Tuesday, July 2, 2013


                                                      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.
dongba pictographs
    However, four of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities—the Naxi, Shui, Yi and Dai—did have writing systems.  Granted, except for Dai, these systems were only known to the ritual specialists.  But in the case of the Naxi and Yi, these specialists produced thousands of books, a great number of which have survived, covering much more than rituals and religious injunctions.  They include myths, legends, fables, riddles, puzzles, romances, war stories, moral tales, philosophy—in short, they are like works of ancient ethnic literature.    
    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.
    The dongbas wrote their manuscripts on local paper, made into thin, rectangular books.  They were not complete manuscripts, however, but abridged versions or detailed summaries.  When using the book in a ceremony the dongba didn’t so much as read it but use it as a guide to the keywords of the ritual, story, etc. and fill in the rest of the text by memory, from having done the exercise so many times already. 
pictographs decorating a Naxi house
    The revolution in 1949 put an end to the dongba tradition, for the new regime saw it as backward and superstitious.  The practice survived in remote areas, but the production of manuscripts did not.  In the Reform Era of the 80s traditional ethnic culture was back in favor again, but the mind-set that prevailed when dongbas were active community members was not part of the revival.   The last surviving dongbas went to work not as ritual specialists again, but at a government office as translators of old manuscripts.  Nevertheless, with ethnic pride back in full swing, the dongba script has seen new use in modern painting, carpet weaving designs and city signboards, even if nobody can really read it. 
    The least known writing system in Yunnan is that of the Shui nationality.  They inhabit a few places in counties next to Guizhou Province, where over 90% of the community resides.  Called Shuishu, the system was known only to ritual specialists and its books dealt only with geomancy and divination.  Denoting some 500 words only, the characters are sometimes simple pictographs, other times similar to simple Chinese ideographs but backwards or upside down.  Shuishu books are very small, more like manuals, and the use of them has all but ceased.
    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
    The use and knowledge of this script was also, like the Naxi and Shui, restricted to the ritual specialist, or bìmaw.   Actually, he was more important than the Naxi dongba.  In fact, he was the second most important person in the village, after the chief, for he was the reference, the authority, by virtue of the information contained in his books, on all matters of culture, custom and precedent.
    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. 
   In the end, the project group came up with a system of 785 letters and produced a Yi-Chinese dictionary several inches thick.  A traditionally conservative people, (with the Nosuo Yi that’s almost fiercely so) the Yi revived the bìmaw tradition in the 80s, with even young men taking up the task of learning the script and, more importantly, using it to make new books.  
palm-leaf manuscripts, Xishuangbanna
   The writing system used by the broadest spectrum of society, and not restricted to the ritual specialists, was that used by the Dai; more specifically, since some of Yunnan’s Dai are animist, that used by the Buddhist Dai.  Two scripts, both true alphabets, came into use in the 13th-14th centuries, one for the Dai Neua of Lincang and Dehong and one for the Dai Lu of Xishuangbanna. 
   The Dai Neua script resembles the one used for the Thai language.  Originally it lacked tone indicators and letters for certain vowel sounds.  After the establishment of the People’s Republic the government backed a local committee that reformed the alphabet by introducing tonal marks and new letters to indicate vowel sounds not previously identified by a single letter.  The government officially introduced the new system in 1956.
   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
   Monasteries kept this literature on palm leaf manuscripts.  Artisans making these used the long narrow leaves of the royal palm tree.  After cutting the leaves and shearing the ends to make them straight, they boiled them in a large wok, which took away the green color.  The next step was to flatten and dry them in the sun.  After that they were ready.  Another specialist used a stylus, shaped like a big, thick pencil, to inscribe the text, then rubbed ink into the lines of the letters.  When that process was concluded the final step was to rub a thin coat of oil over the leaf, to help preserve it. 
   When the Chinese government began devising or reforming writing systems for its ethnic minorities in the 50s it opted to ‘modernize’ the existing Dai script rather than introduce a new one based on English letters.  But in later years of political upheaval, like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, government cadres discouraged the use of either alphabet, old or new, and even the public use of the spoken language.  After the Reform Era and its more favorable attitude towards ethnic traditions, the use of the Dai alphabet returned, only it was the old, original script rather than the new one.  But that use remained restricted to the monasteries and once the monks or novices left they had no further need for it. 
   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
   In Pollard’s and Fraser’s systems, the sounds of the vowels a, e, i ,o, u are that of those vowels in Italian.  To represent vowel sounds that were different, as well as consonants not represented by a single letter in English, they used English letters printed backwards or upside down.   Basically these alphabets were devised to publish Christian literature and Bible translations, but they survive today, because the Miao and Lisu in those areas are still Christian and can read the lyrics to the hymns they sing at Sunday services.  For both languages the government devised scripts to replace the Pollard and Fraser ones, but these never caught on and were only ever used on bi-lingual government office signs.
   If Yunnan’s ethnic minority alphabets were going to be restricted, as customary, to religious specialists or religious works, they would be of only marginal interest in a contemporary world dominated by the Chinese and English writing systems.  But they are also part of Yunnan’s ethnic revivalism, a phenomenon shaping the province’s history for the past two decades.  And in some cases, the use of these alphabets has extended beyond their traditional class of users and been pushed in new directions.
Yi language class, Bainiuchang, Ninglang County
   In Ninglang County the local Yi government successfully lobbied for an “experimental” bi-lingual school, in which primary students the first few years could be taught in the Yi language, then gradually introduced to instruction in Chinese.  The chosen school was in Bainiuchang village, in the eastern mountains of the county, with over 200 students.  In addition to the bi-lingual primary grades instruction, about 25 of the students received daily classes in the written Yi language.  The school used books printed in Xichang in the Yi script, dealing not only with stories and history, but also science and mathematics.
   In Guangma village, Luchun County, the local school in 1994 began instruction in the Hani language up to the fifth grade.  Twice a week all the students took classes in reading and writing the Hani language, with the alphabet the government devised for them, which was actually based on the Luchun dialect.  So far, publications in the Hani language have been folk tales, mythology, stories about the origin of customs etc, mainly in the line of preservation rather than new, modern literature.  But that’s a task they feel must not be neglected.  The Hani-language  new literature can (and will) come later.
books in the Hani language
   Yunnan’s minorities have become highly conscious of their ethnic identities in recent decades.  They have revived, and have tried to maintain, much of the tradition that was officially attacked and undermined so many years.  Naturally indigenous writing systems would be part of this revival.  But beyond being an issue of cultural preservation is another aspect in examining why a people preserve an alphabet and make books that can only be read by a small number of people.
   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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