Yesterday I watched an excellent Chinese documentary called E-Ya Village at the Al-Jazeera TV Production Festival in Doha. It covered aspects of this isolated Sichuan Naxi mountain village's daily life, but focused mainly on their religion, covering what they did for naming, coming of age, mourning, New Year, various sacrifices...
The film was full of (subtitled) Naxi dialog, but what I found most linguistically interesting was the writing system. As everybody should know :), Naxi has a complex pictographic writing system of some antiquity, called Dongba after the priests of their religion. In the film, no secular books or newspapers featured, and the few signs (at the clinic's entrance) were written in Chinese; but Dongba was used several times, always in a religious context. In particular, its most obvious "practical" use was for prayer flags put up in mourning contexts: whenever these flap in the wind, the wind is said to carry the words written on them, sections of the Naxi holy book, to the realm of the dead. It suggests a functional interpretation of the Dongba writing system as one intended essentially, not for communication with the living, but for communication with the spirit world. This has suggestive if not exact parallels - consider Mandaic's traditional functions, for instance. But obviously one would want to see more than just a film to analyze the issue!
The festival, incidentally, was very international, with numerous Persian, Chinese, Latin American, and French films as well as the Arabic ones. Unfortunately, they were let down by insufficient subtitling: non-Arabic films were subtitled only in English, if at all, while Arabic films were not subtitled, substantially restricting the audience for both. Hopefully next year they'll try to remedy this.
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