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.
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:
Simply looking at the four characters and reading them one by one, we get:
ts’ɪ55 t’o33: small goat
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?”
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
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
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.