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December 8, 1998

CHINESE SCHOLAR CATALOGS UNIQUE PICTOGRAPHIC MANUSCRIPTS

A noted Chinese scholar, Professor Zhu Bao-Tian, will catalog 3,038 Naxi pictographic manuscripts in the Library's Asian collection under a private grant. The collection of pictographs is the largest outside of China and considered the finest in the world.

Professor Zhu, of the Yunnan Provincial Museum, arrived at the Library in late November and will spend two years cataloging the manuscripts to produce A Research Guide to the Naxi Manuscripts in the Library of Congress. The classified catalog will describe each manuscript, transcribe the pictographs, provide a Naxi phonetic transcription, a Chinese translation and a description of the contents of each manuscript.

His work is being funded by a $60,000 grant to the Library from the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, a private organization whose purpose is to promote the study of Chinese culture and society.

Today there are 250,000 Naxi, or Moso, people, mostly farmers and traders, inhabiting the remote mountain valleys of Southwest China. 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. What distinguishes the Naxi from other non-Han minorities of Southwest China is their unique pictographic writing, which differs from Chinese.

The 16th to 19th century manuscripts in the Library's collections contain pictographs drawn by Naxi priests, or Dongba, for shamanistic ceremonies during which they used the pictographic booklets as prompts. A large percentage of the ceremonies deal with exorcism, but the manuscripts also include a pictographic creation story, a sacrifice to the dragon king, accounts of famous people who became gods, and several dramas.

Prof. Zhu has identified 13 categories into which he will divide the manuscripts. They are: sacrifice to the highest deity, sacrifice to the water god, 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 ghosts, prayers for a better reincarnation, and divination.

The Library purchased the collection between 1924 and 1945 from Joseph Rock, a self-taught botanist who spent 24 years in the Yunnan Province in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, studying the culture and writings of the Naxi and collecting manuscripts.

The manuscripts are of interest not only to Naxi scholars worldwide, but to those who study ancient cultures, as they can be used for comparative studies with Egyptian and Mayan pictographs. Of special interest to linguists is the fact that Naxi is one of the very few living languages that is still written in pictographs.

"It is like a living fossil for the study of ancient religion," said Prof. Zhu, 67. He is the only scholar with complete Naxi fluency, having learned the language directly from Dongba priests, the last of whom died in the 1950s. Prof. Zhu has cataloged three other collections in the United States and one in Scotland. His work at the Library completes the cataloging of Naxi manuscripts worldwide.

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PR 98-194
12/8/98
ISSN 0731-3527

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