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

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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.

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.




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.

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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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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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).