Of garlic and cauldrons

On a recent visit to Shaoxing, we had the good fortune of being given a tour around the Mausoleum of Yu the Great (大禹陵), which was refreshing in that there were far fewer tourists paying their respects to Yu the Brilliant (I like to think of him as a kind of backwards version of King Canute) than there were visiting Lu Xun’s ‘former residence’ in the main part of town. Lu Xun’s old gaff was mobbed.

On a path leading up the hill that is, according to legend, the final resting place of the mythical tribal leader, we passed a large ceremonial cauldron with two characters inscribed on its front (see below).

Continue reading

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…

Historical dates in the Naxi script

Yu Sui Sheng 喻遂生 writes in his Collected Research Essays on the Naxi Dongba Script (纳西东巴文研究丛稿) about the recording of dates on historical land contracts.

For pre-Republican Chinese dates, the Naxi use the word khagakha21 ga33, meaning ‘monarch’ or  ‘dynasty’ as the imperial-reign prefix . Yu notes that the kha21, depicted as phonetic loan character ‘bitter’ can sometimes be replaced with the character aa33  (this seems to be a non standard variant, the pronunciation remains kha21).

In the 30th year of the reign of Emperor Guangxu, Chinese 光绪三十年, would be:


kha21 ga33 / kua33 sy55 / si33 / tsher21 / khv55

Word for word that’s :

emperor / Guangxu / three / ten / year.

(Here the Chinese Guangxu 光绪 is transcribed phonetically in Naxi as kua33 sy55).

Interesting that in Yu’s examples, year (khv55) is depicted with the character for reap or harvest, year1whereas in the scriptures year is more traditionally written as year2.

The Republican Period, Chinese minguo 民国, is phonetically transcribed in Naxi as minguomi21 kue24.

Tigers (again)

I’ve written about the character for ‘tiger’ before, but seeing as I’ve just uploaded the Origin of the Tiger scripture along with a translation and commentary from Bai Gengsheng, I think it’s time to say a little more about tigers in Naxi culture.

The tiger is very important in Naxi mythology, and also plays a large role in the Naxi language – healthyla33 la21′, ‘healthy’, literally means ‘tiger tiger’, although it is generally written as ‘tiger hand’ to reflect the tonal difference in the second la.

Many places around Lijiang also use tiger in their name, such as Lashi county, lashi la33 sɪ55, and Lugu Lake, lugu la33 t’a33 hɰ55 .

Some Naxi believe that the tiger was the forefather of all humans; and the Naxi character dzila dzɪ33 la21 a31 p’v33, the Naxi god and father of ts’e55 ho21 bu33 be21 mi55, the legendary ancestor of the Naxi people, bears this out. The character depicts a god in heaven, with a tiger’s head and human legs. That many Naxi historically took the surname ‘la’ (tiger) attests to this close relationship between man and tiger. In fact, Naxi legends of the mythical Jade Dragon kingdom recount that red tigers serve as mounts there, instead of horses.