Advances in Anthropology
2014. Vol.4, No.1, 13-17
Published Online February 2014 in SciRes (
Study on He Hong’s Dongba Manuscripts Collected by
American Harvard-Yenching Library
Xiaoliang Li
The Institute of Chinese Language and Documents, Southwest University, Chongqing, China
Received November 26th, 2013; revised December 24th, 2013; accepted January 19th, 2014
Copyright © 2014 Xiaoliang Li. This is an op en access article distributed under the Creative Co mmons Attribu-
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American Harvard-Yenching Library has uploaded its Dongba manuscripts of Naxi on the official website.
Most of the Dongba manuscripts collection is featured with older version, good appearance, fluent and
elegant writing, and the portraits are true to life. Therefore, Harvard Dongba manuscripts collections are
definitely rare collections. Some of these manuscripts were written by He Hong, who was one of
well-known Dongba, native Naxi priests, in Baisha, Lijiang. This paper focuses on several aspects of the
title pages, writing style, postscript of He Hongs manuscripts in order that we can understand the charac-
teristic of the Dongba manuscripts of Baisha.
Keywords: Harvard-Yenching Library; He Hong; Dongba Manuscripts
The Naxi (also written Na-khi or Mo-so) is an ethnic minor-
ity in the northwestern part of Yunnan Province in China, near
the borders of Tibet and Burma. Their pictographic Dongba
(also written dto-mba or tomba) script is the only remaining
living pictographic language today. It is called the Dongba
script because it is primarily utilized by Dongba or priests when
they carry out their different ceremonies, rituals and exorcisms.
Dongba script was written on Dongba manuscripts. The actual
story of the Dongba manuscripts began way back in 1867 when
the French missionary, Pere Desgodins, sent an 11 pages copy
of Dongba manuscripts to Paris. Subsequently, more Dongba
manuscripts were brought back to Europe or America by trav-
elers in Yunnan and they were discussed in terms of the devel-
opment of writing (Jackson, 1989: p. 135). According to Britain
scholar Anthony Jackson’s survey, about ten thousand Dongba
manuscripts lost overseas.
There are 598 manuscripts in Harvard-Yenching Library, an d
the Harvard-Yenching Library’s holdings (510 from Joseph
Rock and 88 from Quentin Roosevelt) were acquired by Har-
vard-Yenching Institute in 1945. Joseph Rock, Zhu Baotian,
and Li Lincan edited these manuscripts respectively. Joseph
Rock catalogued the Dongba manuscripts collected by himself.
Li Lincan explained 21 pieces of these manuscripts and trans-
lated some manuscripts’ name into Chinese. Zhu Baotian cata-
logued all of those manuscripts and we can check the material
in his works An Annotated Catalog of Naxi Pictographic Ma-
nuscripts in the Harvard-Yenching Library. In addition, He
Jiquan, Deng Zhangying and Zhang Chunfeng have studied on
them respectively. He Jiquan translated the postscript of some
manuscripts and determined the identity of some classics writ-
ers. Deng Zhangying and Zhang Chunfeng studied the manu-
scripts stamped with two red circles. At present the Har-
vard-Yenching Institute, the Institute of Ethnology and Anth-
ropology, Chinese Academy of Social Science and the Institute
of Dongba Culture at the Yunnan Academy of Social Science
are translating the 598 manuscripts.
According to Li Guowen (1998: p. 227), He Hong was a
Dongba who lived in Baisha Town, Lijiang, during the late
Qing Dynasty. He was the nineteenth generation descendants of
a famous Dongba Jiuzhilao, and he is also the grandfather of He
Cheng who was a famous Dongba during the early Republic of
China. We have found that 50 manuscripts among the Harvard
Dongba manuscripts collections were written by He Hong.
These manuscripts are used in the ceremony for the prolonga-
tion of the life. The Naxi language pronunciation of the cere-
mony’ s title is zɿ33tʂu55, which means “long life connect”, and a
common theme is that things have been disconnected, for ex-
ample heaven and earth, mountain and valley, the cardinal
points, and of course longevity and the family. This ceremony
is to make good this interruption of continued long life (Jack-
son, 1979: p. 190).
This paper focuses on several aspects of the title page, writ-
ing style, postscript of He Hong’s manuscripts in order that we
can understand the characteristic of the Dongba manuscripts of
Postscript of He Hong’s Dongba Manuscripts
It is the direct evidence for us to determine the identity of the
writer if there is signature in the postscripts. Referring to the
following postscripts, we can determine that these manuscripts
are written by He Hong.
This page (Figure 1) is a postscript written in Dongba script
and the translation is, “it was written by He Hong who lived in
X. L. LI
Figure 1.
Baisha countryside, be33kv33 village, on August 15th. There are
no thousands of meters tree in the pine forest and snow moun-
tain. In our village, there is no one that can live beyond 100
years old. In the world, holding ceremonies is hoped to prolong
longevity. The insider knows the ropes, while the outsider just
comes along for the ride. I have taught others what I’ve know. I
couldn’t turn to anybody for help about what I haven’t known.
The kind-hearted man died, but their good reputation spread the
later generation.”
