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Selections from the Naxi Manuscript Collection: About the Collection

The Library of Congress’s collection of 3,342 Naxi (Nashi) manuscripts is the largest collection outside of China and is considered the finest in the world—unrivaled in quality, quantity, and variety among Naxi collections in Europe, the People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan.

The Naxi Kingdom flourished from the eighth century until 1724 when it came under direct Chinese rule. The Naxi, one of fifty-six ethnic national minorities in China, today reside in the northwestern part of Yunnan Province’s remote Himalayan valleys near the Tibetan and Burmese borders in the Yangtze River area north of Lijiang Prefecture. Primarily farmers and traders, as of 2004 there are approximately 295,000 Naxi. Their predominant tribe is the Moso, the name by which the Naxi were originally known. The Moso of today carry on the matrilineal family structure in the Naxi tradition.

Naxi is the only living pictographic language. Naxi pictographs, however, differ from Chinese characters—appearing more like Egyptian or Mayan hieroglyphs, with many recognizable figures of animals and objects. Practicing Naxi priests, called dongbas, use a simplified pictographic system to produce manuscripts, which are used for standard ceremonies such as funerals and blessings. The dongbas create the manuscripts on coarse, hand-made paper (usually in the form of booklets) and use them as prompts for religious rituals and shamanistic ceremonies. During the ceremonies, the edges of the books are burned so that the smoke transmits the message of the book to the heavens. When the priests die, the sacred books are buried with them in mountain caves and sometimes burned in funeral pyres, which accounts for how rare it is to find a manuscript collection of the scope and size of the Library’s.

The Library’s collection portrays a distinct religion with a unique theological interpretation of the cosmos. Although a large percentage of Naxi ceremonies deal with exorcism, the Library's collection also includes a pictographic creation story, a sacrifice to the Serpent King, accounts of Naxi warriors and other people of high social standing ascending to the realm of deities, and love-suicide stories.

The Naxi people have attracted the attention of the West, mainly through the writings of Joseph Francis Charles Rock (1884-1962), an Austrian-born naturalized American explorer and self-educated botanist. Rock started collecting Naxi pictographic manuscripts when he stayed in Lijiang intermittently from 1922 to 1949. During this time, he also learned their pictographic language and studied their rituals and culture. The manuscripts that he collected were acquired by the Library in several installments, which are recorded in the Report of the Librarian of Congress 1923/24, 1929/30, 1934 and 1936. (Read more about Joseph Rock.)

According to Anthony Jackson, professor of social anthropology at Edinburgh University, 21,842 Naxi manuscripts are extant: 12,741 in the People’s Republic of China, 7,288 in the United States, 1,513 in Europe, and 300 in Taiwan (Jackson, Anthony, “Naxi Studies: Past, Present & Future,” New Asia Academic Bulletin 8, 1989, Special Issue on Ethnicity & Ethnic Groups in China, 136). Of this total, one-third of the manuscripts were collected by Rock: 6,000 of them are preserved in the United States and 1,118 in Europe. The U.S. holdings, in addition to those collected by Rock, include 1,861 manuscripts collected by Quentin Roosevelt II, Harvard class of 1941. Among the 2,775 Naxi manuscripts in the Library, 1,073 items were acquired from Roosevelt in 1941. (Read more about Quentin Roosevelt II.) The Library’s Naxi collection also includes 573 photocopies of Naxi manuscripts acquired from Virginia R. Harrison in 1935. Harrison’s original manuscripts are in Spain.

The Library’s holdings were first reviewed in 1956 by Professor Li Li-ts’an, a Naxi specialist at the National Palace Museum (Taipei). Manuscripts from Rock’s collection had his own accession number marked on the verso of each cover. From April to June 1956 Professor Li rearranged the broad topics and renumbered each cover. His article, “A Report and Study of the Naxi Manuscripts in the Library of Congress.” Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan, no. 6, (Autumn 1958): 131-165, details his work at the Library.

There was no catalog for the vast Naxi collection until 1998. With funding from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, a private organization whose purpose is to promote the study of Chinese culture and society, Professor Zhu Baotian, of the Yunnan Provincial Museum, was invited to compile an annotated catalog of Naxi manuscripts. (Read more about Professor Zhu’s work.) Professor Zhu had completed a similar project at Harvard-Yenching Library in 1995-96. The Library’s Naxi catalog is arranged by subject in fifteen categories (see LC catalog control no. 99476222). Within each category, the following information is given for each entry: the title of the manuscript in pictographs (redrawn by Professor Zhu), the title in romanization, a Chinese translation of the title, brief contents, notes, date, dimensions, number of leaves, name of author, and place. The date, author, and place are noted only when that information is found in the manuscript. All manuscripts are numbered consecutively within each of the fifteen subject categories. The Rock accession number, if available, and the Library’s accession number accompany the Zhu manuscript number. This Web site provides two cross-reference tables.

The Library digitized the single-sheet items in each category, as well as the entire “O” class, Naxi Pictographic Art. Two additional books were scanned; one includes Rock’s translation and the other his synopsis. The Library also digitized a 39½-foot funerary scroll, Journey to Heaven.

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Map of Yunnan Province, China, and Greater Asia

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The Naxi reside primarily in the northwestern part of Yunnan Province, China.

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