The World's Only Living Pictographic Language Is Dying

November 5, 2007 12:00 am Last Updated: November 5, 2007 12:00 am

On October 28, the Xinhua News Agency reported that the world's only living pictographic language—the Dongba script—is slowly fading into extinction due to lack of successors and altered authenticity resulting from commercialization.

Among the few ethnic minorities found in China, the Naxi people from Lijiang, Yunnan Province possess an ancient and mystic tradition—the Dongba culture. Several scholars regard the ancestral worship of the natural world preserved in the Dongba texts as the origin of Naxi's continuing effort to maintain a unity and harmony with nature.

Having acquired a reputation as being the world's sole surviving and best-preserved hieroglyphic writing system, the Dongba script contains close to 1,300 pictograms. Dongba manuscripts primarily discuss religious rituals, astronomy, geography, folklore, medicine and their military history. These texts are essentially an encyclopedia of ancient Naxi society.

Around 14,000 volumes of Dongba manuscripts are safely protected in the Naxi community. The texts trace the life of their ancestors recording how they transitioned from a primitive culture to a society based in slavery and up through their feudal past.

Yang Fuquan, president of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences and a cultural anthropologist specializing in Naxi culture, explains that in Dongba script, a complex sentence might only have a few symbols, relying on the reader's memory to fill in the blanks. The sentence is not expressed word by word. Instead, the drawn symbols only serve to bring back the reader's memory.

In 2003, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) included Dongba manuscripts into their Memory of the World Register. Among the five cultural traditions originating from China included in the Memory of the World Register, Dongba manuscripts are the only cultural artifact that belongs to an ethnic minority.

“To ensure its survival, the characteristic features of the Dongba script can only be saved by passing it down from generation to generation. But at present, there are only ten to twenty people that know the Dongba script,” said Mu Chen, a researcher from the Lijiang Museum.

Scholars are worried that the Naxi hieroglyphic writing system may die to history as the handful of aged Dongbas pass away.

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