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Naxi's Special Script

After bidding farewell to the yak, we followed the girls as they bounded down the steep, cobbled streets back into the heart of Lijiang.

We had told Huang we were very interested in learning about “dongba,” the special script used by Naxis for hundreds of years. Although it’s quickly fading into the sunset of other dead and dying languages, dongba is the center of an earnest revival effort, since it has the unique status of being the only pictographic language currently used in the world! We saw many examples of dongba on signs and walls throughout Lijiang.

Huang arranged for us to spend the afternoon learning about dongba script from one of Lijiang’s very few masters of the language, who is also a renowned wood carver – a happy combination of two of the girls’ big interests!

We found his shop along a narrow lane crowded with nondescript souvenir stalls. His shop’s sign, which says, “dongba language,” was written in Chinese, pinyin (the Roman-alphabet transliteration of Chinese) and dongba itself, so we knew we were in the right place. Teacher Liu’s magnificent carvings crowded the walls of the shop.

We were delighted to learn from Huang that Teacher Liu was in fact the father of our stalwart driver! Huang admitted that despite living in Lijiang, guiding tourists here for years, and having worked with Driver Liu a number of times, he had never brought guests to meet Teacher Liu and learn about dongba script.

Huang seemed happy to be doing something new, and asked us to keep trying to think of things to do that would be new to him as well!

Teacher Liu first gave us an introduction to some of the common characters in dongba script.

Many of his paintings and carvings were like mini-dictionaries. It was easy to pick out some obvious characters, like mountain, river, and clothing. He also had a comprehensive dictionary of all of the 1,400 or so dongba characters.

To start our language lesson, the girls (and me!) were eager to ask Teacher Liu if he would give us names in dongba. First we wrote out our Chinese names. He looked at them thoughtfully, wrote down some characters, then turned to his dongba dictionary for inspiration.

While he was considering, I looked up and saw an amazing-looking woman walk by under a towering, black velvet headdress. “She is a Yi minority,” said Huang, and stepped outside to chat with her in the local Yunnan dialect. It turned out that she was down from the remote hills, where most Yis live, visiting her cousin in Lijiang – like us, she was simply a tourist enjoying the sights! Huang asked her politely if we could take a photo with her, and to my surprise, she obliged.

I told her in Chinese that I really liked her hat, which is designed to block the sun while she works in the fields. Then I pulled off my white safari-style, flap-in-the-back hat and said that my hat, like hers, was practical, but unlike hers, it was not very pretty! She suddenly cried out, touching her hand to my face, “Oh, but you, you are SO beautiful! You are so tall and your skin is so white!” Talk about the eye of the beholder...

...but after a week of travel and feeling not beautiful at all, it was nice to hear!

Huang explained that many old people don’t like having their picture taken – which I had often noticed – not because, as I had thought, that they had philosophical reasons against it or because they disliked tourists, but because they consider themselves ugly! Huang confessed that he, too, used to think that the wrinkled, old faces of rural elders were unattractive, but that more recently he had come to appreciate the strength of character and different kind of beauty to be found in such faces.

Teacher Liu composed great names for all of us, using dongba characters to approximate the sounds of our Chinese names. The next step was to carve them into wooden plaques – but first, the girls got to paint them! He does the carving in his shop, but the painting takes places at his house – our next stop!

Just steps away from the shop, and up a narrow flight of stairs, we entered a different world behind the bustle of the street.

Teacher Liu’s wife warmly welcomed the girls and us. We saw tools of the trade casually strewn here and there in a sunny courtyard filled with plants and pets, including turtles and birds.

Seeing that the girls were excited to get to the painting, Mrs. Liu helped them pick colors and find brushes.

The pieces were small, so the task was quickly completed.
While we waited a few minutes for the paint to dry in the sun, we visited with Mrs. Liu and her son, our driver, in their living room. While we chatted and looked at family photos, she served up juicy watermelon.

After a round of snapshots, we headed back down to the shop to start the main event: wood carving!

Teacher Liu warned that the hard wood would be a little difficult for the girls to carve, so he first demonstrated the technique and encouraged them to practice on a scrap piece.

Mrs. Liu also came down to help.
While the girls practiced, Teacher Liu drew their new names onto the plaques.

And in a few minutes, the girls were carving away!



The sight of two foreign kids sitting in the shop, carving wood and chatting away with Teacher Liu in Chinese, drew the attention of quite a few passers-by.

Not for the first time in China, and certainly not for the last, the girls were also found themselves to be tourist attractions!

This gentleman, a Japanese, politely asked permission before snapping away. Other tourists from Singapore and Malaysia were equally interested in girl-watching.

While the carving continued, Tom and I looked more closely at the beautiful works created by Teacher Liu. One in particular caught our eye: a painted dictionary of dongba words mounted on a textured paper of a beautiful blue color.

We quietly discussed where we might hang it in our new house, imagining it against one of the walls in the living room. Finally, we asked Teacher Liu if we could see it up close and were astounded to learn that the “painting” was actually a scroll containing the entire 1,400+ character dongba alphabet. It's a full 26 meters long!

Teacher Liu casually offered to unroll it and let us see the whole thing! He held one end and sent Miranda up the street with the other.
It took our whole family, plus Driver Liu and a few volunteers, to hold up the entire scroll. It attracted a lot of attention!

When we saw it revealed, we immediately realized that such an enormous and beautiful work of art was far beyond our means; moreover, we knew it deserved to be somewhere other than a private home. Teacher Liu told us that he conceived of and completed the mammoth painting during the months of the SARS epidemic in early 2003, when China virtually emptied of tourists. He hopes one day to sell it to a museum, and we hope to see it there one day, too.

Instead of the scroll, we commissioned him to paint for us an identical-looking, partial dictionary, which we will hang in our new house. We hope he can come see it there someday.

In addition to their carvings, the girls had Teacher Liu inscribe their dongba names onto stone “chops” for them to use as signatures. And to keep the dongba message alive on a daily basis, we also went to a design-on-the-spot t-shirt store, where the saleslady decorated their shirts with their favorite characters from their dongba names.

Now they can carry the culture to the wider world!

Next: Morning Market

Lijiang chapters: Intro Dance Yaks Script Market Paper Dinner
Yunnan chapter shortcuts: Intro Dali Lijiang Tiger Leaping Gorge Zhongdian

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