Moso People: Cultural Identity through Oral Tradition and Scripts

XU Duoduo, Postdoctoral Fellow, Nanyang Technological University
CoHASS, SoH, Singapore

The Context

South-West China, the territory including the Sichuan Basin, the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, and the south of the Tibetan Plateau, is a diverse region inhabited by different ethnic cultures. These ethnic groups believe in animism and have developed their own indigenous religions. Their priests are considered their spiritual leaders, the wisest men of each community. Many of these ethnic groups are oral traditional communities. They have rich oral lections and some scriptures (written through pictograms, icons, and, sometimes, Tibetan writings). The priests are the knowledgeable individuals familiar with local traditional cultures and writing systems. Here are some of the words for “priest” in the region: Qiang People use “Shibi”, Yi People use “Bimo”, Pumi People use “Hangui”, Ersu use “Shaba”, Muya use “Sujowu”, Namuyi use “Pabi”, Moso use “Daba”, and Naxi use “Dongba”. 

Among the various designations of priests, “Daba” of Moso People and “Dongba” of Naxi People are, actually, the same word transcribed differently according to the local dialects. “Moso” is a historical name. Its records in Chinese literature can be dated back to Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD), in the Chronicles of Huayang compiled by Chang Qu. “Naxi” is the official name following the local endonym (an endonym is the name through which people name their own ethnic group), given to the western branch of ancient Moso People during the nationality recognition conducted by China in 1950s. The eastern branch, on the other hand, is ‘catalogued’ as “Mongolian”. Moreover, the intermediate branch, including peoples living alongside the Jinsha River, kept the old name, “Moso” People. 

Actually, the different branches of Moso People share similar endonyms, both in morphological (the form of words) and semantic (the meaning of words) aspects. Those names are composed of the syllable “nɑ” followed by the word for “people”. The syllable “nɑ” is homophonic to the word meaning “black, big”. Therefore, in some recent academic publications, the term “Na People” is used to refer to Moso People. At the same time, the indigenous religions (or cultures) and the related scriptures are named after the words for “priest”, as recorded in many research works. The suffix “-ism” is added to refer to the local worships, following the designations of religions, e.g.: Buddhism, Daoism, and Shamanism.

Dongba and Daba Scripts

Dongbaism has been studied since the mid-Nineteenth century, when Christian missionaries first noticed the unique pictographic writing of Dongba people, the Dongba Script. So far, around 1,500 Dongba glyphs have been documented in Li Lincan and Fang Guoyu’s dictionaries, including both single graphemes and ligatures. Dongba script is a type of pictographic writing system. One glyph, either a single grapheme or a ligature, can represent a word composed of one morpheme or several morphemes. In 2003, Dongba scriptures have been included in the Memory of the World Register of UNESCO. 

In contrast, Dabaism lacks a relatively mature writing system like the one developed by Dongbaism. Some local folklore legends tell the origins of Daba script. Below is a summary of one documented story collected from Labo Township, Ninglang County:

“The first Daba priest, Apado, created the writing system. He had two disciples: Bujiaruo, who is good in chanting, and Panjiaruo, who is good in divination. They keep the scriptures written by Apado on bull skin and livestock’s urinary vesicles, respectively. Once, the princess of the remote county was sick. Neither the Lama priest of Tibetan People nor the Daoist priest of Han People were able to heal her. A messenger came to the Moso territory, inviting the two Daba priests to help. During the long journey, Bujiaruo and Panjiaruo had to eat the bull skin and livestock’s urinary vesicles with the written texts in order to survive. In the end, they accomplished the mission and became the gods worshipped by Moso People. That is why Daba priests have only oral lections and not written scriptures”. 

Oral traditional stories like this are told in different ways. The substantial idea is that Daba priests had a number of scriptures written on livestock’s skin (pig’s skin according to my fieldwork notes), which were eaten by the Daba priests due to famine during trips or difficult historical moments, and only a few pictograms remained attested. 

Daba hemerologies (or “day books”) are the only written texts of Dabaism discovered so far. They are called Gelimu, Gemu, or Ge’ermu, according to the pronunciation of Daba priests from different villages. These words literally mean “the book to look at the stars” in the local language. The first segment ge means “star” and the last segment mu means “book”. In the form Gelimu, the second segment li means “to look” and, in the form Ge’ermu, the second segment er is the grammatical marker for plural. 

