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 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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.