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 divination: selecting a wedding date

The following is a diagram used to select an auspicious date (Chinese zeri 择日) for holding a wedding ceremony – and to avoid having evil spirits bedevil the bride or groom. The picture and a gloss can be found in Wang Shiying 王世英, Naxi Dongba Zhanbu Dianji Yanjiu 纳西东巴占卜典籍研究.

The Naxi believe that spirits exist everywhere around us, and that these spirits must be placated when disturbed – large events such as weddings tend to disturb the harmony between the human and spirit world.

The diagram shows who, or what, will become disturbed by evil spirits depending on which day of the lunar month the wedding is held.

In a lunar month of 30 days (  he3 me33 dɯ21), a ‘large month’, the diagram is navigated clockwise. This is depicted by the person moving to the right in the top right corner of the chart. During a lunar month of 29 days, ( he33 me33 ʨi55), a ‘small month’, the chart is navigated counter-clockwise (the person moving to the left in the top left corner). Direction of navigation is depicted by the character ʐɪ33 ʥi33, literally ‘to set off on a journey’, with the journeyer facing either left (counter-clockwise) or right (clockwise) as required.

If the wedding is held on the first day of a ‘large month’, evil spirits will haunt the groom. On the second day, spirits will haunt the mothers and maternal aunts of the couple; on the third day, the new house will become haunted; on the fourth day, the paternal grandfathers and maternal uncles; on the fifth day the residence and surrounding plot will become haunted; on the sixth day the cook; on the seventh day, the bride; on the eighth day, the cook’s assistant. On the ninth day, the groom will become haunted, and the cycle starts again until the end of the month.

If the wedding is held in a ‘small month’, we move counter-clockwise. On the first day, the bride will be haunted. On the second day, the cook will become bedevilled, and so on, counter-clockwise…

We can see then that there are no ‘safe’ days – on every day of the month that the wedding is held, come rain or shine, spirits will end up haunting someone. I think you have to feel sorry for the cook’s assistant, who seems to be the safest bet for a haunting – he’s not a family member, nor is he presumably as important as the marital house itself. Even so, there are ceremonies that can be performed to appease the spirits that are disturbed during a wedding, so all would not have been lost for the chap who kept the stove burning.

Worship of the family God – the wedding ritual of “Suzhu”

The following article will be published in the third issue of Dongba Culture 《东巴文化》, the newsletter of the Lijiang Museum; many thanks to the Museum and Zhao Xiuyun, the translator. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of any of the original scriptures mentioned in the article.

A note on some of the terminology
The article was originally written in Chinese, and did not contain any Naxi phonetics or Dongba script. Proper Naxi nouns are therefore transcribed in pinyin. Using my dictionaries I have traced the original Naxi for some of the terms: Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

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.
Continue reading

Tiger, tiger…

‘Tiger’, la33 in Naxi, is represented in the pictographic script by the striped head (or indeed full body) of the tiger:

tiger heador tiger whole

Li Lincan 李霖灿 has the following to say about the character:
“The Naxi divide walking animals into three categories – horned, clawed, and striped. The character for tiger is one of the most frequently appearing characters in the Dongba scriptures, and is often used at the beginning of the scripture. When used to start the story, the character is read ‘ə33 la3333 ʂər55 ɳi33‘, which means ‘in ages past’, or something akin to the English ‘once upon a time’. In scriptures from the Lijiang region, the character is often coloured.”
Continue reading