DURING THE “golden week” national holiday that began on October 1st, hundreds of thousands of sightseers flocked to Lijiang, a picturesque historic
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,…