Reading the script

Much has been made of the ‘primitive’ nature of the Naxi script, whereby in written scriptures certain words and in some cases whole sentences are left out, with the text simply serving as a mnemonic aid for the priest to recite the scripture.

(This is certainly true of many texts, but modern documents with each word represented in the text, such as diary entries and letters, do exist. It cannot be stressed enough that the Naxi script is a functional writing system.)

Let me share with you one example of the script as a primarily mnemonic device.

Reading Example:


These 13 characters, when read out by a Dongba priest, represent a total 27 sentences, containing 183 phonemes. Each character, on average, represents two whole sentences. The text here uses characters as a mnemonic device, stimulating the memory of the reader. This is the traditional understanding of how the Naxi script works.

Here I provide a transliteration and translation of the first four characters of this extract:

first four

Simply looking at the four characters and reading them one by one, we get:

lɯ33: fir

ts’ɪ55 t’o33: small goat

mə33: no

ʐə33: grass


When read by a Dongba, however, the four characters would represent the following nine sentences:

Naxi: lɯ33 / na21 / dzər33 / k’ɯ21 / hæ21 / ts’ɪ55 t’o33 / nɯ33 / be33 / dɯ21 / tʂ’ɯ33 / hæ33 / hæ33

English word-for-word: fir / large / tree / beneath / gold / small goat / (auxiliary particle) / bleat / large [loud] / this / baa / baa

Translation: Beneath the great fir tree, the little golden mountain goat was bleating


Naxi: nɣ33 / be21 / sy21 / be21 / də21 / uə33 / tsɪ55

English word-for-word: you / bleat / why / bleat / (question particle) / say / is

Translation: “Why do you bleat so?”


Naxi: ŋy33 / be21 / ɯ33 / mə33 / bə21

English word-for-word: I / bleat / good / not / bleat

Translation: “I bleat not out of leisure,


Naxi: ŋy33 / i33 / ʨi55 / ʥy21 / ʐə33 / hər21 / iə55

English word-for-word: I / (auxiliary particle) / small / time / grass / green / give

Translation: When I was but a kid, I was fed green grass.


Naxi: dɯ21 / ŋə33 / ʐə33 / mə33 / də21

English word-for-word: big / time / grass / not / get

Translation: Now I am older, there is no grass.


Naxi: la33 / lər33 / ʐə21 / ts’e55 / hər21

English word-for-word: big / earth / grass / leaves / green

Translation: Lush green grass and leaves,


Naxi: ze21 / ts’i55 / ze21 / nɣ33 / hɯ33 / mə33 / do21

English word-for-word: where / lose / where / bury / go / not / see

Translation: where have you gone, no longer to be found?


Naxi: ʐə21 / ts’i55 / ʐə21 / le33 / me21

English word-for-word: grass / lose / grass / again / look

Translation: It is lost and must once again be found


Naxi: ŋy33 / be21 / t’e33 be33 / be21 / mɣ21 / tsɪ55

English word-for-word: I / bleat / like this / bleat / (genitive particle) / is

Translation: And this is why I bleat so.


The remaining eight characters of the extract are very similar in structure to the first part; the dog is barking because it has no milk to drink, and the cock is crowing out because it has no rice to eat. This is an oral text at heart, and the repetition is indicative of its oral roots.


This is part of the Co Ssei Lee Ee story, which tells how the male and female ancestors of the Naxi tribe came together to beget the Naxi people.

In 1983, Ge Agan, Naxi scholar, published an epic poem in Chinese, retelling the story:

查热丽恩: 纳西族叙事诗  Chare Li’en: A narrative poem of the Naxi

The titular ‘Chare Li’en’ is the Hanyu pinyin romanisation of the Naxi Co Ssei Lee Ee, the name of the male ancestor of the Naxi people, and a legendary Naxi hero.

Here is my translation of the relevant part of the poem:

Into the dark forest of fir he strode

wherein a small mountain goat didst bleat

Lee Ee took him up in comforting embrace

and asked, ‘Wherefore make such piteous entreat?’


And so the goat bleated thus unto him:

“In days afore you fed me with grass so green

But now there is aught but mud and stone

I hunger, sire, where can such grass again be seen?”


Colour print from Ge Agan's 查热丽恩, uncredited

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.


Word-for-word representation


Texts such as these make use of phono-semantic characters, plenty of loan characters, and the odd Geba syllabic character. The majority of modern and secular uses of the script are written in this way, although the vast majority of scriptures are not.


This extract from a Dongba scripture is divided into two panels.

First part (left panel)


sɪ33 lo21 sɪ33 se24 zo33, ŋy33 mu55 ŋy33 mə33 no33


seeqsɪ33: name of a ghost, ‘see’, used here as the first part of the place name, “see lo”; the place is on the banks of the Wuliang river, in Sichuan’s Muli county. In Chinese the place is known as 鼠罗

2loqlo21: mountain valley, second part of the place name, “see lo”

3seelsɪ33: cogon grass, used here as the first part of the Naxi male name, “See Sei Sso”

4seiqse21: mountain goat, used here as the second part of the Naxi male name, “See Sei Sso”

5zoqzo21: urn, used here as zo33, ‘man’, last part of the Naxi male name, “See Sei Sso”

6niuŋy33: to tremble, used here as a loan for “oneself”

7mumu55: oxfly, used here as a loan for “old”

6niuŋy33: to tremble, used here as a loan for “oneself”

8memə33: no, not

9nono33: milk, used here as a loan for “to know, realise”

The sentence shoud then read:

See Sei Sso of See Lo did not think of himself as old


Second part (right panel)


sər33 ʂɪ21 lo33 pe21 da55, sɪ33 ʥi21 kɣ33 dzɪ21, hæ21 zɪ21 le33 u55 k’ɯ55


10sersər33: wood

11sheeʂɪ21: meat, loan for “yellow”

12 lo beilo33 pe21: wooden basin

13ddada55: to chop

3seelsɪ33 cogon grass, loan for the sound “See”

14jjiʥi21: water – “ sɪ33 ʥi21” is the Wuliang River in Naxi

16gvkɣ33: garlic, loan for “upper reaches”

15zzeedzɪ21: to sit, to abide

17haehæ21: gold

18sseezɪ21: willow, loan for “to dredge”

19leile33: roebuck, loan for “again”

20uu55: Geba phonetic

21keek’ɯ55: dog, loan for “to go”

The sentence should read:

Having chopped a yellow wooden basin, and living by the upper reaches of the Wuliang River, he went again to pan for gold.