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China Succeeds in Computerizing World's Only Living Pictograph
2004/10/27

Chinese scientists have computerized the world's only living pictorial language as part of their efforts to save the Naxi Dongba, an endangered ethnic minority culture.

Che Wengang, a professor with the Kunming Science and Technology University, and Li Xi, a researcher with the Dongba Culture Museum of Lijiang, says they have succeeded in putting 2,120 Naxi pictograph characters into computer.

"It will provide a platform for protecting the 3,000-year-old script, and help keep the precious culture alive," says Li, who has spent ten years rescuing the language.

Che says it is a miracle to put an ancient pictorial language into computer. "We have solved a lot of problems including coding difficulty, because compared with alphabetic writing pictograph is a sort of picture which is too complicated for a computer to read."

Naxi people are a throwback to an earlier age when China's grandeur flowed to the West along ancient caravan routes and richly robed Taoist magicians commanded royal respect. With a population of 270,000, they live high in the rugged snow-capped mountains of southwestern China's Yunnan Province.

The group represents one of the world's last remaining matriarchal societies, and is known to the world for its unique hieroglyphs, ancient Naxi music and mysterious shaman-style rituals.

With their specific figures, fine form and special social and human meaning, the Naxi hieroglyphs bear a striking resemblance to ancient Chinese characters and are considered the only pictorial language still in use in the world.

Most of the Dongba scriptures were written at the height of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and represent the collected wisdom of ancient Naxi tradition. Regarded as an encyclopedia, they include works on philosophy, history, medicine, folklore and literature.

Other pictorial languages, including Chinese bone-and-shell scripts and those of ancient Egypt and Babylon, have already died out with the passage of time.

"The pictograph is the Naxi's spiritual substance. People are afraid that it will become extinct as the country rushes toward market economy in the course of globalization," says Li.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has put Lijiang, where most Naxi live, on the World Cultural Heritage list. But incoming tourists and commercial fever are putting pressure on conservation.

Although the Naxi pictograph is still used by older people, few young people understand the ancient language. Li reckons that only ten people can fully explain its meaning.

"Time is precious. So are resources. The question is, how can we keep this culture alive?" says Zhao Shihong, who founded the Dongba Cultural Research Center to preserve the dying heritage.

Zhao's center has managed to produce a Dongba dictionary and translated more than 1,000 scriptures into modern Chinese.

As training courses are opened for young people, more that 120 are studying the old language.

Experts believe that in the information age the best way to protect the Naxi pictograph is to computerize it, creating a database so more young people can study it and experts worldwide can contribute to protection efforts via the Internet.

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