The world’s last picture writing: Naxi Dongba manuscripts

Imagine a book composed of images alone – not a comic book, where words and images are placed side by side, but a book where the images are the words themselves. This is the world of Naxi Dongba writing. Where did these books come from? How can they be read? What were they used for? These are the questions that this exhibition hopes to answer.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, when European colonial powers were still launching great expeditions to map the river valleys of Asia, explorers and missionaries discovered, quite by accident, a kind of picture-writing still in use by a number of local tribes in southwest China. These tribes would eventually be grouped under the umbrella term of “Naxi”, one of China’s 55 official minority peoples, and their pictographic script has been recognized by UNESCO as a unique part of the world’s documentary heritage.

Leiden University Libraries (UBL) acquired a collection of 33 Naxi books in 1998-1999 from a young collector, Mr. G.-J. O Bouwman, formerly of Groenekan, Utrecht. To modern eyes, the Naxi manuscripts, written left to right in string-bound books composed of rectangular sheets of coarse paper, almost look like they are composed of comic book panels, populated with figures and scenes drawn with simple lines that evoke ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

These are not “books” as we know it. Inaccessible to ordinary people, they can only be deciphered by the ritual specialists – shamans – of the Naxi. The manuscripts record the religious myths and rituals of this remote minority group living in the Himalayan foothills of southwest China. The books are unique because they are written in the “Dongba” script, a writing system that is often called the world’s last living pictographs.



These are manuscripts filled with stick figures and animal heads, depicting high mountain peaks and lush vegetation, as well as countless evil spirits and corrupting forces. The ritual specialists of the Naxi, known as the “Dongba”, perform their rites by reciting these books during elaborate ceremonies. Scholars suggest that the content of the books, still in use today, can be linked back to the ancient Bon religion of pre-Buddhist Tibet. The script was perhaps at its height in the Qing dynasty, but these books are still written and read in and around Lijiang, China, to this day, and a trip to the cultural centre of Lijiang will reveal the abundance of Naxi Dongba script on signage across the city. However, the Dongba traditions that have been passed down since ancient times only exist in remote Naxi villages of Yunnan and Sichuan. There are few old Dongba shamans who can really decipher and explain the mythological plot in the ancient manuscripts, and they live in the far-off mountains.

It wasn’t until the Austro-American botanist explorer, Joseph Rock (1884–1962) began his expeditions into China’s mountainous southwest in the early twentieth century that the world began to have some idea what the Naxi books contained. Rock, famous for being the National Geographic magazine’s “man in China” in the 1920s and 30s, was captivated by the ritual books he found in the possession of the Dongba shamans while plant hunting in China’s borderlands. Rock went on to devote the remaining years of his life to the translation of these books that contained such a treasure house of knowledge, a corpus of literature that, for Rock, offered tantalising glimpses at the indigenous religion of pre-Buddhist Tibet.


The title of the exhibition, as shown in the banner of this page, was written in Naxi Dongba script by 80-year-old Dongba Xi Shanhong, "Seeing the Dongba books of ancestors sacrifice once again" (Dobbaq yuqbiuq tei'ee lei ddoq seiq).


This online exhibition was jointly organized by the Beijing Association of Dongba Culture and Arts (ADCA) and Leiden University Libraries (UBL).