Software to the rescue of world's last hieroglyphics

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 April, 2006, 12:00am

A doctoral student at Dalian Nationalities University has written a software program he hopes will encourage young people to study Naxi Dongba, a rare hieroglyphic language on the mainland and the last in use today.

The software was created by Liu Yangkui. His work is part of a larger project at the university in northeastern Liaoning province to write word-processing software for 16 minority languages on the mainland. An unrelated project can be found at

Researchers hope their work will enable ethnic minority groups to use their language in common software applications such as Word, Excel and other programs.

'I think one of the reasons not many Naxi young people are willing to study the Dongba language today is because it's very complex to write,' Mr Liu said.

'With this kind of program, that difficulty is erased. You just have to be able to recognise the character, and when reading you can often just guess the meaning.'

Among the 16 targeted languages, Dongba, the hieroglyphic language of China's Naxi minority who make their home in the southwestern provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, is considered the most endangered. Today there are about 250,000 Naxi. Only a handful of them, mostly elderly, can fluently read and write the ancient Dongba hieroglyphic script.

Naxi relic scripts are worn and brittle to the touch. Without the implementation of an efficient tool to word process, translate and preserve the scripts, researchers fear the world's last hieroglyphic language to remain in use could be lost forever.

With the aim of preserving these ancient texts, Mr Liu and his team began work two years ago, scouting Yunnan province for a Naxi calligrapher able to draw more than 4,000 combinations of Dongba pictographs.

Using existing pinyin word-processing software as a guide, several departments of the university - along with Naxi elders - worked together to assemble and encode Romanised spelling of words. Mr Liu's team later wrote code that uses the Romanised spelling of each word and its placement in relation to other words to output the proper hieroglyphic character.

Finally, with the co-operation of the university's English and Chinese departments, researchers coded a complete Chinese and English dictionary. Users can call up Dongba characters using these languages; the program possesses limited translation ability as well.

Although the main intent of the program is to create a tool to preserve ancient texts into word-processed book form, Mr Liu hopes the software encourages Naxi youth to keep the language alive.

Originally used as a tool for Naxi priests, Dongba's pictographs deal heavily with religion. More than 1,400 hieroglyphic pictographs possess different meanings, depending on where they are placed in relation to other pictographs. Of these pictographs, 20 to 30 per cent deal with religious concepts.

During the Cultural Revolution, Naxi Dongba was labelled as 'superstitious' and actively suppressed. Thousands of ancient manuscripts were destroyed. In the 1980s, the language enjoyed a brief comeback in the way of a newspaper that used the Latin alphabet to phonetically write out the sounds that the pictographs make.

As part of this drive towards Naxi Dongba literacy, new books also began to be published both in typed Latin script and hand-written Dongba. Within three years, the numbers of Naxi who could read Dongba in Latin script leapt from 200 to 1,700.

At its peak, however, the central government called for the discontinuation of Naxi language learning in public schools so as to focus on Putonghua and English - languages more pertinent to success and survival in the modern world.

Mr Liu and his team have won patents for the software and the next step is to spread its use among publishing houses. In addition to using the word processing software for manuscript preservation and education, it could also help promote Naxi culture through the printing of tourist leaflets.