Copyright © 2001 The
International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com
Script Fights for Life |
|Thomas Crampton |
February 12, 2001
LIJIANG, China At his simple wooden desk in
a room along the shores of the Black Dragon pool high in the Chinese
Himalayas, the brush in He Kai-xian's steady hand marks a series of
distinctive symbols, the meaning of which almost nobody else can
The written language of a dying priest class,
the script is the world's sole known surviving hieroglyphic writing
system. Mr. He, in his late '70s, is the youngest among a handful of
fluent authors of the script. With his death, Mr. He fears the
script will also expire. His son has learned some dongba script but
his grandson knows none.
Almost no general subject textbooks
have been written using the script, and the language was suppressed
during the the Cultural Revolution, which declared war on teaching a
language and traditions that were considered
However, several efforts within the last year
to preserve the language have lifted the mood for Mr. He and his
colleagues. A group of young students now meets regularly at the
Lijing Dongba Museum to learn about the language while five
teenagers study full-time under the direction of Mr. He, in part
thanks to a $5,000 grant from the U.S.-based Nature
Education officials in the provincial capital,
Kunming, speak expansively of their efforts to promote the survival
of Yunnan's many minority cultures, adding that it is often a tough
The dongba script is just one among hundreds
of minority languages and cultures battling for survival in Asia. By
some estimates, half of the world's 5,000 living languages are in
Asia, with the communities using them often as small as a few people
in a single village.
The pressure against them comes from
many sides. Governments often want to promote a common language to
ensure national unity; young people want to speak a language that
will open opportunities in major cities. Television and radio
broadcast major languages straight into people's homes.
Lijiang, Mr. He laments that the dongba script has become something
of a freak sideshow for tourists visiting his picturesque
Unlike in Europe, where some minority
languages have recently undergone revivals, almost no one in Asia
worries about the erosion of linguistic diversity, said Nick Enfield
a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the
Netherlands. "On the whole, Asian people, governments and scholars
are less interested in minority languages," he said. "There are
pockets of interest, but they are on the fringe."
To Mr. He,
however, the dongba and its script have been important in holding
together the Naxi people. Peasant priests, or dongba, whose title
was passed from father to son, led religious ceremonies that linked
the Naxi, who were spread across small villages high in the
Himalayas. There are now fewer than half a million Naxi.
eighth-generation dongba, Mr. He began learning the script at age 12
and studied for more than 15 years before considering himself
There are about 1,400 picture symbols in the
dongba script, but the placement of characters can completely alter
their meaning. The script combines ideographic and phonetic symbols
that can be written in varying degrees of complexity. The greatest
dongba epics have only a few symbols in each sentence, relying on
the reader's memory to fill in the blanks.
Use of the script
was discouraged after the 1949 Communist Revolution and actively
suppressed during the Cultural Revolution. Mr. He remembers the
morning during the Cultural Revolution when 20 people stormed his
home to destroy a thousand manuscripts written and collected by
generations of dongba priests in his family. The paper and cloth
works were plunged into pots of boiling water and reduced to
construction paste that was used to build a nearby house. About half
of the dongba manuscripts that survive today were taken from China
to the United States, Germany and Spain.
Mr. He now works
full-time at a government-funded institute dedicated to preserving
the dongba script. He is currently compiling the most complete
dictionary of the script that has ever been produced. "I must work
hard because there are so few of us alive now who know the full
script," he said.
The last everyday use of the script was by
a newspaper founded in the early 1980s, The Lijiang Naxi Script
Newspaper. It aimed to increase Naxi literacy and included both
pictograms and a special romanized version of the Naxi language
rendered in a similar way to pinyin translations of
At first the newspaper had a tremendous success in
increasing literacy, raising the number of people who could read the
romanized version of Naxi from 200 in 1982 to more than 1,700 people
by 1985. More than 31 books were published in romanized Naxi, most
in the mid-1980s. The literacy drive faltered, however, as the
government phased out Naxi language teaching in favor of science
classes taught in standard Mandarin Chinese.
lost funding three years ago and the Naxi's spoken language and
dongba script appear to face extinction.
"Some of the dongba
priests still live on, but I consider the culture already dead,"
said He Jeizhen, editor of the defunct Naxi script newspaper. "To be
alive, a culture must have real people speaking, writing and living
THOMAS CRAMPTON is a correspondent for the
International Herald Tribune in Hong Kong.
Copyright © 2001 The
International Herald Tribune