Japan from the inside out

A dongba workshop in Osaka

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 13, 2008

PEOPLE WHO ARE BORED and can’t come up with a way to fill their spare hours in Japan have only themselves to blame. In every town there is at least one, and usually more, of what are known as karuchaa sentaa. There, for a modest fee, a person can choose to learn or learn about something interesting from among a cornucopia of subjects in classes offered from morning to night, all under the same roof.

It's all Greek to me!

If you want to study art, you can dabble in watercolors, oil colors, sketching with pencil (regular lead or colored), charcoal, woodblock prints, ceramics, pottery, origami, wood sculpture, and stained glass–and that doesn’t begin to exhaust the list at only one center in a small town.

There are classes in natural makeup, mah-jongg for women, chess, go, shogi, tarot, feng shui, cooking (just about anything), yoga, chi gung, exercises for the lymphatic system, and martial arts. Budding musicians can learn how to play any kind of instrument, Japanese or Western (including harmonica and ukulele), sing any kind of song, or dance any kind of dance. There are even special classes for karaoke singing.

Those interested in foreign languages can apply themselves to English (at several levels of difficulty), Korean, Chinese, French, and Italian. It goes without saying that there are classes in calligraphy, as well as classes in what’s called pen-ji, or writing kanji using a ballpoint pen.

And if you live in the Osaka area, earlier this month you could have taken part in a dongba workshop for free at the National Museum of Ethnology (link also on right sidebar).

What is dongba? The word is used to refer to the priests, culture, and pictographic script of the Naxi, an ethnic group of about 290,000 people that live in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. The dongba that drew the Osakans to the workshop was the writing system, which consists of the only pictographs in use in the world today.

The system is used exclusively by priests as a prompt for interpreting ritual texts during weddings, funerals, and other religious ceremonies. By some accounts, there are as many as 2,000 symbols. It cannot be used to represent the Naxi language, but since the Naxi now write in Chinese they don’t need to use it for that purpose.

Students at the museum’s workshop listened to a lecture on Naxi culture and the use of the characters, watched a practical writing demonstration, and tried to write a letter on their own with the script.

There is what the Japanese call a quiet boom in dongba at present. Its popularity is not hard to understand. As you can see from the accompanying examples, the glyphs are simple, unpretentious, and easy to comprehend, particularly for people who use ideographic characters to begin with.

It’s exactly the sort of thing the Japanese find attractive, and the characters are even used in this country on the labels of PET bottles and as motifs on merchandise.

Love call!

Some dongba manuscripts have been registered in Memory of the World, a UNESCO program to protect cultural heritage that the body thinks is in danger of dying out. How like UNESCO and the UN! To begin with, there are more than 5,000 dongba texts in libraries in the United States and Europe. In addition, the first photo here shows dongba used in a Kirin advertisement, and the second photo shows a dongba decal (translation: I love you) stuck on a cell phone. Since the danger that the world will forget about dongba is negligible–at least the part of the world that already knows about it–one has to wonder if UNESCO just finds it a convenient way to justify its own existence.

For those with an academic temperament, here’s a paper (.pdf file) comparing the development of written Chinese with dongba that you might enjoy. It explains that the dongba pictographs are a relatively recent invention (18th century), and their use became widespread when the Naxi prospered from the opium trade and had more disposable income to produce the texts.

One Response to “A dongba workshop in Osaka”

  1. Alex Case said

    That’s the great thing about Japan, there are so many things that open your eyes to stuff about the rest of the world you never would have heard about at home. I do get a bit intellectually snobbish about the Japanese obsession with World Heritage sometimes, but usually it’s a good thing.

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