Booklets and Scriptures
There are an estimated 21,000 Naxi works in existence with the majority being possessed by Chinese libraries (Jackson). Most of these writings are in the form of booklets such as the one pictured below from the U.S. Library of Congress, the largest collection of Naxi manuscripts outside of China (Library of Congress). Originating around the same time the Naxi moved to the area of Lijiang 1,000 years ago, some of the ancient booklets likely owe their survival to the unique paper from which they are made (Large Tomatoes Media Group).
Crafted from the pulp of the Wikstroemia delavayi or Bodhi tree, Dongba paper is slightly poisonous, making it resistant to moths. In ancient times the practice of papermaking was very ritualistic and only extremely venerated Dongbas were allowed to practice this art form. So too was the creation of the booklets ritualized with each one written using a bamboo stylus the author themselves would make (Xu). This has changed in recent years. Now a number of ordinary books are printed using Dongba paper produced either industrially or by ordinary villagers (Yang et al.). The Dongba themselves have little involvement. However, perhaps because of this shift, the traditional techniques are still known to a number of the Naxi, and are still of interest to scholars.
Indeed, a great deal of scholarship has been conducted by both Chinese and other academic sources regarding these booklets due to their unique nature. Uniqueness often breeds controversy though, and this work is no exception. The manner in which the booklets are organized is widely accepted and is one which a comic book reader would find quite familiar upon first examination. Each phrase is separated into its own frame and thus can be thought of as similar to a sentence. These frames are then read from left to right and down the page as a book would be in English.
What does lead to controversy is the way in which the phrases must be read in order to be understood. In certain instances abstract ideas are not explicitly stated and thus must be drawn from the Dongba’s memory, while at other times a symbol is meant to be read aloud repeatedly when it only appears once within the frame (Milnor). Such inconsistency requires that one be taught how to read each piece by a Dongba in order to properly state the myths in ceremony, leading many to question whether it should be classified as a fully developed language. Regardless of the pictographs’ designation, they serve as essential tools for conveying meaning within Naxi culture and are certainly a distinctive form of communication.
As the language is utilized almost exclusively by the Dongba and the Dongba themselves can be considered a type of priest within Naxi culture, it makes sense that most of their writings concern spiritual topics. Of those topics, the most common tend to be chants for the exorcism of demons. All diseases have a spiritual component in the Naxi worldview and thus they often call upon the Dongba to perform rituals when a person is ill. The words upon the booklet will be chanted as is appropriate for the ceremony and the edges of the booklet are often burned as they are being sung, the upper left corner of the piece above being one such example. Smoke from this burning is viewed as an additional vehicle by which the words may be conveyed to the spirits and serves as reinforcement for the power of the voice (Library of Congress). Unlike smoke though, such chanting and its accompanying music are meant to serve three purposes; “it is intended to please the spirits, to please people so that neither the audience nor the practitioner feel boredom…, and to summon ghosts for pacification and the expulsion of evil” (Rees). Chanting can then be seen as both practical and divine within the Dongba religion, and such traditions continue to have a strong impact today.
An Everyday Example: Aspiration Wind-bells in Lijiang
The Naxi tradition can not only be felt within Lijiang, but heard as well in the form of the Dongba Aspiration Bells which are found throughout the city. Dating back over 600 years, many different shapes and styles of bells have adorned Lijiang’s majestic landscape. Despite physical differences however, their secure position with Naxi culture has remained constant.
The bells’ original purposes, much like the chanting of the Dongba, are both practical and spiritual in nature. Since the trade route through the city was its lifeblood, the citizens inevitably worried for the safety of the travelers along it. So, to assuage this fear, bells were then created which the traders would ring to both ensure the populace they were safe and make them aware that they had arrived to do business. While this particular use has died out, the advent of tourism has caused the wind-bell tradition to only grow stronger due to the spiritual beliefs which are also associated with them.
The Naxi believe everything in the world is connected and that these bells can resonate along that connection. Due to this fact, Dongba script is often painted above them on wooden boards or other materials, signifying a hope which the person has. They then sign their name on it and tie it up to hang it in the wind. Many are left in Lijiang, and they combine with the sound of the waterways to create a music that can be heard nowhere else. A number of signs exist within the city explaining the bells, with the following passage written in multiple languages:
“This is a miracle place, you call the heaven,
it answers, you call the earth, it responds ……
Make your wish from your heart”