographic Naxi Dongba scriptures’ 李国文 Li Guowen states that according to Naxi scripture, humans weren’t always humans, we instead underwent a long period of historical development before becoming ‘human’.

Anyway, Li points out that the character monkey, monkey, read y21, is also used to represent y21, ‘ancestors’ in the Naxi language (as they share the same pronunciation). In Fang’s dictionary, it appears as a phonetic loan character for ‘ancestors’. It’s worth noting that father-in-law, y21 p’e33, is father-in-law; the y21 is represented phonetically by the monkey head and the p’e33 by the character for washcloth, p’e33.

Whilst Rock doesn’t note ‘ancestor’ as a common reading for y21, he does have the entry y21 gə33, oftheancestorswith the meaning “the ancestors’ (belonging to the ancestors)”. gə33 is the possessive particle in Naxi, similar to the Chinese .

But Li, while not going so far as claiming that the Naxi were the first to discover evolution, does note that the fact the monkey character is so used points to an implicit understanding that we share common ancestry with primates. I’m not quite convinced; a lot of research would need to be done to prove that it’s not just a phonetic loan, but it’s still an interesting little bit of knowledge. At any rate, some Dongba scriptures I’ve come across say that people evolved from frogs…

Hangzhou discount card features Dongba script

It’s not often that I manage to see any Dongba script whilst out and about (especially when I’m not in Lijiang), but it is sometimes used by designers in China for its unique aesthetic qualities.

I was fairly surprised to see what looked like Dongba characters on an advert whilst riding the bus (on one of those horrid bus televisions) over the Qiantang River in Hangzhou, advertising the new Hangzhou Taobao/Koubei discount card. So as soon as I got home I did a quick check on the internet, and lo and behold, the card design has five Dongba characters representing the Chinese 吃喝玩乐行, or, eat, drink, play, have fun, travel.

Everyone in China will already know all about Taobao (an online marketplace) and Koubei (an online review site). The card allows you to get discounts in various stores across Hangzhou, and you can accumulate points that can then be exchanged for goodies, or so I gather.


There are a few differences in these characters to the ones in my IME (based on those collected in Fang Guoyu’s dictionary), for example the character they use for ‘drink’ depicts someone sitting down and the beverage is distinctly tea, but they are all completely recognisable.

We have (from top, clockwise):

singdzər33, sing

traveldʑə21, travel

dancets’o33, dance

eatdzɪ33, eat

drinkt’ɯ33, drink

I can’t find any high res images of the card, and I’m probably not going to be getting one myself, but here’s a low res version:


(Note the ‘VIP’ in gold letters; the acronym has been so devalued of late in China that it’s basically meaningless now).


I find it interesting that mirror, kə33, is written thus in the Naxi Dongba script: week19.

For a start, it looks like a guy trapped in the sun. But it actually represents the reflection seen in a circular copper mirror, and the lines along the circle depict the shining, reflective nature of the mirror’s surface.

In contrast, the oracle bone character for the Chinese jian 监, observe from above, depicts a person looking into a bowl of water, to see their own relfection: jianoracle ; water being the most primitive form of mirror.

According to the oracle bone researcher Dong Zuobin, there is a pictographic Ruoka (‘若喀’, a branch of the Naxi ethnicity) character for mirror that looks something like this: mirror2.  Again, this is a copper mirror, and Dong proposes that the markings along the edge indicate that it is of a Tang dynasty style, and thus comes to the conclusion that these copper mirrors only reached the mountainous Naxi areas of Northwestern Yunnan by the Tang dynasty.

I’ve seen a lot of copper mirrors in museums around China, and they have never seemed particularly reflective; but I suppose that’s just due to age and a thick layer of copper oxide. Genuine antique copper mirrors are, naturally, extremely valuable, so they’re definitely something to look out for in Lijiang’s many antique and bric-a-brac shops.

Origin of the Horse

The Origin of the Horse, ho ʐua33 kɣ33 in Naxi, is a story that forms part of the Dongba ceremonial scripture used for redeeming the souls of the deceased, known as ‘presenting the funerary horse’. On the day of the ceremony, a funerary horse is presented to the deceased by their surviving children, to thank their parents for their upbringing. The funerary horse acts as a means of travelling to the land of the ancestors in the underworld.

You can see the scripture in full in the scriptures section of the website.

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Harvard Uni’s Naxi manuscript collection

Harvard University has a rather excellent digitised collection of Naxi manuscripts online here.

The collection contains 598 manuscripts and three funereal scrolls originally collected by Joseph Rock and Quentin Roosevelt, although only 21 manuscripts are dated (traditionally the Dongba scriptures are not dated), with the earliest being from 1826 and the latest from 1910.

The manuscripts all have their titles recorded in Naxi script and Naxi pinyin, presumably work done by Li Lincan and Zhu Baotian at the Institute.  The collection is worth a browse, but nothing is actually translated; they do however have a great collection of divination scriptures that I’m sure I will return to in the future.

This week’s character – alpine meadow

Things have been busy over at Naxi script recently, but hopefully I’ll be able to add lots more juicy goodies in the near future.

This week’s character, ko21, week16 has the privilege of being featured in the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh. The Botanic Garden uses the character to depict high alpine plants (bottom of the photo), although it literally means ‘alpine meadow’.

EdinBot 013

As a side note, I know that ‘hieroglyphs’ can refer to pictographs in general so its use here shouldn’t rile me quite as much as it does, but something about it still smacks of antiquated bourgeois attitudes to logographic writing.

