Dean Owen

4 years ago · 2 min. reading time · visibility ~100 ·

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The Ancient Naxi and the Dongba Script – The Last Surviving Pictographic Script in the World

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In the shadow of the mighty Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, nestled in a sprawling city, lies the picturesque Old Town of Lijiang. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this Old Town is generally considered to be the ancient capital of the Naxi Kingdom.

The Naxi people trace their roots over 2,000 years to the Maoniu Yi, Mosha Yi and Moxie Yi tribes of the Han, Jin and Tang Dynasty. Today they number around 300,000 and live in concentrated communities in the Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County and neighbouring counties throughout Yunnan and Sichuan province.




Rain  Naxi Orchestra performing in Lijiang

Although Lamaism, Buddhism and Taoism are gaining traction, many Naxi (pronounced Na-shi) follow the Dongba religion started 900 years ago by a Bön shaman called Dongba (or Dibba) Shilo. Dongba religion is deeply rooted in the relationship between man and nature. It is a religion of shamanism, of rituals and exorcism. Its teachings are often written in a unique pictographic script. To this day, Naxi elders are keepers of the last surviving hieroglyphic language in the world.

The origins of this script were originally thought to date back to the early Tang Dynasty, but a team of British and Chinese academics has recently uncovered evidence that suggests the existence of similar scripts on Neolithic cave paintings in the Jinsha River Valley dating back 7,000 years.


These are Dongba pictograms I found on a school wall in Lijiang. At first glance it might appear commonsensical, but these characters represent a mixture of visuals, ideas, and phonetics. As an example, a dead animal is depicted by an image of the animal but without pupils in the eyes. But the character for cliff, when spoken, sounds like chicken, so a cliff is depicted as a picture of a cliff with a chicken head drawn inside. Throughout history, hieroglyphic language has mostly evolved into a modern form of writing, a simplification, where images are no longer recognisable. Modern Egyptian or Chinese characters still contains some visuals that are easily recognisable.


Dongba script is now the only surviving hieroglyphic language still in current use. Unfortunately there are reportedly less than 100 Dongba priests who can read and write the script and there is a real risk that this unique language will be lost. Thousands of manuscripts were destroyed in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, and there are an estimated 20,000 volumes of manuscript currently held in cultural institutes and libraries mainly in Yunnan province. Much was written on handmade paper and is suffering the consequences of the natural aging process. The Beijing Association of Dongba Culture and Arts was founded in 1997 with the aim of preserving and promoting Dongba culture. In 2003, Ancient Naxi Dongba Literature manuscripts were selected for inclusion in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program. The Dongba priests, many of whom are in their seventies, can rest assured in the knowledge that the Chinese government is committed to preserving the Naxi Dongba cultural heritage. Numerous books that teach the script have been published and the language is now being taught to primary pupils from grade one to grade four in six townships. Yunnan University now offers bachelor and master degrees in Naxi culture and Dongba language. There are an estimated two thousand characters in the script, so with a bit of work, you could include Dongba hieroglyphics in your resume. That is surely to be a conversation starter in a job interview.

f0860e86.jpg  Naxi performer


 The Old Town at night

5fff8438.jpg Impressions of Lijiang

More on Chinese Ethnic Minorities

In the Kingdom of Women

Fish Seeking Missiles

The Dong Journey


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Dean Owen

4 years ago #12

Thank you Jerry. Comments like that are like nitrous oxide, and I don't mean laughing gas but the stuff propels highly modded Hondas into warp speed.

Jerry Fletcher

4 years ago #11

Thank you Dean. Your passion and pride in all peoples comes through in every post. Please don't stop. You open eyes to the wonders of humanity and the beauties of where they live.

Dean Owen

4 years ago #10

Thanks Netta. Don't leave it to long before you come back to Asia.

Dean Owen

4 years ago #9

Shanghai can drive you nuts, Much like rude Parisians are hardly representative of the warm people of France, same goes for Shanghainese. Me needs me escapes or me turns grumpy.

Ken Boddie

4 years ago #8

Fascinating exposure, Dean-san, of but one of many unique communities, which becomes all the more so when we consider there are at least 56 'Chinese' ethnic minority groups also tucked away in this country's mozaic of cultures. Magical mountains, musical maestros and 'commonsensical' hieroglyphics! Why would you want to leave this land of diversity when you can drive westward into Pandora's box every time you've had a 'Han-full' of Shanghai? 🤗

Kevin Pashuk

4 years ago #7

Another great travelogue Dean Owen...

Javier 🐝 CR

4 years ago #6

wow !!! I love it !! many thanks Dean Owen !!!

Paul Walters

4 years ago #5

Dean Owen fabulous piece Dean thank you

Dean Owen

4 years ago #4

Not hugely useful, but might come up as a Trivial Pursuit question!

Pascal Derrien

4 years ago #3

Another day when I will end up knowing more than the day before :-) Thanks Dean Owen

Dean Owen

4 years ago #2

One could spend a life time learning about the different ethnic minority groups in China. Just wish I had another life to do it. Then another to do India!

Gert Scholtz

4 years ago #1

Dean Owen The history of the places you bring here are fascinating. Scripts that are 7000 years old and unique languages. The photo of Lijiang I am sure I have seen on your profile shot :) Thanks for another tour in the enigmatic east.

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