Naxi pictographs

The following is the text of a note I have sent to the U.S. Library of Congress concerning its discussion of its collection of Naxi materials. Much of this beautiful and fascinating collection is available for viewing on line.

The section of your Web site devoted to “Selections from the Naxi Manuscript Collection” makes frequent reference to Naxi as a “pictographic language.” This is a serious error, rooted in a common but mistaken conflation of language and script. No language is pictographic, as even common sense should be sufficient to reveal. (Surely no one believes that Naxi people are unable to speak to one another but must instead draw pictures in order to hold conversations.)

Moreover, the Naxi pictographic texts are not even writing, properly speaking. The following is from The Languages of China, by Robert Ramsey:

In the strictest sense it is wrong to call these pictographs writing, because they do not normally represent the units of a language. They serve, rather, only as mnemonic devices to remind a priest of the details of a story he already knows by heart. … Moreover, many words of the text — especially those representing abstract concepts — are left completely unrepresented by symbols and must be totally supplied from memory. Sometimes a symbol is inserted into a frame only to elucidate the meaning of another symbol and is itself left unread. … The Naxi have never used these pictographs to communicate with each other — they do not exchange letters, write books, or even keep simple accounts and records with them. Anyone can appreciate the graphic beauty of a Naxi text, but only someone well-versed in the mystical lore of Naxi religion can interpret its meaning and translate it into language. It is not enough simply to be able to speak Naxi.

The Naxi have a different but less interesting script that can be used for real writing.

I hope you will correct the text of your beautiful and informative site accordingly.

This tendency to conflate language and script is one of the main problems interfering with many people’s understanding of the nature of Chinese characters.

3 thoughts on “Naxi pictographs

  1. This post raises a number of interesting questions. My own view is that the Naxi “pictographic language” is indeed a language, and not merely a “script” as you imply, just as classical Chinese (wenyanwen) and literary Tibetan are languages. Some mainland scholars get around the Naxi language/script problem by referring to the pictographs as “Dongba,” the name of the religious practitioners who used them, thus more clearly differentiating the pictographs from the spoken language of the Naxi people. Like the Tibetan monks who in their studies continue to use a highly Sanskritized, scholastic form of Tibetan–which is different from spoken Tibetan in any of its modern or ancient forms–the Dongba “priests” devised their own form of writing, entirely sacral in nature and purposefully esoteric in design.

    For another thing, the author of the post seems to know little about the people called the “Naxi” and their language. In fact, there are two “different but less interesting” scripts used for Naxi. One is “Geba,” which traditionally was used almost solely for divination purposes. The other is a Romanized script devised and promulgated by central government researchers in the 1950s.

    I have traveled extensively in northern Yunnan and have interviewed many Naxi about their language. I have never found an informant who uses either Geba or the Roman script (or the pictographs, for that matter) in everyday life (or for what the author of the post calls “real writing”). The Naxi region was thoroughly sinicized by the 18th century and Chinese has long been the dominant writing system there.

    Further, the questions you raise about what constitutes a language might better be asked of what is known as the Naxi language itself. Naxi informants have told me that pronunciations vary considerably from place to place. A townsperson from Lijiang can find it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to understand the Naxi spoken by a farmer from a distant village. One might make the argument that the Loloish dialects classed as “Naxi” were thrown together by Beijing’s linguists for entirely political reasons. “Simply to be able to speak Naxi,” indeed.

    Finally, Ramsey’s characterization of the pictographs is based on the view held by Joseph Rock, an enthusiastic amateur and autodidact with no training in linguistics. For a more recent view of the “readability” of the Naxi pictographs, see Pan Anshi, “The Translation of Naxi Religious Texts,” in “Naxi and Moso Ethnography,” Oppitz and Hsu, eds., Volkerkundemuseum Zurich, 1998.

    While I sympathize with your concerns about “the tendency to conflate language and script” when it comes to Chinese, I have to disagree when it comes to Naxi (or Dongba) pictographs. Like monastic Tibetan, Confucian Chinese, and medieval Latin, the fact that the pictographic system is not used to write the vernacular, or is not in common use, does not make it any less of a language. As Pan Anshi shows, literacy in this “pictographic language” does require special training and there are obstacles to comprehension, but they are not insurmountable.

    I’d also be curious as to whether the LOC ever responded, as it has been eighteen months and they have not made the change you suggest.

  2. G.A.D., I am grateful for your comment and its information, and I will look for the article you reference. (Unfortunately, I don’t have good access to an interlibrary loan system, so that may take me a while. So far I’ve been able to read only Nicholas J. Allen’s review of the book.) Does Pan argue that the Naxi pictographs are indeed a full writing system in the linguistic sense? That would indeed surprise me.

    As for what is being written, I would certainly agree that it refers back to a language. But as for the script itself (pictographic or otherwise) being language itself rather than representing language, I would have a hard time going along with that.

    I did receive a reply from someone at the LOC, which, if I recall correctly, said something like a more nicely phrased version of “thanks for your careful linguistic considerations, but that sort of thing doesn’t really matter much.” An odd outlook for librarians, methinks.

  3. Pingback: Pinyin news » Zhuang ms found, resembles Naxi documents

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