Universiteit Leiden

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Online exhibition - The world’s last picture writing: Naxi Dongba manuscripts

Manuscripts that look like a comic book, that's how you could describe the manuscripts of the Dongba people from China. The manuscripts are one of the last examples of a so-called pictographic script that can only be interpreted by Dongba priests, shamans, who have knowledge of the ancient Dongba culture.

The Leiden University Libraries (UBL) holds a collection of 33 manuscripts that record the customs, religious practices, and life of the Naxi people living in the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. Written in pictographic script, Naxi literature consists almost exclusively of ritual texts. Also referred to as Dongba script, it is only intelligible to Dongba priests with a deep understanding of Naxi ancestral culture. The online exhibition gives an impression of the manuscripts, the way in which they should be read and the research that is being done in China into this culture.

Naxi manuscript
Or. 25.260

Association of Dongba Culture and Arts

The challenge of duly cataloging these manuscripts would have remained impossible to meet without the support and hard work of the Association of Dongba Culture and Arts (ADCA) a Chinese non-profit organization in Beijing. Its main goal is to help preserve the ancient Dongba heritage of China, and actively promote the understanding of Dongba culture, arts and traditions both nationally and internationally. In its endeavors, the ADCA has received encouragement from both the Central Government of China, the Beijing Municipal Government, and the Government of the Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County. The ADCA has received the long-term support of UNESCO.

‘The purpose of studying these manuscripts is not simply to describe an extinct tradition, but to try to breathe life into a cultural edifice that was once on the precipice of extinction. Digitizing the books and bringing them back to the Naxi areas allows for their continued use.’

Zhang Xu Tayoulamu, President of Beijing Association of Dongba Culture and Arts and Duncan Poupard,
Assistant Professor in Translation at the Chinese University of Hong Kong

Academic collaboration and Dongba priest Xi Shanghong

In 2019, Leiden University Libraries signed an Academic Cooperation Agreement with the ADCA. Leiden’s manuscripts were scanned, the images brought to the mountains in South-West China, and presented to Dongba priest Xi Shanghong to be deciphered. Each manuscript in the Leiden collection has been recorded by ADCA researchers in the field, preserving the interpretation and reading of the Dongba pictographs by the old Dongba priest. The contents have then been translated and the manuscripts catalogued. The catalogue entries include a summary of the contents, the name and purpose of the ceremony, and the provenance of the book etc.
At the end of 2022, Leiden received a report on each manuscript. Whenever possible, the ADCA team provided a title and its transcription, a related ritual, a place of origin, a summary of the content with additional notes. These reports also tell stories, giving us an insight on the richness and the vigor of an ancestral culture where gods, ghost and human beings live together, as priest Xi Shanghong also provides useful comments on the rituals and the way ceremonies should be held.

‘The challenge of duly cataloging these manuscripts would have remained impossible to meet without the support and hard work of the Beijing Association of Dongba Culture and Arts (ADCA)’

Marc Gilbert, curator Chinese Manuscripts and Printed Works

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