An Image of Daba Hemerology 
(Collected from Wujiao Village, Muli County, Sichuan Province)

Some studies have been discontinuously conducted on Daba hemerologies since the first report on the script in 1940 by Zhuang Xueben in the magazine Liang You. According to my fieldwork research, the basic contents of Daba hemerologies are 28 pictograms representing the lunar mansions. There are also additional symbols, including Qiyao (“the seven luminaries”), and 20 icons representing the holy items of Buddhism, whose designations indicate their Tibetan origins. These glyphs are used repeatedly to cover the days of the year. They establish the days for all kinds of rituals or activities, e.g.: wedding, funeral, trading, building new houses, moving into new houses, etc. 

Dongba have both scriptures and a divination figure, called Bage, showing records of their traditional 28 lunar mansions. The designations of lunar mansions in several significant localities of Moso People (e.g.: E’ya Township, Ludian Township, Lijiang area) have been documented. Sound correspondences can be found among Dongba and Daba lunar mansions’ appellations. According to the phonetic and morphological analysis, Dongbaism and Dabaism share most of the lunar mansions. These asterisms, chosen by Dongba and Daba priests to calculate the days, are named differently from the neighbouring major cultures (mainly Chinese and Tibetan). The animals used to name the constellations include porcupine, horse, frog, pheasant, hawk, pig, and mdzo (a hybrid of a yak and cattle).

An Image of a Dongba Divination Figure 
(Collected from Dadong County, Lijiang, Yunnan Province)

“A simple character is the resemblance of the object, while a compound character is the aggregation from simple characters.” ([Eastern Han Dynasty] Xu Shen) The formation of a writing system should undergo a process ‘from few to more’. While comparing the Daba and Dongba scripts of the lunar mansions, the complexity of the glyphs appears connected with their geographic locations: from North to South, the pictograms evolve from single graphemes to complex ligatures, the number of glyphs also increases. The variations among Dongba glyphs are coherent with the migration route of Moso People over history: the closer they are to the starting point, the less the glyphs correspond to syllables. 

However, according to traditional folklore legends, Daba scripts are the remains of a massive destruction. They are supposed to be part of a more complete set of writing system(s) in the past. Since the Dongba scripts are more ‘consistent’ as a writing system, is it possible that the complete scripts in the legend refer to them?

One interesting point here is represented by a story about the origins of Dongba scripture. According to the Dongba tradition, it was a white bat that had the permission of a goddess living in the heaven to bring all kinds of sacred books to the human world. When the bat arrived at the edge of the human world, he wanted to take a look into the box with the books given to him by the goddess, to see their contents and to learn from them. When he opened the box, the winds blew away all the books into a lake. A big frog living in the lake ate the books. The bat asked the goddess for help. The frog, consequently, was killed by her divine archers. Its body became a divination figure, indicating the five basic elements of the nature and the combination of them with the spatial directions.

Although the plots are different, a shared scheme can be highlighted in Dongba and Daba stories about the origin of their scripts: the scripts themselves came from a superior figure (the first Daba priest / the goddess); the scripts have undergone a massive loss (eaten by the Daba priests due to starvation / blown away by the wind and eaten by a big frog); only a small part of the scripts remained. Through these narrative strategies, both traditions depict the starting point of the writing systems. There is, therefore, the theoretical possibility that original writings could have existed in a remote past. Daba scripts could be the remains of them, while Dongba scripts developed from the divination figures. To answer the above question, the Dongba scripts do not represent the complete set of writings of Daba priests; conversely, the Daba scripts are related to the divination figures depicting the origins of Dongba scripts.

An Image of the Daba Hemerology with Qiyao Symbols
(Collected from Lijiazui Village, Muli County, Sichuan Province)

The above mentioned lost scripts would be still unknown, at the moment. However, the stories show similarities to the legends about the origin of divination figures of Han People, which were called He Tu (“the Map of the Milky Way”) and Luo Shu (“the Luo River Scroll”). In Moso traditional cultures, the Daba hemerology Gelimu, in its different versions, and the Dongba Divination Figure Bage record the lunar mansions, while the first Dongba scripture came from the figure of a sacred frog living in a lake. The interpretation of these myths opens new perspectives in the understanding of the relationship between Moso and Han cultures in remote history. To some extent, Daba Hemerology and Dongba Divination Figure are comparable to the “the Map of the Milky Way” in Han People’s culture. 

