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.
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