Two intertwined reasons account for the surprising cultural strength of the Naxi people of Lijiang and its surrounding valleys. They both have the name Dongba. One is an ancient religion with a belief in a spirit world and the unbreakable bond between man and nature; the other is a unique and precious system of writing used by the Dongba priests that is the world’s last living pictographic script. It compares with both Mayan and Egyptian hieroglyphs, and at first glance, the ancient Naxi (pronounced Na-shi) pictographs do look similar to the Book of Deathof Ancient Egypt. However, they are, according to cultural anthropologist Zhu Baotian from the Yunnan Provincial Museum, more sophisticated and complete. They are both symbols (representing in a few strokes a recognisable object, in the way that Chinese characters began) and what is called a rebus, meaning allusions, often playful, to words by means of pictures. For instance, drawing a pictograph upside down makes it negative — the idea of ‘not’ being or happening. A straight line between two people says ‘fight’, while an entwined line means ‘discuss’.
This unique combination of imagery and ideas allowed the Naxi to tell their Creation stories with sophistication through these pictographs, and it was the Dongba priests who were able to read fully and interpret. Most of the old texts, inscribed on narrow sheets of handmade paper, indeed functioned as sacred literature. Even in the last century, in the 1940s, there were more than 4,000 Dongba priests, though now there may be less than 60. The largest collection of Dongba texts outside China is the collection of over 3,000 manuscripts in the Library of Congress, Washington, acquired from one of Lijiang’s most charismatic foreigners, Joseph Rock, who explored, collected, photographed and wrote about the region, principally for the National Geographic, for 24 years in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. As Zhu Baotian, who is researching the collection says, "The Naxi manuscripts are a living fossil for the study of ancient culture".