Hoe down: a Naxi action verb

I have been reading a lot of J. F. Rock’s old monographs about Naxi rituals, and last week came across the following passage about a particular Naxi character:

bä means ‘to do’, ‘to perform’ and is written with the symbol representing a hoe which is raised thus:  be and shows the soil clods being thrown up; this would indicate that the character had been invented after they [the Naxi] had become a sedentary people and had practised agriculture.


Aside from the etymological titbit, I thought immediately of Fenollosa and Pound, and their assertion that Chinese is an inherently more poetic language because of its writing system.

…the great number of these [Chinese] ideographic roots carry in them a verbal idea of action … a large number of the primitive Chinese characters … are shorthand pictures of actions or processes.

The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry

‘To do’, of course, is the archetypal action verb.

The Naxi ‘be33′ is a very versatile character, and a strong, active verb, meaning to make, to serve as, etc.

What could be more denoting of action than the sharp hoe swiftly descending, rending the earth, causing clods of soil to fly up every which way?

But the be33 used today is subtly different than that recorded by Rock. Gone are the dots, denoting pieces of earth. In modern Dongba IPA the ‘clods of earth’ have been simplified into one elliptical shape:


The character has become an abstraction; no longer is it a hoe tilling the soil, it is now just a tool striking an object.

See this extract from Popular Dongba Script (the ‘be33′ is the last character):

 tongsu dongbawen

The English translation for this line (from a poem) would be: “The red tigers serve as our steeds”, with ‘be33′ meaning ‘to serve as’.

But when we consult the older scriptures (many of which were collected and preserved by Rock) we can see that the character has the form that Rock transcribes (highlighted in red).

 example be usage

If we go to Rock’s dictionary, we find that be does indeed have a variant, although the object beneath the farming tool is rectangular, not elliptical:

be rock variant

In fact, whilst we are looking at Rock’s dictionary, we see how be33 can be combined with other characters to form words and phrases:

be rock compounds

Both these images are scanned from the Chinese edition of Rock (as you can tell by the Chinese translation) which does at least preserve his original English.

And whilst we are on the topic of ‘be33′, it would be remiss of me not to mention its most common usage, at least in spoken Naxi – saying ‘thank you‘. In Naxi, ‘thank you‘ is:


pronunciation:  ʥə21 be33 se21 me55  (all the above characters are used phonetically)

So, don’t say I never tell you anything useful!

Reading: Heaven and earth

Here’s a short reading from a Dongba scripture: Heaven and earth, and which appears in the book Tongsu Dongbawen 通俗东巴文 ‘Popular Dongba Script’, by He Limin. Written from left to right.


Now listen to the Naxi, as read by Li Jingsheng, native of Lijiang, and distinguished Naxi researcher. The first three characters (the title: Heaven and earth) are not read.

The translation should go something like this:

Heaven and earth

In the high heavens, the stars appear;

the stars shine bright today.

On the broad earth, the grass grows;

the grass is green today.

Line by line:


Naxi: mɯ33 ne33 dy21

Word-for-word: sky / and (phonetic loan, from ‘amaranth’) / earth

Translation: Heaven and earth


Naxi mɯ33 ʂua2121 tʂ’ɪ33 dzɪ33

Word-for-word: sky / high / star / these (phonetic loan, from ‘to hang’) / appear (phonetic loan, from ‘perimeter wall’)

Translation: In the high heavens, the stars appear.


Naxi: kɯ21 dzɪ33 tʂ’ɪ33 ŋi33 ɤɯ33

Word-for-word: star / appear / today / bright (phonetic loan, from ‘camellia”)

Translation: the stars shine bright today.


Naxi: dy2121 ʐə21 tʂ’ɪ33 y21

Word-for-word: earth / large / grass / this / grow (phonetic loan, from ‘monkey’)

Translation: On the broad earth, the grass grows;


Naxi: ʐə21 y21 tʂ’ɪ33 ŋi33 hər21

Word-for-word: grass /grow / today / green

Translation: the grass is green today.