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Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Digitization Aids in Translation of Naxi Manuscripts

Naxi manuscript

A Naxi manuscript page from Harvard-Yenching Library's collection, date unknown. The full manuscript is one of hundreds which are being digitized as part of an effort to translate the material.


June 12, 2009 – One of the last widely-used pictographic languages on Earth, the language of the Naxi, a minority tribe in southwest China, is today all but lost – no Western researchers, and only a few Chinese scholars and older tribe members are able to read or speak the language. A project to digitize Harvard-Yenching Library’s 600-plus Naxi manuscripts hopes to change that, by sharing the digital images with scholars in China, who will translate them.

“For the Naxi people, the value of this material is incalculable,” said James Cheng, Librarian at the Harvard-Yenching Library. “Many older Naxi people want to preserve their heritage and traditions, so these manuscripts are very, very valuable. There are about 250,000 Naxi people left, but the language is effectively dead.”

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Copies of every digitized page are sent on DVD to the Dong-ba Naxi Research Center in China’s Yunnan Province and the Institute of Minority Studies at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, Cheng said, where scholars work to translate the manuscripts. Harvard-Yenching Library will then use the translations to publish an updated edition of the Annotated Catalog of Naxi Pictographic Manuscripts in the Harvard-Yenching Library. The project is funded through a grant from the Harvard-Yenching Institute.

Currently, scholars can access the digitized manuscripts through the finding aid in OASIS, Harvard's Online Archival Search Information System, which includes links to high-resolution images of every digitized manuscript page, as well as background on the collection and the Naxi people.

The hope, Cheng said, is that the manuscripts, organized into subject areas such as “Worship to the Wind,” Prayers for Long Life” and “Venerating the Dead,” will shed new light on the customs, traditions, daily life and religious practices of the Naxi, who migrated to southwestern China during the Tang dynasty, in about 800 A.D.

Worldwide, approximately 20,000 Naxi manuscripts are available, half of which are held in the National Library of China in Beijing. The 601 manuscripts held at Harvard-Yenching were acquired by the Harvard-Yenching Institute in 1945, and later given to the library. They came from two sources – explorer and self-educated botanist Joseph Rock and Quentin Roosevelt, Class of 1941, the youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt.

Were it not for the digitization effort, Librarian for Collections Digitization Maggie Hale said, the chance to translate the materials might have been lost forever.

“The scholars who know this language are in China, and they are too old to travel here to translate this material,” she said. “We needed a way to share the images of these manuscripts with them, so they can provide translations, and that’s where our ability to capture these materials digitally has been very important.”

To date, nearly two-thirds of the library’s manuscripts have already been digitized, with the remainder expected to be completed by the end of August 2009, Cheng said.