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The 'alphabets' of Yunnan

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Dongba pictographs
Dongba pictographs

The Chinese writing system has been used in Yunnan since the Han Dynasty, over a thousand years before the province 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. 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.

However, four of Yunnan's ethnic minorities — the Naxi (纳西族), Shui (水族), Yi (彝族) and Dai (傣族) — did have writing systems. Granted, except for Dai, these systems were only known to 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, morality tales and philosophy. In short, they are like works of ancient ethnic literature.

Pictographs decorating a Naxi house
Pictographs decorating a Naxi house

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 (白水台) 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 3,000 words. Additionally, about 700 simplified glyphs represented sounds or grammatical elements, such as tense.

The dongba wrote their manuscripts on local paper, which was 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 or story, filling in the rest of the text by memory.

The revolution in 1949 largely put an end to 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 1980s, traditional ethnic culture came back into favor, but the mind-set that prevailed when dongba were active community members was not part of the revival. The last surviving dongba went to work not as ritual specialists, 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 no one can really read it.

Page from an Yi language book
Page from an Yi language book

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 percent 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 percent of the province's overall population. They are divided into some two dozen sub-groups and speak five major dialects. However, they have a single writing system, used by nearly all sub-groups. It is a true alphabet, albeit a syllabic one. The Yi claim it developed during the Tang Dynasty, though the oldest inscriptions date from fifteenth century.

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 and authority, by virtue of the information contained in his books, on all matters of culture, custom and precedent.

Palm leaf manuscripts, Xishuangbanna
Palm leaf manuscripts, Xishuangbanna

Originally the Yi script contained 1,840 letters, but with a few thousand regional variants. In the 1970s the Chinese 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 many Nosuo Yi books. In this Yi stronghold, feuding was traditionally a part of life. The bìmaw sometimes tried to protect the information in their books — such as 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 an Yi-Chinese dictionary several inches thick. A traditionally conservative people — with the Nosuo Yi, almost fiercely so — the Yi revived their bìmaw tradition in the 1980s, with many young men taking up the task of learning the script and, more importantly, using it to make new books.

Inscribing a palm leaf manuscript
Inscribing a palm leaf manuscript

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 between the thirteenth and fourteenth 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. But 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 during the fourteenth century. It was based on the Pali alphabet of India, though somewhat more cursive, and resembling the one used in Myanmar 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.

Monasteries kept this literature on palm leaf manuscripts. Artisans making them 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.

Fraser's Lisu alphabet in a Nujiang church
Fraser's Lisu alphabet in a Nujiang church

When the Chinese government began devising or reforming writing systems for its ethnic minorities in the 1950s, 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, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, government cadres discouraged the use of either alphabet, old or new. 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 use remained restricted to the monasteries and once the monks or novices left, they had no further need for it.

Elsewhere, with non-literate minorities, the Chinese government introduced alphabets based on English letters, rather than diacritical marks, to indicate tones. They were not the first to do so. Western missionaries including Pollard in the northeast, and Fraser in the far west, introduced alphabets for the Miao and Lisu languages respectively. These also employed English letters, but differently than the Chinese would do later.

In the Pollard and Fraser 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. 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 bilingual government office signs.

Yi language class, Ninglang County
Yi language class, Ninglang County

If Yunnan's ethnic minority alphabets were going to be restricted, as was 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.

In Ninglang County the local Yi government successfully lobbied for an 'experimental' bilingual school, in which primary students could be taught in the Yi language for a few years, and then gradually introduced to instruction in Chinese. The chosen school was in Bainiuchang Village (白牛厂村), in the eastern mountains of the county, with more than 200 students. In addition to the bilingual primary grades instruction, about 25 of the students received daily classes in the written Yi language. The school used books printed in the Yi script, which dealt not only with stories and history, but also science and mathematics.

In Guangma Village (广马村), Lüchun County, a 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 predominate Lüchun dialect. So far, publications in Hani have consisted of folk tales, mythology and stories about the origin of customs. These are mainly in the line of preservation, rather than in creating new, modern literature. But that too is a task many Hani feel must not be neglected.

Yunnan's minorities have become highly conscious of their ethnic identities in recent decades. They have revived and have tried to maintain many of the traditions that were officially attacked and undermined for so many years. Naturally indigenous writing systems would be part of this revival. But beyond being an issue of cultural preservation, another important aspect is examining why a people preserve an alphabet and make books that can only be read by a small number of people.

Books in the Hani language
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. Both had writing systems — the Yi alphabet and Chinese ideographs. Then Pollard introduced his alphabet and 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 their oppressors. The Miao were now their civilized equals.

The lesson was clear. There are two kinds of people in this world — literate with writing systems, and non-literate. It 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.

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam, and soon, through Yunnan as well.

Images: Jim Goodman

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Another great Jim Goodman article.


Interesting article Jim. I'm not sure the Dai information is all accurate, however.

I condensed a summary of the information in 'The History and Development of Shan Scripts', Sai Kam Mong, 2004, for my maybe-one-decade-it-will-be-finished upcoming ancient history book. You can see the summary here: pratyeka.org/scripts.png

Pali is not an alphabet, it's a middle-Indian prakrit language that has been written in many different scripts. It came to the Dai via Burma via Sri Lanka, and was decidedly not 'Indian' at that time (it is the scriptural language of Theravada Buddhism, which had died out in mainland India by this time).

Materials wise, I have photographs of locally made paper being used for Dai scriptural copying in the Jinggu area, so it's probably salient to point out that the Dai did not only use palm leaf for their writing materials.

Finally, the reason many Tai groups had reasonable literacy was because of the Theravada Buddhist monkhood, which provided an educational setting for the development of literacy amongst at least the male population. However, I am not sure how much non-religious content was written and read. Certainly in many areas there has been a local body of political history preserved (usually translated as '<placename> Chronicles' in English), though I'm not sure to what volume other material existed.

Several of Pollards diaries and books can be found on Internet. They are well worth a read. What a landcape it was! Post-rebellions, brimming with poverty and human destiny. Yi landlords and their slaves. Miao getting a glimpse of hope, of somekind. Opium and suicides. Zhaotong was hell on earth still long after Pollard left the area.

A good read.

There are no 'English letters' (except ð and þ), just a Latin alphabet.

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