Naxi writing

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From S. Robert Ramsey:

The Naxi Story of Creation and the Great Flood

There’s no such thing as pictographic writing. – Or is there?

The Naxi, a national minority indigenous to China’s extreme southwest, have what looks for all the world like pictographic writing as its literary tradition. Shown above is a reproduction of one of the most important texts in the Naxi canon, the story of Creation and the subsequent Great Flood.

The central theme of the text is that the disastrous flood was brought about by incest between the first humans. This unclean act, incest, had been strictly proscribed by the gods:

[The Great God of Light said to them:]

“Five Rii Brothers: Brothers must not fight among themselves.” [Panel 1]

“Six Chimi Sisters: Sisters must not quarrel.” [Panel 2]

“Brothers and Sisters: You must not marry each other. [Panel 3]

“For if you do, unclean things will come forth from the sky, from the earth.., from the sun, from the moon… [etc., etc.] Above there will be violent landslides and flooding. Down below, the rising waters will suddenly block the valleys and turn each one into a quagmire.”

It’s true that the symbols here are obviously drawings of real-world objects, at least for the most part. The drawings are grouped inside rectangular frames arranged comic-book style on the page and the frames “read” sequentially from left to right–but not necessarily. There’s much backtracking and movement up and down, and sometimes the same drawing is referred to several times as the story unfolds.

But the main thing is, the symbols aren’t actually “read.” They’re mnemonic devices used by a priest of the Bon religion to remind him of the details of a story he already knows by heart. Many of the words, especially abstract concepts, are left completely unrepresented. Sometimes a drawing is “read” two or three times even if it only appears once.

This is not writing as we know it. The Naxi have never used these pictographs to communicate with each other. They do not exchange messages, write books, or even keep simple records with them. Only someone versed in the mystical lore of the Naxi religion can interpret its meaning. It’s not enough simply to be able to speak Naxi.

And yet, the pictographs are almost writing. A drawing of eyes can mean “fate” in Naxi, because the Naxi words for ‘eyes’ and ‘fate’ sound alike. That’s the kind of sound association that, long ago, made writing possible for ancient civilizations, from Mesopotamia to Egypt and to China–and even for Mayan civilization, and the Naxi seem also to have discovered that critical principle. It’s that aspect of the Naxi tradition that scholars of language and writing find so interesting.

VHM:  The Nakhi / Naxi were studied for two decades by the Austrian-American explorer and botanist, Joseph Rock.  The language of the Nakhi can be written with the Geba syllabary, but also with the symbols referred to as Dongba.  Rock collected many texts in Dongba and also compiled a dictionary for the script.  Dongba symbols are supposedly pictographic-ideographic, but I doubt that they are a full writing system.  Instead, I suspect that they are probably prompts for priests, but do not directly transcribe spoken Nakhi language.

I wrote those words eight years ago (here) and am pleased they are in full agreement with what Bob Ramsey says above in this post.

Notes on Naxi language

Naxi (Naqxi IPA: [nɑ˨˩ ɕi˧˧]), also known as Nakhi, Nasi, Lomi, Moso, Mo-su, is a Sino-Tibetan language or group of languages spoken by some 310,000 people, most of whom live in or around Lijiang City Yulong Naxi Autonomous County of the province of Yunnan, ChinaNakhi is also the ethnic group that speaks it, although in detail, officially defined ethnicity and linguistic reality do not coincide neatly: there are speakers of Naxi who are not registered as "Naxi" and citizens who are officially "Naxi" but do not speak it.

It is commonly proposed in Chinese scholarship that the Naic languages are Lolo-Burmese languages: for instance, Ziwo Lama (2012) classifies Naxi as part of a "Naxish" branch of Loloish.