The symbol represents ribs, here reads ho21. The next
symbol represents stomach of a ruminant, here read shu21,
and the two symbols represent a person’s name, He Hong.
From the second line is a postscript (Figure 2). The first 4
lines are written in Geba script which is a kind of Naxi syllabic
character; the next 2 line are written in Dongba script. Transla-
tion is, “The man who was born in mbu33tho21 soil rabbit year
wrote this manuscript in Lunar August 20th. He Hong who
lived in the village of be33kv33lɑ33zo33tʂhu33ɡə33iə3333 wrote
this manuscript at the age of fifty-eight. Life always fills up
with disappointment. I hope everything goes well. Good repu-
tation will never lose. Let the priest longevity.” The symbol
, here reads hɯ, and the next symbol , here reads ho, and
the two symbols represent a person’s name, He Hong.
This postscript (Figure 3) is written in Dongba script, “The
man who was born in mbu33tho21 soil rabbit year wrote this
manuscript in Lunar March. He Hong who lived in the village
of be33kv33lɑ33zo33tʂhu33ɡə33iə3333 wrote this manuscript at
the age of fifty-one. It’s easier said than done . Look before leap. ”
The symbol , here reads hɯ, and the next symbol , here
reads ho, and the two symbols represent a person’s name, He
From the beginning of the second line is a postscript (Fig ure
4) and the translation is, “He Hong who lived in the village of
be33kv33lɑ33zo33tʂhu33ɡə33iə3333 wrote this manuscript at the
age of sixty-one. May me longevity. My descents will happy
forever.” The symbol , here reads hɯ, and the next symbol
, here reads ho, and the two symbols represent a person’s
name, He Hong.
The signatures of He Hong in the four postscripts above are
different. But in the light of handwriting and pronunciation of
Dongba and Geba scripts, they actually refer to the same per-
Determining He Hong’s Year of Birth
About He Cheng who was He Hong’s grandson, Li Guowen
(1998: p. 277), “He Cheng (1879-1953) lived in Xinshan vil-
lage, Baisha Xiang, Li jiang (丽江白沙乡新善行政村), who
was the 21st descendant of a famous Dongba Jiuzhilao. He
Hong is the grandfather of He Cheng.”
Figure 2.
Figure 3.
Figure 4.
From the above, He Hong may live in the late Qing Dynasty,
but the accurate time is unknown. We find the key evidence in
the D9 postscript, “The man who was born in mbu33tho21 soil
rabbit year wrote this manuscript in Lunar August 20th.”
mbu33tho21soil rabbit years may be in 1879 or 1819. He Hong’s
grandson He Cheng was born in 1879. So He Hong was born in
D63 postscript can also confirm this conjecture.
Postscript (Figure 5), “Written in Guangxu three years, ox
year, Lunar July 7th. Altair and lyrae are in the sky.” The first
symbol represents garlic, reads kv33, here read kuɑ33. The
second symbol represents wool, sheep wool, reads ʂʅ33,
here read sy55, the two symbols represent the title of an empe-
ror’s reign, the Chinese Guangxu (光绪). The third symbol
represents breath, here reads sɑ33 = san (). The forth symbol
represents eyes, here reads ȵiə21 = nian (). Guangxu
three years is A.D.1877. So this manuscript was written in A.D.
Other postscripts with accurate time in Figure 6.
We identified He Hong’s year of birth, according to the
postscript of age dating, and these manuscripts can be launched
in 1870 to 1886. So He Hong at least lived between 1819 and
Characteristic of He Hong’s Manuscripts
The Title Page
He Hong’s manuscript uniformly bond with orange covers
X. L. LI
Figure 5.
Figure 6.
The postscripts with accurate time.
edged with blue, green or yellowish brown, and decorated on
either side with striped borders, for example Figure 7.
Title Area box
The manuscripts with horizontally set titles were more beau-
tifully ornamented. In most cases, the titles were set into oblong
box with a variety of symbols on top of it. Four or six draperies
were drawn around the upper part of the title box. The drawing
skill of the Dongba writers of this type was more sophisticated
than that of others, for example in Figures 8 and 9.
The title is started with a Dongba sitting in the stage and
chanting. The majority of the manuscripts’ title explain that
which ceremony they can be used. He Hong’s manuscripts are
all used in ceremony for the prolongation of the life, so the
Dongba scripts always apprea in the title. Here
reads zɿ33tʂu55py21. Joseph Rock recorded them as zɪ̆ chung bpö.
The name of the manuscript is followed.
Generally speaking , there is al ways a start sy mbol in the fi rst
age or passage. Different regions of Dongba will use different
symbols. These symbols are mostly derived from the Tibetan,
but it is also unusually personalized.
A single vertical lines was used as the inter sentence markers
in the general manuscripts. Two vertical lines are used at the
end of a passage. Additionally, in some postscript of the manu-
scripts circles separate the sentences. As shown in Figure 10.
He Hong manuscripts’ columns pattern is the same with
general Dongba manuscripts, which was divided into three
columns per page. Only in postscript page, it would be divided
into more than 3 columns, as in Figure 10.
