Dongba, The Language of Lijiang

What does the word Dongba mean?

The Symbol for a Dongba Wiseman

“Dongba” is the name which was given to the written language of the Naxi people. It is thought to be the last living pictographic language on earth. Estimated to contain more than 2,000 characters, it is primarily used by the priests and wise men of the Naxi religion (UNESCO Memory Of The World Register Committee). The name of the language, in fact, derives from these wise men, for they are given the title “Dongba” within Naxi culture. Dongba pictographs blur the boundary between art and language, often conveying much of their meaning even to those who lack knowledge of the direct translation. To learn of the Dongba language is to learn of the Naxi, and learning of the Naxi inevitably leads to the city of Lijiang.

Lijiang, A City of Water

Lijiang Water Channel

Lijang is a small city resting in the Himalayan Mountains of Yunnan province. Originally named Dayan Town when it was founded in the 13th century, it later became known as Lijang or “Beautiful Rivers” for the many water channels which flow through it from the Black Dragon Pool to the north. In 1997 the old town section of the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in part for those very channels as well as for its unique architecture and key position upon the trade route “The Tea Horse Ancient Path” (UNESCO World Heritage Committee).


Tiles GameLijiang is a city of both coherence and multiplicity, for while it is most definitely unique, visitors can certainly feel the influence of neighboring regions. One can see the impact of Tibet and Myanmar not only in the architecture, but also within many aspects of daily life.  For example, Tibetan Butter Tea or Yak steak are often offered at restaurants and cafés around the region.


Wanggu Pavilion

More than simply its physical styling however, Lijiang’s true appeal lies in its enduring vitality as a cultural center. One of the city’s most beautiful overlooks, the Wanggu Pavilion in Lion Hill Park, was only completed in 1997. The city is truly a monument to the people who walk its streets and have done so for over 700 years. For more information on the town’s significance as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, please visit:

The Naxi of Lijang

Naxi Man in CostumeRegardless of the time period a traveler may have walked Lijiang’s cobblestone streets, they would have been likely to meet one of the Naxi. As the contemporary capital of Naxi culture, over 60% of the estimated 300,000 Naxi people in China are thought to live in Lijiang (Olson). They are an ancient people known by many names including Nashee, Luhsi, Luxi, Moso, Wuman, and a number of others. In practice the official Naxi minority can be thought of as two separate groups: the eastern and western Naxi. The smaller eastern group actually call themselves the Mosuo and do not identify as Naxi, but due to historical complications they have been officially recorded by the Chinese government as being part of the minority (Rees). Their western neighbors do identify as the Naxi however, and, as it is they who practice the Dongba language, will be the focus of this essay.

The Naxi migrated south from Eastern Tibet millennia ago, but, as with Lijiang itself, that region continues to influence them today. This is because, for much of Lijiang’s existence, the Naxi were controlled through largely indirect means by the Han majority. For example, a Han bride marrying into to the leading families was not very unusual among the Naxi. Such indirectness allowed the Naxi freedom of cultural identity and the city’s placement on a major trade route exposed it to many influences. As a result the Naxi have borrowed many traditions from neighboring regions, such as that of using smoke to communicate with the spirit world, creating a fusion that is uniquely Naxi in character. The Cultural Revolution changed this however. Much of the Naxi religion was effectively suppressed in Lijiang, and with it a great deal of Naxi culture. Naxi traditions did survive in other areas of the mountains though, and as the culture and religion have rebuilt themselves, the Naxi language has experienced a revival (Xu).Naxi Women Dancing