Creating a new character – public transport

All the main city buses in Lijiang recently got a new makeover, which included the following Naxi and Chinese characters sprayed onto the fronts and backs of each bus:

The Chinese here is Lijiang Gongjiao 丽江公交;  simply Lijiang (丽江) public transport (gongjiao 公交 – short for gonggong jiaotong 公共交通).  The Naxi Dongba script utilised here however is particularly interesting as it involves the coining of a new pictographic character for the word ‘public transportation’.


The first two Naxi characters are straightforward enough. The first, igvdv i33 gv21 dy21, is the Naxi for ‘Lijiang’, and the second is dzae dʐæ21, the character for ‘city’ (depicting city walls).

The second two characters form the concept of ‘public transportation’. The first, ndzi ndzi55,  depicting a person moving, means ‘go’ or ‘walk’ and supplies the meaning of ‘transportation’ in this case. The last character is the most unusual in that it doesn’t appear in any dictionary (or my IME for that matter), and is probably a character that has been created specially for the buses. It is composed of three parts:  wheels ʥi33 ts’ɛ55, which means ‘(wooden) wheeled vehicle’; zo zo33 (or possibly sɯ33, it’s hard to make the character out, but in any case both mean man/male), a man (on the left); and mi mi55, a woman (on the right).

Obviously buses don’t have wooden wheels, but it’s not hard to see how the three elements of vehicle+man+woman can come together to represent ‘public vehicle’ or ‘bus’ – the Chinese gongjiaoche 公交车.

Note: In Li Lincan’s “Naxi Pictographs and Transcription Characters Dictionary (sic)” (纳西族象形表音文字字典, 李霖灿著), there is an entry that reads thus:

takearide [ʥi33 ts'ɛ55 zi21 li33 ndʐæ33] To ride a vehicle.  Depicts a person standing atop a wooden-wheeled vehicle. This form of wooden-wheeled vehicle is very simple, and they are still used to pull timber today [note that the dictionary was compiled in the 1940's]. The first two sounds are ‘vehicle’, the last is ‘to ride”, and the middle two sounds represent the rolling of the wheels.

2 thoughts on “Creating a new character – public transport

  1. I’m still working out the basic construction of the characters in my mind. I guess I’m still ore than a bit fuzzy. If a native speaker saw that new character, how would they pronounce it? Or would they even know where to begin?

    I take it from “i33 gv21 dy21″ that the ‘single character’ for Lijiang isn’t a single syllable. Could components be spoken in turn for unfamiliar combinations?

  2. As the character means ‘public vehicle’ (the idea of ‘transport’ is provided by the previous character); I’m guessing the pronunciation would be ʥi33 ts’ɛ55 zo33 mi55, just following the component parts (vehicle, man, woman). But really, no-one would actually be pronouncing the character as so very few people actually know the script (if you listen to local Dongba, only a handful of people would be able to write a letter); its purpose is purely aesthetic here, component parts put together to provide an idea.

    Yeah, Lijiang in Naxi is three syllables; the i33 means ‘mountain mule’, gv21 is ‘egg’ and dy21 is ‘earth/land’, but the mule and egg are probably phonetic.

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