Joseph Roc k’s Sticker
Each manuscript collected by Joseph Rock is marked with
two stickers. One is on the cover (Sticker 1), and the other is on
the back of cover (Sticker 2), as shown in Figures 11 and 12.
The content pattern of Sticker 1, zɪ̆ chung bpö̈ + number. zɪ̆
Figure 7.
Figure 8.
Figure 9.
Figure 10.
Figure 11.
chung bpö is the phonetic symbol of the c e re mony for the pro-
longation of the life, and the number shows the kind of the
ceremony. Sticker 2 was composed of manuscript’s name, the
phonetic symbol of name and the number which are written by
X. L. LI
Figure 12.
Dongba script. The Sticker 2 number is commonly known as
the serial number which was marked by Joseph Rock. In theory,
the serial number should be unique. Harvard has 50 scriptures
which copied by He Hong, 49 manuscripts’ serial number is
included between 1938 and 1988. We can’t find No. 1987 and
1950 in Harvard’s collection. We check Zhu Baotian’s works
An Annotated Catalog of Naxi Pictographic Manuscripts in the
Harvard-Yenching Library and find that the scriptures NO.
1987 and 1950 corresponding to D10 and D15 of Zhu Baotian
respectively. While the manuscripts that Harvard-yenching
institute library published lack D10 and D15. We speculate that
D10 and D15 both are He Hong’s manuscripts. Another deter-
mined one written by He Hong is No.2061. Thus, we can con-
clude that this batch of scriptures was collected from the same
place at the same time by Joseph Rock.
Writing Style
He Hong’s writing style is obviously different from other
Dongba or prests. He’s script style is smaller than general
Dongba script and graphic form is reserved and delicate. He
Hong selected the long script spacing so that handwriting is
neat and legible, for example Figure 13.
The arrangement of some postscripts’ scripts was in a line
across the page, reads from left to right line by line, as shown in
Figure 14. The arrangement of all ritual text and some post-
scripts’ scripts was not in a line across the page, it reads from
left to right, from top to bottom, for example Figure 15.
He Hong is good at Dongba script, Geba script, Sanskrit and
Chinese script.
The postscript of D9, D20, D43, D67 are written in Geba
script, for example Figure 16.
The front 5 pages of Figure 17 were written in Sanskrit
which are incantations. Prayers, charms, incantations were used
to appease the gods or to ward off demons.
Chinese script of Figure 18, “百歲光陰爭十年,十年更上千
By comparison with the handwriting, the poem and the test
were transcribed by the same person. Even if He Hong is not
the author of this poem, it can prove that He Hong’s Chinese is
good enough to comprehensive this poem at least.
In addition, D8 envelope have a Chinese couplet, “天青地青
道青一通,日光月光世光萬年。” D 37 envelope have a Chinese
couplet, “寳婺喜见萱堂荣晚景,金枝佇看桂蕋憒秋香。
The Significance to Domain Division of Dongba Script
It has long been a difficult issue for scholars to divide do-
main of Dongba script. The handed down manuscripts, frequent
Figure 13.
Figure 14.
Figure 15.
Figure 16.
Figure 17.
usage and difficulties of long time storage make it difficult for
us to see the early Dongba manuscripts. Thus, at the present
stage, we can only rely on the postscripts to determine the
writing age of Dongba manuscripts. The area and time of He
Hong’s Dongba manuscripts copy are determined, which offer
us information to divide domain of Naxi manuscript.
X. L. LI
Figure 18.
The Significance to the Study of Naxi Culture History
He Zhiwu and Guo Dalie referred to schools of Dongba,
these Naxi Dongba in Lijiang and Zhongdian county belonged
to four diffenernt schools, the schools of Baisha, Tai’an/Ludian,
Baidi and Baoshan. The Baisha school include the Dongba of
Lijiang plain which was and still is the economic and culture
centre of the Naxi. The Dongba here produced more ritual texts
and were skilful in painting and dancing than Dongba else-
where. They used the Dongba script as well as Geba script
(1985: p. 42). Influenced by the culture of Han, Dongba manu-
scripts in this area revolutionarily changed in writing, the title
page and illustrations. As a consequence, a large number of
dedicate Dongba manuscripts emerged. Whether in title page,
binding and illustrations or in font and normative character
usage, those Baisha Dongba manuscripts can be treated as
learning models. It is of great importance to study Baisha
Dongba manuscripts, which can help us to get a comprehensive
understanding of Naxi culture history.
The Significance to the Study of He Hong’s Other
Dongba Manus cri pt s
The majority of the Dongba manuscripts preserved in Euro-
pean and American libraries or museums was collected by Jo-
seph Rock. And lots of them lost when a boat was sunk with
Rock’s stuff on board, during World War II. Li Guowen has
ever mentioned that He Cheng had sold all his Dongba manu-
scripts to Joseph Rock. According Anthony Jackson’s survey,
in addition to the Library of Harvard-Yenching Institute, many
other European and American libraries or museums that pre-
served He Hong’s manuscripts. Therefore, our study on this
batch of Dongba manuscripts will lay a foundation for our fu-
ture research.
Acknowledgemen ts
We are grateful to Jaan Aru for his substantial help during
preparation of this report.
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