Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Practical Uses of Dongbawen No. 1 - The Dongba's Phonebook

One of the common misconceptions about the Dongba script is that it's not really a living, working writing system. Phish!

Whilst tactically avoiding instant inebriation at the hands of the Dongba priest He Xiudong's self-brewed paint stripper (baijiu) one afternoon, I discovered his phonebook. Now, He Xiudong can't write Chinese, so everything he notes down is in the Dongba script - including the phonebook. This means all the names are noted in Dongba, and Chinese names are transliterated phonetically.
You can see here that the most common family name is Ho (Chinese 和 he), the Naxi character for which means 'ribs'. Ho is a traditional Naxi family name (and incidentally the name of all the Dongbas at the research institute).


  1. I met and worked with He Xiudong at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in DC two years ago. I was fascinated and moved by his work, and it was a fantastic experience translating for him at the festival.

    I stumbled upon your blog because I was inspired to look up He Xiudong again (after working again at the Folklife Festival this year) and I'm glad to see that he is still working and keeping Dongba script alive! I look forward to exploring your blog, and hope that I can visit Lijiang someday.

    -Heidi(Hong Xingyao), Rockville, MD

  2. Heidi, thanks for dropping by.

    He Xiudong has told me about his trip to Washington several times. He's still going strong, representing Dongba culture at the institute here, and occassionaly performing rituals for various tour groups and dignitaries.

    It's fascinating that you did translating for him (consecutive interpreting throughout the event?) - anyway, I'll try to update this blog more often!

  3. I volunteered with the Mekong exhibit with the Yunnan artists, in addition to the interpreters and scholars who were hired to do consecutive translating. He Xiudong and He Guoyao (have you met him?) were the two Dongba priests who came to Washington to present Dongba culture and perform rituals.

    I love the photograph of his phonebook! It's great that he's still representing Dongba culture. If you talk to him often, perhaps you could mention that I (teenage Chinese girl who volunteered the last week of the festival) said hello--but if you don't feel comfortable doing so, I totally understand! I would have loved to keep in touch after the festival but I don't think he had a convenient method of communication. Thank you for the update, and I look forward to reading!

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