By MI CHU WIENS
An Asian scholar is deciphering a collection of pictographic manuscripts in the Asian Division that he classifies as the finest example of the only living pictographic language in the world today.
Zhu Bao-Tian, a noted cultural anthropologist from the Yunnan Provincial Museum in China, is preparing a research guide to the Naxi (pronounced NA-shi) pictographic manuscripts in the Library's Chinese collections.
Naxi pictographs differ from Chinese characters and may be compared to Egyptian or Mayan hieroglyphs. A simplified form of Naxi pictographic writing is still in use in Lijiang District of the Yunnan Province.
"The Naxi manuscripts are a living fossil for the study of ancient culture," said Mr. Zhu, who is one of the few non-Naxi with Naxi fluency, having learned the language at the Central Institute for Nationalities in Beijing, and from the Naxi Dongba, or priests, when he lived among the Naxi people for two years in the late 1950s.
Today there are 260,000 Naxi people. They are one of 50 or so ethnic minorities in China. Their predominant tribe, the Moso, is matrilineal. Mostly farmers and traders, the Naxi live in the Himalayan foothills near the Yangtze River. Although there are still practicing Naxi priests, they use a simplified pictographic system to produce a limited set of manuscripts, which they use for standard ceremonies such as funerals and blessings. Some Naxi people conduct ceremonies independently at small altars in their kitchens.
The Library's collection of 3,038 manuscripts is the largest outside of China, and considered the finest in the world as it is unrivaled in quality and variety among Naxi collections in Europe, Taiwan and China, Mr. Zhu said.
The manuscripts are from the remote mountain valleys of the Yunnan Province in southwest China near the Tibetan and Burmese borders. The present prefectural city of Lijiang was once the center of the powerful Naxi kingdom, which flourished with varying degrees of independence from the eighth century until 1724, when it came under the direct Chinese rule of the Qing Dynasty.
Naxi pictographs at first glance resemble the hieroglyphics in the Book of Death of ancient Egypt. They are, however, more sophisticated and complete because they range from a system of symbols to a complicated rebus with verbs, particles and phonetics. The booklets portray a distinctive religion with a unique theological interpretation of the cosmos.
The Dongbas, who created the booklets in the Library's collection, used them as prompts for religious rituals and shamanistic ceremonies of which they were the sole purveyors. When the priests died, the sacred books were buried with them in mountain caves or sometimes burned in funeral pyres. Many of the edges of the books in the Library's collection are charred.
The Library purchased the collection between 1924 and 1948 from Joseph Rock, a self-taught botanist who spent 24 years in the Yunnan Province in the 1920s, '30s and '40s for National Geographic, studying the culture of the Naxi and collecting manuscripts.
Another early Naxi scholar was Quentin Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt. After traveling to Lijiang to collect manuscripts, he reported on his journey in the April 1940 edition of Natural History: The Magazine of the American Museum of Natural History.
"These old documents ... are extremely rare and scientifically important because almost nothing is known of the [Naxi] people whose history they reveal. Furthermore, the art of making the books has died out and the scrolls, which used to take a skilled [Dongba] six months to make while in a trance, are scarcely ever seen now. The writing, unlike anything known elsewhere, resembles superficially the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, but it has a certain action and humor that separates it at once from anything so stylized. The characters, at first glance, look like a child's picture book, a sort of Mickey Mouse. There are many little drawings of cows, horses, birds, tigers, dwarfs and strange gods that show a vigorous and refreshing artistic style."
The Dongba priests wrote on coarse, handmade paper. Sheets were sown together at the left edge to form a book. Pages were ruled horizontally, and the pictographs were drawn from left to right in three or five sections within the rules. Somewhat thicker sheets of paper form a stiff cover, which has the title. They were usually named after the type of ceremony for which they were used. A large percentage of the ceremonies deal with exorcism, but the manuscripts in the Library's collection also include a pictographic creation story, a sacrifice to the serpent king, accounts of famous people ascending to the realm of deities and love-suicide stories.
According to a 1955 assessment of the Library's manuscripts for the Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology Academia Sinica (Taipei, Taiwan, 1958) by art historian Li Lin-Ts'an, "The Yunnan Province was famous for Yunnan pines. Their wood, after being set on fire, liberates a soot which is easy to collect. This soot, when mixed with some glue and water, forms an excellent ink. During winter, the leisure season for farmers, the [Naxi] sorcerers, without any farming work to do, sat down by their fireplace and using a bamboo pen dipped it into their ink while humming to themselves, and they began to write a Sacred Book for pleasure or for some special festival usage."
Mr. Li wrote: "The books for sacrifices to those who committed suicide from frustrated love are the most romantic and poetic of the [Naxi] people. The [Naxi] youth all believe that at the upper part of the Jade Dragon Mountain, just under the white snow peaks, there is a wonderful land, with thousands of kinds of flowers covering its fields, called 'The Kingdom of the Suicide Lovers.' If any couple, who because of love frustration, climb to this wonderful place and kill themselves, they will never part from each other again and will keep their youth and beauty forever, and will be happy always."
Mr. Li reported that 440 of the volumes in the Library's collection were for funeral ceremonies. "This great number is due to the fact that the [Naxi] people look upon death as an affair of great moment." The Naxis believe the soul goes immediately to hell. One of the Dongbas' primary duties is to lead souls out of hell. Another 74 volumes were used for divination, wrote Li. "The [Naxi] people are a tribe whose members like divination above all other things."
The rare manuscripts cover the history of a writing system over a span of 400 years. Although the Dongbas were free to use their own systems, the pictographic scripts have considerable uniformity in depicting environmental features and ritual objects. The uniformity is due to the environmental and cultural contexts shared by the priests.
One of the first 69 manuscripts that the Library bought from Rock in 1924 contains a pictographic creation myth. "It was immediately recognized as an important document for the study not only of the Naxi language and literature, but also the folklore and shamanistic ceremonies," said Mr. Zhu.
A 40-foot scroll from Rock's collection tells of the soul's journey from death to heaven. It tells how the soul was tortured by demons in hell. The torture redeems his karma and his soul journeys to the realm of heaven.
Mr. Zhu is dividing the manuscripts into 13 categories: sacrifice to the highest deity, sacrifice to the serpent king, romance and love-related ceremonies, prayers for longevity, aspiration for wisdom, sacrifice to the god of bravery and victory, ancestral worship, repelling sickness, casting out evil spirits, blocking malicious ghosts, prayers for a better reincarnation, divination and miscellaneous ceremonies.
Mr. Zhu's catalog, A Research Guide to the Naxi Manuscripts in the Library of Congress, will describe each manuscript, transcribe the pictographs and provide a Naxi phonetic transcription, a Chinese translation, a description of the contents of each manuscript and its size and physical features.
Mr. Zhu has also reviewed and published a catalog on the Harvard University collection and has surveyed the Peabody Museum's holdings and Quentin Roosevelt's private collection. At Harvard from 1995 to 1997, Mr. Zhu cataloged the Yenching Library's 598 Naxi manuscripts, arranging them into 13 categories and redrawing the pictographs.
Mr. Zhu's two-year cataloging project for the Library of Congress is made possible by a $60,000 grant to the Library from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, a private organization that promotes the study of Chinese culture and society. The project will complete the bibliographic guide for access to Naxi manuscripts in the United States.
Ms. Wiens of the Library's Asian Division is directing the Naxi cataloging project.