Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The wonders of the Chinese bookshop

There is no greater pleasure than browsing in a Xinhua bookshop for hours on end...

In the UK, you can't find Chinese books for love nor money. Actually, you can find them for money - but more money than anyone would reasonably consider parting with for a few sheets of paper bound together. London has a little Chinese booskhop - Guanghua Books - but the markup for each book is enough to make your eyes water and wallet weep. A small pocket edition of a Jin Yong novel, for example, would set you back £6 - the very same book, bought in mainland China, costs 8 RMB. So you have to pay seven times more for them to have it shipped over? What?

Anyway, now I'm back in the 赤县; I can spend hours in the dictionary section or classical literature section of the bookshop, browsing away to my heart's content. What's more, it's like a wonder emporium specifically designed for the modern sinophile about town, for you can find calligraphy brushes, inks, and all manner of DVDs, from remastered Shaw Brothers classics to 'teach yourself ultimate taiji sword stance in three hours' jobbies - all in the same shop! Every time I go into a bookshop in China, I'm struck by the sheer amount of things still left to read, but have no time to...古代经典很多,今天已不能人人尽读.

My local Xinhua has loads of interesting stuff about Dongba culture and the Dongba script, naturally, but I was pleasantly surprised to find '通俗东巴文' (Popular Dongba Script), published by the 广东科技出版社 (Guangdong Science & Technology Press), written by He Limin 和力民. He 和 is, apparently, a common Naxi surname. Anyway, this is a textbook with sixty lessons, each lesson covering a Dongba script text, with popular sayings and Naxi riddles thrown in for good measure. What makes it extra useful is the IPA and Naxi pinyin annotations, and the culture notes that go with each lesson. I'll be translating some of it and putting it up here, periodically.

On the other hand, the dearth of good second hand bookshops in China is a topic for another day...

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Even in the Dongba script, sun+moon = bright!

The Dongba character for bright, bu˧, is another ideogrammic compound, composed of the characters for sun and moon, both emitting light.

This is if course, almost identical to the Chinese 明, with the sun on the left and the moon on the right, only in the Chinese there is no pictorial representation of the rays of light. Here they are together (Dongba on the left!):

You'll notice the positoning of the 'ideogrammic' elements is also near identical. No one really knows how old the Dongba script is, but it's definitely more recent than the Chinese script, and this seems to be another example of the latter's influence on the former.

Tones in Naxi

Naxi, being a tonal language, has four main tones.

1) the mid level tone - pa˧ (33)

2) the high level tone (similar to the first tone in mandarin) - pa˥ (55)

3) the low rising tone (similar to the second tone in mandarin) - pa˩˧ (24)

4) the falling tone (similar to the fourth tone in mandarin) - pa˧˩ (21)

Alexis Michaud, of the University of Paris, has done a lot of work on tones in Naxi and you can visit his homepage here, from which you can find links to some of his articles available to download. These treat the subject in a lot more depth than I could ever hope to.

Thursday, 23 April 2009


Although it's been Spring for quite a while; I remember reading in my pictorial guide to the Book of Changes (图解易经 - I know, I know...) that Spring was a season for getting up early and going to bed late. Well, at least I'm halfway there.

The Dongba character for spring is a 会意字 - an ideogrammic compound - consisting of sky and wind. Because of course, Spring is windy in these parts.
Pronunciation: ɳy˧˩ - the tone diacritic here - hopefully - means that it's a low falling tone, much like the fourth tone in mandarin. Have a listen - with Mr Li's dog barking in the background (click the IPA).

Friday, 17 April 2009

Lesson 1: pronunciation

Looks complicated doesn't it? This is why you can't ever learn a language just by reading a book. Even if you only want to read ancient scriptures, you have to know how to say, or at least think, the words you are reading. That's why we learnt Tibetan pronunciation before anything else in our Classical Literary Tibetan course at SOAS. And that's why the first thing I asked Mr. Li to do was to go over Naxi pronunciation in our first lesson.

Although we spent most of the first class chatting about the 'Disnification' of the Lijiang Old Town and the diluting of dongba culture, I did get the chance to go through the Naxi pronunciation table at the beginning of Fang Guoyu's dictionary and make a recording of 李老师 as he did so.

Naxi pronunciation .wav file <1mb

(read vertically, top to bottom, left to right)

p, p', b, m
f, ⱱ
ts, ts', dz, s, z
t, t', d, n, l
tʂ, tʂ', dʐ, ʂ, ʐ
ɳ, tɕ, tɕ', dʑ, ɕ
k, k', g,
ŋ, h, ɤ

(and now the vowels read horizontally, top to bottom - 元音)

ʏ (next two on this line are not read out)
i, y, ɯ, u
e, ə
æ, ər
a, o

So, Naxi pronunciation has very little to do with modern Chinese putonghua (as is expected, as it's a Tibeto-Burman language). In fact 李老师 says that, like Cantonese, it has preserved some sounds from ancient Chinese. The Naxi word for sun, ɳi˧ me˧ (both mid tone), is very similar to the Tibetan ni ma (sun), and is, he tells me, the ancient Chinese pronunciation for 'sun'.

