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.

The divination is carried out by counting along six points (corresponding to the three bones on each finger) on the index and middle fingers according to the time – either the month, the day or the hour – that the petitioner asks the Dongba to conduct the divination. The counting begins at the top of the index finger, down to the bottom, then from top to bottom of the middle finger, and the Dongba consults the reading for the particular point where you stop counting. Counting begins either from the first lunar month, the first day of the lunar month or the time of the rat (traditionally the first period of the day, 11pm-1am, there are 12 such two-hour divisions each with their own astrological animal sign). Any method can be used. If a number higher than six is desired you return to the top of the index finger and carry on.

So if the divination is performed on the eighth day of the lunar month, and you are using the day calculation, you would read the text corresponding to the middle point of the index finger. If you are using the month method and are performing the divination in the sixth lunar month, you would read the text corresponding to the bottom point on the middle finger.
Finger divination method (click for big):


In the above picture you can see the Naxi names for the three bones of each finger on the right half of the left leaf. They are:

Index finger


  1. sɪ21 ɕi21
  2. ly55 le33

  3. ta55 ua33

Middle finger


  1. tʂ’i33 k’u33

  2. nɣ* dze33

  3. to33 ɣ33

*the only Geba phonetic character used here, the rest is Dongba script

What’s interesting here is that you can see each point is also marked on the diagram of the hand, but in the picture the writing is a mix of Dongba and Geba phonetics, a kind of shorthand to fit in the small space. Some of the Dongba characters are retained, but in some both are replaced. The mid point of the index finger, ly55 le33, is rendered with the geba phonetics lylegeba in the picture. So whoever wrote this scripture was reasonably fluent in both the pictographic and phonetic scripts.

The right leaf explains the starting point for the calculation of time used for divination; from left to right: from the first lunar month, from the first day of the current month, and from the time of the rat (11pm-1am).

What follows in the text is a detailed description of the fate of the petitioner depending on which point the counting ends (there are, of course, six different readings, one per finger bone). Some are generally positive, some generally negative, but most are mixed and fairly vague – such things like “if you leave home you will find it hard to return in good time” and “if you have lost something you may find it to the south”. A translation of this text will follow in part 2.

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