However, as early as 1975, Sino-Tibetan linguist David Bradley pointed out that Naxi does not partake in the shared innovations that define Loloish. Thurgood and La Polla (2003) state that "The position of Naxi … is still unclear despite much speculation" and leave it unclassified within Sino-Tibetan. Guillaume Jacques & Alexis Michaud (2011) classify Naxi within the Naish lower-level subgroup of Sino-Tibetan; in turn, Naish is part of Naic, itself part of a proposed "Na-Qiangic" branch.


Selected readings


  1. Robbie Hart said,

    January 24, 2022 @ 10:43 pm

    Although documented in manuscripts of the Dongba ritual specialists (some quite old), and likely created by and for them, Dongba symbols (Dongbawen) are now used in a much wider cultural context. Lijiang city, the cultural center of the Naxi area, is a popular destination for tourism within China, and its draw is as much the distinctive Naxi culture as it is the history or beautiful environment. For this reason, Dongbawen can be seen all over the city: not just in art, craft, and tourist-ware contexts but also on menus, maps, road signs, bus stops, etc. Certainly this is decorative, but in many cases the glyphs are chosen with care and reference either to active Dongba ritual specialists, scholars who work with them, or dictionaries. It's probably the case that at least some Dongbawen glyphs are now as widely understood as they have ever been.

  2. Robert Ramsey said,

    January 25, 2022 @ 6:13 am

    Yes, I've never been to Lijiang, but I've seen photographs of such use. A Starbucks, for example, had (small) Dongba symbols representing the name posted over characters for the Chinese name, where a pictograph for 'star' was followed a rebus consisting of two symbols representing 'bucks'. But read and understood? I suspect no more than the mystical Nordic siren in the Starbucks logo!

  3. Randy LaPolla said,

    January 27, 2022 @ 8:58 am

    "But the main thing is, the symbols aren’t actually “read.” They’re mnemonic devices"
    In the history of writing, this was to a large extent the purpose of writing, to be a mnemonic device for texts that were memorised (Plato thought writing made one lazy, as one should be able to remember the texts). They also weren't written in the way we do now, ex-nihilo, but were often records of what was spoken. This was true in the Chinese context as well, as the OBI, bronze inscriptions, the 《尚書》、《論語》etc. were records of what people said.
    There is a scholar at Nanyang Technological University, Xu Duoduo (许多多), who has been working on the Dongba and Daba texts and scripts for quite a few years (here is her PhD dissertation (《东巴达巴口头传统研究》:。 She argues that the use of the characters by the priests lies on a continuum between orality and literacy. She has been working with the UNICODE people to get some of the characters accepted into UNICODE.
    In terms of the history of writing and the way the development of writing can affect a culture, I highly recommend the following article:
    Jack Goody & Ian Watt 1963, "The Consequences of Literacy" (Comparative Studies in Society and History 5.3: 304-345)

  4. Duoduo said,

    January 27, 2022 @ 11:14 pm

    Multiple-stages of evolution can be attested in the different types of documents written through Dongba script, ranging from Dongba manuscripts (key-words/prompts), to Bon sutras read in Tibetan (syllable-to-syllable transcription), to vernacular documents, such as notarial deeds (which can be dated back to the Qing Dynasty), letters, speeches, etc.. Within the category of Dongba manuscripts, the earlier ones show to be more 'concise' or sort of 'rebuses', if compared to the latter ones (cf., among others, works by Lin Xiangxiao, Zhou Youguang, Wang Yuanlu…).
    I have also worked on Daba hemerologies, from the indigenous belief of the eastern branch of Moso People (Dongba culture being the western branch), which use a few dozens of pictographs to record lunar mansions. Cultural exchanges can be attested in lunar mansion names of various ethnic groups in the area, including Pumi and Yi People.( Daba and Dongba show clear correspondences within the designations of their lunar mansions. Therefore, the Daba script could represent an earlier stage of the Dongba script (
    Moreover, the Daba script, along with the oral texts, is a rare and significant intermediate link useful to analyze the interaction between orality and literacy (, chapter 5).

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