DURING THE “golden week” national holiday that began on October 1st, hundreds of thousands of sightseers flocked to Lijiang, a picturesque historic town in the south-western province of Yunnan. Among its attractions are the symbols printed beneath the Chinese characters on road signs and shop fronts (Starbucks included). They are Dongba pictographs, an ancient form of writing that originated among the Naxi, a local ethnic group. It was almost defunct until about a decade ago, when local officials cottoned on to its touristic value and plastered the town with the script.
Dongba was never widely used by the Naxi, of whom there are about 300,000 living in the Himalayan foothills near Lijiang, as well as in adjacent Tibet and Sichuan province. Their elite spoke Chinese and used it for written communications (a few Chinese characters are pictographic, but Dongba is mainly so). The pictographs, which evolved as early as the seventh century, were developed by shamans of the Dongba faith, which has roots in Tibet. When called upon, the wizards would don a five-lobed crown and pray for divine favours. The roughly 2,000 pictographs would help them to recall the chants. As in ancient Egypt, the glyphs were also used as rebuses (ie, for their sounds alone) to form new words.
Over 20,000 of these religious records survive. They provide rich insight into how Naxi people thought about warfare, geography, astronomy and agriculture. But they are devilishly hard to read. Linguists are helped by the area’s Dongba priests. There are about 600, most of them very old, including Yang Guoxing who ran a school from 2010 to 2015 to teach Dongba to children living in the mountains. When Mr Yang was growing up, “everyone was too busy farming” to learn it. Now they are all busy soaking up China’s dominant Han pop culture, he says, shuffling outdoors to offer rites for safe travel to a gaggle of tourists.
Signs at bus stations in rural Yunnan urge locals to use written and spoken Chinese if they “want to be civilised”. But the Naxi get off lightly compared with ethnic minorities in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, where officials have been stepping up efforts to purge regional languages from schools. Primary schools in Lijiang teach the Dongba script twice a week, as well as Naxi nursery rhymes. Li Dejing, the head of the Dongba Culture Research Institute, says this is not just about keeping alive the pictographs, but letting children grasp “the very spirit of their own culture”. And, as the government would see it, helping tourism to thrive in Lijiang.
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Rune revival”