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Copyright İ 2001 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com

Hieroglyphic Script Fights for Life
Thomas Crampton
Monday, 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 fully decipher.

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 superstitious.

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 Conservancy.

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 uphill battle.

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.

In Lijiang, Mr. He laments that the dongba script has become something of a freak sideshow for tourists visiting his picturesque mountainside village.

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.

An eighth-generation dongba, Mr. He began learning the script at age 12 and studied for more than 15 years before considering himself semi-fluent.

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 Chinese.

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.

The newspaper 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 the language."

THOMAS CRAMPTON is a correspondent for the International Herald Tribune in Hong Kong.

Copyright İ 2001 The International Herald Tribune