Tibetan symbols and icons recognizable in the Daba hemerologies can be related to the geographical location of Moso People. Moso live on the border area between Tibetan and Han People. Yongning, the central town of the eastern branch, was a military base in Ming Dynasty. Lijiang, the main location of the western branch, was the residence of the local government till Qing Dynasty. Buddhist temples located in the vicinity of Moso villages were the residence of the members of the Tibetan government. Bon religion and Tibetan Buddhism have profound influence on the ethnic groups in this region. In some rituals conducted in Moso villages, Daba priests and Lama priests are both invited. At the same time, Daba lunar mansions transcribed into Tibetan alphabets have also been attested in Lama hemerologies written in Tibetan. 

Cultural Identity in Oral Traditions

Dongbaism and Dabaism are two indigenous religions of Moso People and share the same origin. Their common tradition can be recognized through their oral lections, worshipped spirits, routes of migration, rituals, etc. The oral communities in which the writing systems merged provide a vivid picture of the development of writings, the interaction between orality and literacy. The scripts of Dongba and Daba represent two phases of this stage. These pictographic writings, still alive in Moso People’s culture, are fundamental to understand Moso People’s cultural identity. The legends about these scripts are decisive in the interpretation of the origin of Moso People.  

In the hemerologies, the only written texts of Dabaism, Tibetan symbols were introduced to enrich the content. This reflects the influence of Tibetan culture in Moso area. In Dongba and Daba lections, Moso have two “brothers”: the elder one is the Tibetan People, the younger one is Bai People. In some texts, the younger “brother” is Han People. The versions with Bai People could be derived from the contacts with Nanzhao Kingdom, a historically influential state located in the south of the Moso territory. On the other hand, the fluidity of the notion of “brotherhood” reflects the influence of neighbouring societies in building up the local cultural identity.

Despite the evident cultural connections, the two branches of Moso People have been recognized as two nationalities. The eastern branch inhabitants consider themselves as the descendants of the Mongolian army, deriving from Genghis Khan. The intermediate branch, located between Naxi People and the Mongolians, keeps the old name “Moso”. The differentiation from the western branch, besides geographical reasons, depends from differences in customs. The eastern branch has still the so-called “walk-marriage”, a matrilineal society, and practices cremation. The western branch, ever since Gaitu Guiliu (replacing chieftains with officers sent by the government) in Qing Dynasty, adopted the Han culture in many aspects of the everyday life, including marriages, funerals, and the social structure. With the time passing, the dialects also became quite different from each other and no longer mutually understandable without specific training.


Languages, writings, stories, beliefs, customs, are all components of cultural identity. In the oral communities, oral literature is an indispensable medium to pass down memory and the wisdom of the ancestors, from generation to generation. The priests of each community bear the duty of the transmission of culture. Language and customs can change over time, while writings, beliefs, stories can be modified according to the contexts. Nevertheless, whenever the components change, the scheme is preserved, because it stores remote memories, where the cultural identity lays. 

Oral stories and traditions are the essence of every society’s cultural identity, and the Abui example is no exception. These oral materials are not only omnipresent in the hearts and minds of the Abui people but are also visible in many tangible aspects of daily life, including the plant remedies they use to treat illnesses and the names of the places around them. In each tale and name, are pieces of valuable Abui culture just waiting for us to uncover. By collecting and documenting information on its language and culture, we hope to contribute to the conversation surrounding it and the conservation efforts that we must undertake to protect the untouched wonders of the Abui people.

About the author:

Dr Xu Duoduo is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Humanities (SoH), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. She is currently working on Traditional Chinese Medicine and Digital Humanities under Dr Michael Stanley-Baker’s supervision. Dr Xu received her PhD in Chinese Philology and Linguistics from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), School of Humanities (SoH), Chinese Programme (中文系), Singapore, in 2018. Her research interests include Chinese Linguistics and Philology, Grammatology, Oral Tradition, Digital Humanities, and Dongba and Daba Culture Studies. 

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