A Comparison Between the Development of the Chinese Writing System and Dongba Pictographs

A Comparison Between the Development of the Chinese Writing System and Dongba Pictographs

Seaver Milnor

University of Washington

The Naxi Dongba pictographic script is strikingly different from Chinese characters in the complexity of graphs. To draw an analogy with ancient Egyptian, even the traditional Chinese characters still in use in Hong Kong and Taiwan are like a simplified ‘hieratic’ or ‘demotic’ script when compared with hieroglyphic Dongba texts. In terms of the environment for their genesis, Chinese and Dongba pictographs could also not be more different. Whereas Chinese writing was a new invention ex nihilo, Dongba pictographs developed in the presence of other scripts, including an alphabetic one. Nonetheless, the central thesis of this paper is that the inventors of the Dongba script followed the same process for creating graphs as has been well established for Hanzi. William Boltz’s The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System (1994) forms the theoretical framework for how writing systems develop. Data demonstrating the structural graphic similarities is drawn from Naxi xiangxing wenzi pu 納西象形文字譜by Fang Guoyu and He Zhiwu (1995).

Pictographs—drawings of “things”—are the first graphs to appear in a fledgling script. Paranomasia, also known as the Rebus Principle, allows one to write words for abstract concepts by using the graphs for homophonous or nearly homophonous words—at this point true writing, rather than inchoate proto-writing, is possible. Disambiguation occurs when various semantic classifiers are added to a phonetic component to distinguish words with similar pronunciations; these xingsheng 形聲or xiesheng 諧聲 graphs comprise the vast majority of modern Chinese characters and an important category of the liushu 六書 of Xu Shen’s Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 (ca. 100). From this point, Chinese and the Naxi Dongba script diverge because the former was needed for pragmatic daily use and simplified over the centuries whereas the latter maintained its complexity, I argue, for aesthetic purposes because its use was limited to ritual texts.

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