by Jim Goodman
The Chinese writing system has been used in Yunnan since the Han Dynasty, over a thousand years before Yunnan became integrated into the Chinese state polity. The system, of course, is ideographic; that is to say, its characters represent ideas or words, not the sounds of vowels, consonants or syllables like the letters of an alphabet. The advantage to ideographs is that people can still read them no matter which dialect of Chinese they may speak. The disadvantage is that they are so complex and take so long to learn. It wasn’t until relatively recently in history that the majority of the Chinese population could read and write ideographs.
Yunnan was originally occupied by non-Chinese people, from many different ethnic groups and sub-groups. Even today one-third of the population of the province is non-Han, living on two-thirds of the territory. The government recognizes 24 minority nationalities and the larger ones all have several sub-groups and dialect differences. Most of their languages have no written system, although many of these ethnic groups believe they used to have one, but it got eaten, lost, destroyed or whatever. This was a tribal tragedy, for it made them ever since feel inferior to those who did have a writing system.
The best known of these native writing systems is the Naxi dongba script. Said to be the invention of Dongba Shilo, a Bön shaman in the Baishuitai area several centuries ago, dongba script is a pictographic system that uses simplified pictures of the area’s flora and fauna, such as just the head of animal, and stick figures of humans that when in motion signified verbs; altogether depicting about 3000 words. Additionally, about 700 simplified glyphs represented sounds or grammatical elements, such as tense.
|pictographs decorating a Naxi house
The most widely used ethnic writing system was the script used by the Yi. They are the largest minority nationality in Yunnan, comprising about 11% of the province’s population. They are divided into some two dozen sub-groups and speak five major dialects. But they have a single writing system, used by nearly all sub-groups, and it is a true alphabet, albeit a syllabic one. The Yi claim it developed in the Tang Dynasty, though the oldest inscriptions are 15th century.
|Yi language book
Originally the Yi script contained 1840 letters, but with a few thousand regional variants. In the 1970s the government sponsored a project to standardize the script, based on that used by the Nosuo Yi in the Liangshan Mountains in Xichang, Sichuan and Ninglang County, Yunnan. Besides the regional and dialect differences, there was also a problem with the Nosuo Yi books. In this Yi stronghold feuding was traditionally part of Yi life. The bìmaws sometimes tried to protect the information in their books, like the spells and magical formulas, which might fall into enemy hands, by writing it in code, making up their own variations of the traditional letters.
|palm-leaf manuscripts, Xishuangbanna
In Xishuangbanna, the Dai Lu adopted the alphabet introduced by invading armies from Lanna in northern Thailand in the 14th century. Though somewhat more cursive, it resembles the Burmese script used today. As in other Buddhist Dai areas, boys in the villages entered the monastery at an early age and monks there taught them how to read and write. The longer they stayed the more literate they became. The Dai script was used for all religious manuscripts, most of which were Buddhist sutras. But the manuscripts also covered folklore, history, mathematics, medical knowledge, astrology and farmers’ almanacs.
|inscribing on a palm=leaf manuscript
Elsewhere, with the non-literate minorities, the Chinese introduced alphabets based on English letters, using letters, rather than diacritical marks, to indicate tones. They were not the first to do so. Western missionaries like Pollard in the northeast and Fraser in the far west, had introduced alphabets for the Miao language of western Guizhou and northeast Yunnan and the Lisu language in Baoshan and Nujiang. They also employed English letters, but differently than the Chinese did later on.
|Fraser's Lisu alphabet on a Nujiang church
|Yi language class, Bainiuchang, Ninglang County
|books in the Hani language
When Samuel Pollard was preaching to the Miao they were suffering from the oppression of Yi landlords and Chinese officials, both of whom looked down on the Miao as less civilized human beings. And both of them had writing systems—the Yi alphabet and the Chinese ideographs. Then Pollard introduced his alphabet. Quickly the Miao could read and write, too. Theirs was now, like that of the Yi and Chinese, a literate culture. Consequently, their status, in their own eyes, shot up to match that of the Yi and Chinese. The Miao were now their civilized equals.
The lesson from this was clear. There are two kinds of peoples in this world: literate (with writing systems) and non-literate. Doesn’t matter how many people can read and write the system. Literate people look down on non-literate people. It also doesn’t matter from where a people got their writing system, only whether or not they had one at all. And if or when they did, well then, they were part of the upper classes of humanity.
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