So, before next week I have to learn 72(!) dongba characters well enough to be able to write them when I hear them pronounced.
If I carry on at this pace, I'll have learnt all 1300 characters in about 5 months. If I carry on at this pace...

Monday, 13 April 2009

Enrolled at Yunnan 社科院

I'm now a formally enrolled student at the Dongba Culture Research Institute, part of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences (itself a provincial arm of the China Academy of Social Sciences). I guess that only in China can one walk into a research institute, dictionary in hand, and enrol on a personally tailored course of study five minutes later.

The research institute itself is a wonderfully decrepit courtyard on the side of a hill overlooking the Black Dragon Pool (黑龙潭). Whilst the location is about as scenic and peaceful as you could wish for, it's inside the Black Dragon Pool scenic area, which means I get accosted by ticket sellers insisting I buy an extortionately priced (60 RMB) ticket each time I go! Whilst blagging one's way past ticket inspectors in Chinese is cool the first time around, it gets pretty tiresome pretty quickly.

I have been assigned a tutor, Li Jingsheng 李静生, or just 李老师, who comes highly recommended by Dr. Yang Fuquan 杨福泉. 李老师 is the kind of hale Chinese person who, although long retired, looks like he's in his late thirties. A Naxi nationality native of Lijiang, 李老师 is the perfect Dongba script tutor (or at least I hope). The study is "informal", which means I have to go to 李老师's house for tuition (fortunately, Lijiang is small enough for this not to be a problem - literally everywhere in the city is within walking distance of my accommodation). In our brief chat today, 李老师 confirmed my long held suspicion that the Dongba script is a 'complete' writing system, if a little primitive, that can be used to write letters, stories, even novels. Take that, received opinion in the West (Milnor, I'm looking at you)! The main difficulty in doing so is the limited number of characters (somewhere around 1300 simple characters), meaning that loan characters (假借字) with the same/similar pronunciation have to be used for words that don't have a specific Dongba character. This means that anything you can say in Naxi, the native language of the Naxi people, you can write in Dongba script. However, unlike Chinese, the loan characters are not fixed - they are not standardised, making them harder to recognise (ie fluency in Naxi is a prerequisite to understanding modern Dongba script, as the loan characters cannot possibly be listed in a dictionary due to their non-standard nature).
And naturally, as soon as you have things like loan characters, the script is no longer pictographic. At all. So, anyone who talks about "the Naxi pictographic script" and "the world's last living hieroglyphs" either doesn't really understand what they are talking about, or doesn't care. Most Chinese scholars fall into the second category, I suspect, largely because because Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, and the whole Boodberg/Creel thing never really happened in China.

"The Dongba script has written words, but no rules for writing them."
This was like music to my ears - you don't have to worry about what kind of ink you're using, how much ink you use, what kind of inkstone, how much water you apply to the ink, what kind of paper and brush, what angle to hold the brush, how much pressure to apply, and all the myriad rules and (墨守成规的) methods involved in Chinese calligraphy. Oh, and Dongba script is written with a bamboo pen, not a brush. Glad I left my 湖笔 back on the windowsill in Cornwall, then.

Time to get ready for lesson one! If things to to plan, I'll be posting audio recordings along with other study aids for anyone foolish enough to be interested.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The three script-sages of Naxi, Chinese and Tibetan

It is written in the Dongba scriptures that in ages past there were three sages, responsible for creating the Chinese, Tibetan and Naxi writing systems, born at the same time, but in different places.

There is a Dongba word for these three sages - 'la ie piu so si kv1' (see the above picture) - and it is generally accepted that the word has a composite meaning - in Naxi, 'la ie' means intelligent, 'piu so' means scripture and 'si kv' means three people; so taken as a whole the word means 'the three gifted sages who created [the three writing systems for] scriptures'. In the Dongba character, the three sages are sitting on the glyph for throne. This is all legend, of course, with no grounding in reality, and there is no record of these legendary people's names.

What the legend does reveal however is the closeness and common ground that the Naxi people have with the Han and the Tibetans. At any rate, it's a neat character; and it goes some way to reinforcing my belief that to truly understand the nature of the Naxi language and its Dongba script, one must have a solid grasp of both Chinese and Tibetan.

Photo and explanation from Fang Guoyu 方国瑜 , 纳西象形文字谱 (A record of Naxi pictographic characters).

1I have used the Naxi romanisation system and not the IPA that Fang uses in his book; mainly because I'm having difficulty getting IPA fonts to work properly.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Hello Lijiang!

We arrived in Lijiang late on the evening of Tuesday 7th April. Having just sat on a not-so 豪华 (luxurious) '豪华大巴' (luxury coach) for the better part of nine hours, it was good to finally arrive in the place I had been talking about for months. Whilst I had tried to travel light, my Modern Tibetan-English dictionary (about four kilograms in itself!), together with my Manual of Standard Tibetan and some Naxi Dongba script dictionaries conspired to make long distance travel across China a bit more arduous than it might otherwise have been.

So it is that I have cast off the shackles of the daily commute, and left the grey skies of the UK far behind.

Goodbye Slough!

Hello Lijiang!

Now it's time to get properly settled in - here are my targets for the next month.

1) find a Dongba script teacher

2) find a Naxi language exchange partner

3) read the rest of the 封神演义

4) get up into the hills and do some walking!