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)

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.

The Analects in Naxi

I recently picked up a neat little book called 常用东巴文字名言俗语欣赏, essentially a collection of “well-known sayings” in the Dongba script, which is interesting in that it includes quite a few famous Chinese phrases translated into Naxi. Usually, books like this just collect Naxi aphorisms, but at least this little book goes to show that you can translate just about anything into Naxi, with the slight problem that only a handful of people are ever going to be able to read it. Continue reading