Information of the
"Beijing Association of Dongba Culture and Arts (ADCA)"
on Dongba Culture
The interesting symbols depicted here are called Dongba pictographs, and represent a unique form of writing. Dongba pictographs are the only hieroglyphic writing system still in use today, and are recognized by international academic and cultural circles as on one of the most remarkable world heritages.
What is Dongba Culture?
The Geographic and Ethnic Background: The cradle of the Dongba tradition lies in Southwest China's Yunnan Province and is closely linked to the culture of the ethnic Na-Xi. Their home is situated in the western part of Yunnan, an area wedged between the 'Golden Triangle' and the 'Roof of the World'. Although the Na-Xi are small ethnic group, - with population numbers hovering around 300,000 - they have been brought to world attention in virtue of their unique cultural heritage.
Seen from an ethnic point of view, the Na-Xi are closely related to the Tibetan people. For more than seven centuries the majority of the Na-Xi have settled in mountainous North-Yunnan, at the fringes of the Tibetan highlands, with the age-old, picturesque town of Lijiang as cultural and economic hub. Situated at the first bend of the mighty Yangtze River, this location has put the Na-Xi for many centuries at the crossroads of cultural, commercial, and religious exchange between the ancient advanced civilizations of China, Tibet, India and Southeast Asia. The resulting eclectic assimilation of various influences over the centuries, as well as the strong sense of identity and cultural pride of the Na-Xi, are the main contributing factors to the richness and uniqueness of this people.
Origins of Dongba Culture
The word Dongba, which designates both the animistic belief system of the Na-Xi and its shamans, basically means 'knowledgeable-one'. Occupying hereditary positions, Dongba-shamans act as intermediaries between heaven, humanity and earth. All Dongba-shamans must be well-versed in ancient dances, literature, traditional medicine and folk customs to effectively perform ceremonial, divinatory and healing duties. In this capacity their activities encompass such diverse fields as arts and crafts, scholarship, religion and medicine, somehow exceeding the tasks of an ordinary shaman. For this reason Dongba shamans are primarily considered being the bearers of Dongba culture, which consists mainly of the Dongba religion, the arts, classic scriptures and pictographic Dongba script. Bearing a striking resemblance to stylistic elements of modern painters such as Miro or Klee, these hieroglyphs not only incite academic speculation but also reveal high esthetic value, when appreciated. To the present day Dongba shamans continue using Dongba script to write ceremonial or religious text.
The Significance of Dongba Culture
Dongba books, originally written with ink filled bamboo pens on tree bark, are now mainly made of handmade paper. Since the late 19th century, when a French missionary brought the first specimens to the attention of the West, Dongba scriptures have aroused international attention. It is estimated that about 30.000 volumes still exist. Major international academic institutions and museums have since then acquired around 12.000 volumes. Among those, 3000 alone can be found in the American Library of Congress.
In the early decades of last century China-scholars began first to show a research interest in the - then unknown-- Dongba culture. More noteworthy among them is Austro-American academic Dr. Joseph Rock, later dubbed the father of modern Na-Xi Studies. He first ventured to Lijiang in 1928 preparing the first comprehensive cultural, linguistic, and geographic analysis of the entire area for Harvard University. Since then a gradual increase of interest has occurred, culminating in the establishment of several academic centers for Na-Xi studies in countries such as the USA, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.
Na-Xi studies encompass such diverse fields as history, literature, linguistics, sociology, comparative cultural and religious studies as well as ecology. In 1988 the International Association on Na-Xi Studies was established. The Chinese Government also followed suit by establishing the Dongba Research Institute at the Yunnan Academy of Science in 1991. The earlier mentioned Dongba hieroglyphs occupy a prominent place in this discipline. In itself, their present status represents a notable phenomenon. Seen from the anthropologic point of view, the actual use of hieroglyphs in a contemporary society seems an anachronistic oddity, defying established doctrine. Preservation and further research of Dongba Culture may be able teach us more about ourselves.
Notwithstanding the fact that Dongba culture is essentially of limited local influence, its preservation is a task of international significance. By including the historic town center of Lijiang among the protected UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997, the first step to preserve the ancient architecture of the Dongba heartland has been undertaken. And then, China - Ancient Naxi Dongba Literature Manuscripts were selected by the International Advisory Committee of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme in 2003.
Purposes and Goals of the Beijing Association of Dongba Culture and Arts
Its designated task is to help preserve the ancient Dongba heritage of China and actively promote the understanding of Dongba culture, arts and traditions both nationally and internationally. In its endeavors ADCA has received encouragement from of both the Central Government of China, the Beijing Municipal Government and the Government of the Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County.
ADCA is a non-profit organization according to the applicable laws and regulations of China. After approval by the relevant authorities, it was officially registered in March 1997. The founding session of the Association was held on November 28th 1997 in Beijing, and drew significant attention from academic, cultural as well as media circles. It was followed immediately by a series of acclaimed exhibitions of rare cultural objects, photos, documentaries as well as works of art both at home and abroad.
With gradual waning of traditional Dongba influences, coupled with the ascent of modern values and changing lifestyles, the establishment of ADCA represents a significant step to reverse a process of loss. With its work ADCA not only aims to preserve and promote Dongba culture, but also foster cooperation and understanding among all nationalities of China.
Although Dongba culture has recently enjoyed increased exposure, still much remains to be done to beat the clock. We therefore hope that persons from all walks of life, who are genuinely interested in Dongba culture, provide ADCA with their active support, cherished opinions and join us in our efforts.
Beijing Association of Dongba Culture and Arts
52-603 Jing Jie, Yizhuang, Guiyuandongli St.
100176 BDA, Beijing P.R.C.
Tel. & Fax. (0086 10) 6782 6058