Anyway, the display is part of their Chinese Hillside 中国坡  area, but unfortunately the Naxi script for this reads ‘Han hillside’, hapabuha33 pa21 bu21, which it really isn’t – although you can see how they got there.

This week’s character – red (and some weather lore)

Simple one this week, the colour red: week13 hy21. This can also mean ‘red mouth’ because it is a combination of the characters for mouth and a fire. Fire by itself  - fire- pronounced mi33, can also be read hy21, a simpler way of writing ‘red’.

The character brings to mind a really neat piece of Naxi weather lore which I stumbled upon the other day and is shared by people the world over:


pronunciation: k’v55 tɕi33 hy21 so21 mɯ33 t’v33

English word for word: dusk / cloud / red / dawn / sky / clear

translation: Red sky at dusk, clear sky in the morning


pronunciation: sp21 tɕi33 hy21 k’v55 mɯ33 dza33

English word for word: dawn / cloud / red / dusk / sky / fearsome

translation: Red sky at dawn, bad weather in the evening

In the UK this sentiment is sometimes expressed more lyrically as ‘red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning’.

Dongba time divination part 2: text

[The continuation of part 1; while that was an interpretation of the original text, what follows is a translation of the Chinese (itself a translation of the original Dongba script by Wang Shiying 王世英, published in Naxi Dongba Zhanbu Dianji Yanjiu 纳西东巴占卜典籍研究, Kunming 2008, pp 358-359). I have replaced the Chinese transliteration of the names of finger bones in Naxi with their IPA readings, complete with tone marks. See part 1 for how to perform the divination.]

If ta55 ua33 is reckoned, a hundred thousand [ie. a great many] things are all propitious, searching for gold and silver will also have favourable results. If valuables have been lost, they have not gone far. There will be no quarrels. If a long journey is made, nothing will befall the traveller. Someone in the family will fall ill. If one goes to act as a headman, they will be transferred home.

If ly55 le33 is reckoned, an appeal to justice will be successful. An early search for something lost will mostly likely prove fruitless. Do not become involved in the business of others. If a long journey is made, it will be difficult to return home. If valuables have been lost, they can be seen to the south and your heart will soon be at ease. Your words will provoke trouble. The family will be safe and healthy.

If sɪ21 ɕi21 is reckoned, luck will come to the family. Go south to find silver and gold. Lost objects can be found again during the time of the horse, ram or monkey [11am - 5pm, see chart below]. You will meet with a good person and learn news. You will be able to win a legal petition. If there is illness, do not become worried. The signs are auspicious for belongings, food, gold and silver; they will not be lost. If a long journey is made, you will come across good news.

If tʂ’i33 k’u33 is reckoned, an argument will happen at home, and may lead to a legal case, so beware. If something is lost, go to find it as soon as is possible. If a long journey is made, there will be a frightening encounter. Dogs and chickens will show inauspicious abnormal phenomena. If there is an illness, this is not propitious, and it seems there will be a mournful event (*lit. something that makes one cry, an analogy for passing away). Go and perform a large-scale ceremony to seek blessing, and perform a sacrificial offering to avert calamity.

If nɣ dze33 is reckoned, a good person will be met on a journey, and you will be blessed and protected by the ancestors. If valuables are lost, they will be found right before your eyes. Long journeys will be successful. Petitions to justice will be a hundred thousand times propitious. Illnesses will be overcome with ease.

If to33 ɣ33 is reckoned, nothing will be successful. Demons will bring pain and illness to the home. If you go to do business, gold and silver will not fall into your hands. Illness will befall you if a long journey is made. Items lost will never be recovered. It will be hard to win a legal case, and gold and silver will be lost. If you fall ill, this is not propitious, and will lead to death. A large-scale religious ceremony should be performed.


Time divisions table:

Animal sign Time of day
Rat 11pm-1am 子时
Ox 1am – 3am 丑时
Tiger 3am – 5am 寅时
Rabbit 5am – 7am 卯时
Dragon 7am – 9am
Snake 9am – 11am巳时
Horse 11am – 1pm 午时
Ram 1pm – 3pm 未时
Monkey 3pm – 5pm 申时
Rooster 5pm – 7pm 酉时
Dog 7pm – 9pm 戌时
Pig 9pm – 11pm 亥时

Dongba time divination part 1: method

Though long, complex and poorly explained, I hope this post is at least interesting to some.

Divination plays a major role in the Dongba religion, and forms one of the five main subjects of the extant scriptures, alongside prayers for blessings, sacrificial rites for exorcising demons, funeral rites and miscellaneous scriptures. A Dongba will probably tell you that there are over a thousand various methods of Dongba divination, but if you classify them into types you don’t get quite so many – there are loads of directional divination and astrological/calendrical divination methods that are variations upon a theme.

A particularly interesting type of divination is the “time divination” that is detailed in a new compendium of Dongba divination scriptures published by the Yunnan People’s Publishing House (纳西东巴占卜典籍研究, Kunming 2008). It is labelled as “time” but is probably more accurately “finger” divination, as units of time are calculated on the fingers to reveal one’s fate.
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This week’s character – bracelet/to have

This week’s character is a biggie. week12ʥy33 is a phonetic loan character for the verb ‘have’, but its original meaning is ʥy21, bracelet (as the character depicts). Obviously this character crops up all over the place in the scriptures and other texts, so it’s a good one to remember.

Sample sentence:


ɳə21 / the33 ɣɰ33 / dɰ21 / ndze33 / ʥy33

I / book / one / measure word for book, volume / have

Translation: I have a book