Cai Li's Culture Column

Mandarin is not the only character-based language in China. In this article, Cai Li introduces us to three ancient and acutely endangered scripts. After reading the article, choose a link below to read another -- or to visit another section of the Classroom Package.

Mystery Languages

Many people seem to view China as mono-cultural – with Han people representing the image of all Chinese people and Chinese Mandarin the only official language. But China is a huge country with plenty of diversity. Even among the Han, there is a wide range of regional dialects (they are written the same, but can sound very different from each other -- to the point that many are not mutually understandable). And, besides the Han, China has 55 different ethnic minorities (as the Han refer to them), each with their own separate language and many with their own subsets of dialects. While many of these languages have adopted standard Chinese characters to represent them in written form (though they sound nothing like Mandarin or one of its many dialects), some, like Tibetan, Uighur and Korean, have their own widely-used written forms. Here, we'll look at a handful of lesser-known traditional scripts.

Nu Shu (pronounced something like 'new shoe'), the Women’s Script, is one of them. It’s a form of written language based on the dialect of the Jiangyong township of Hunan Province. Several centuries ago, women in this area invented this fascinating method of communication in response to being denied formal education. Unwilling to stand by while their brothers and fathers read and wrote in Chinese characters, some women began weaving Tang Dynasty poetry into belts using this cryptic script. Eventually, they expressed their feelings and ideas to their girlfriends by writing in this language, completely indecipherable to men.

Nu Shu only has approximately one thousand characters. But, one Nu Shu character can represent one, two, three or more Mandarin words that have the same sound equivalent. (For example, the character that sounds like nan in Nu Shu can mean 'man,' 'south,' or 'difficult,' whereas in Chinese, though all three words are pronounced the same -- nan, second tone -- there is a separate character for each meaning.) So, users of Nu Shu have to determine the intended meaning based on the context. Lines of Nu Shu are written from top to bottom starting on the right side of the page. Because the women wove the language into garments, the characters, grouped together, look a lot like fashionable patterns. They are skinny and long, much more feminine than the square, masculine Chinese characters.

In another geographically isolated region of Hunan Province, high in the mountains, there is said to be an 85 year-old woman who is the last indigenous user of another script created by a sub-group of the Yao people centuries ago. Interestingly, one character in this practically unknown language carries the meaning of one or several sentences. For example, one character can mean, 'Robbers are coming. Run up the hill!' Another can mean, 'Go down first. There's no way. Go up the mountain.” Another can mean 'Six people came.' Apparently the people used this language as a way of communicating warnings and responses to danger.

In southwestern China's Yunnan Province, home to over thirty ethnic groups and seventy languages, another fascinating ancient script has been kept alive by the scholarly Dongba of the Naxi people. The Dongba are a class of Naxi 'wise men' who, across many generations, faithfully recorded the religious events, history, customs, literature, and philosophy their people using the esoteric Dongba script. It's so esoteric, in fact, that only the Dongba -- and not the rest of the Naxi people -- use it, when reciting the religious texts. That doesn't stop others from appreciating the hieroglyphs simple artistic appeal. In the 1930’s, an eccentric Austro-American scholar named Dr. Joseph Rock collected approximately 1,000 Dongba characters and published the first Naxi–English dictionary. Today, Dongba calligraphy can be found for sale everywhere in Lijiang, a large city that is the traditional home of the Naxi people. Chinese people proudly refer to the Dongba script as a 'living fossil' since it is considered the only remaining pictographic language still used today.

From a historical perspective, these fascinating scripts are just the tip of the iceberg, only a small vestige of the vast diversity of culture and language, much of it now endangered or extinct, that once thrived on this wide stretch of Asia now called China.

Country of Courtesy

I Mean What You Know! -- Tricky Chinese Expressions
Mystery Languages
A Matriarchal World
Jin Yong, the Kung Fu Master
A Brief Look at Banned Books

Cai Li's Culture Column

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