Subtitle of Dongba characters shows gratitude to Belgian composer

Yang Shugao, a retired scholar from the Naxi ethnic group, has recently translated a song entitled "Chime of the Dawn Bells" into Dongba characters to show his gratitude to the Belgian composer Jean-Francois Maljean. March 24, 2020
By Wu Jin

A song entitled "Chime of the Dawn Bells" jointly created by Belgian composer Jean-Francois Maljean and Chinese producer and lyricist Kelvin Ho is subtitled with Dongba characters, a language of China's Naxi nationality. The translation has been made in attempt to show gratitude to international support and encouragement delivered when China has been in fight against the epidemic -- COVID-19. [File Photo]

Driven by an age-old tenet "to repay a tiny favor with enormous gratitude", people in China always reciprocate to those who have showed compassion and consideration to the nation in time of woe.

A few months ago, when the COVID-19, a coronavirus-type epidemic, ravaged China, Belgian composer Jean-Francois Maljean and Chinese producer and lyricist Kelvin Ho created a song entitled "Chime of the Dawn Bells" to demonstrate their support for Wuhan, the capital of China's Hubei province at the center of the crisis.

In their song, Maljean and Ho convinced people that dark clouds eventually disperse and Wuhan is not alone when the entire world is standing with it.

Impressed by the strong emotions demonstrated, Zhou Wenshu, a member of Western Returned Scholars Association, an organization established in 1913 by returned overseas Chinese intelligentsia, introduced it to a friend, Yang Shugao, a local of the Naxi nationality in southwestern Yunnan province, asking him to translate the lyrics into Dongba characters, the minority's native language.

"As a minority person in China, I would like to show my immense gratitude to the composer, lyricist and singer. They have shown their love and encouragement through music not only to encourage the people in Wuhan but also those of the entire nation at the most critical moment when the epidemic spread in the country," said Zhou, a chief lawyer in Kunming, capital of Yunnan province.

Being deeply touched by the song the moment he received it, Yang immediately started to translate it from Chinese to Dongba characters using a phonetic approach.

"I should have done a much better job by translating the Chinese into the Naxi language before converting it to Dongba characters if only I'd been allowed more time to finish the task," he recalled.

As the world's only extant pictographic language, the Dongba language, used by indigenous intellectuals, especially those in charge of religious ceremonies, symbolizes unique Naxi culture, explored, preserved and sustained since the beginning of the 20th century.

The cultural protection and the rise of modern Dongba studies should be attributed to a number of late luminaries, such as, Chinese orientalist scholar Ji Xianlin, Chinese philosopher Ren Jiyu and Joseph Rock, the Austrian-American botanist and adventurer, who collected lots of precious Dongba manuscripts later to be found in a number of museums and libraries in the West, such as, the U.K., France and the Netherlands.

Today, the preservation job is being carried on by people such as Yang and his counterpart Zhang Xu, head of the Beijing Association of Dongba Culture and Arts, dedicated to deciphering preserved manuscripts around the world with the help of local Dongba priests.

As a scholar focusing on ancient cultural legacy, Yang hopes his efforts of translation can be rewarded by the song reaching every Yunnan native.

"The song, comprising so many Chinese elements, such as, the chimes of the Yellow Crane Tower [a traditional Chinese tower located in Wuhan], is melting the heart of Chinese people struggling with the outbreak of the epidemic," said Yang.

"Therefore, I hope every Yunnan native in the country can sing the song subtitled with Dongba characters."

Now, when the epidemic impact in China shows signs of ebbing, the country has extended its medical assistance to a number of countries, including Italy, Serbia and Iran, which have been severely affected by the pandemic.

According to Zhou, just as the profound implications of the song suggest, the human race should always encourage, help and befriend each other because of all being members of the same global village.

"The song echoes the boundless love in the international community. Therefore, when the pandemic has broken out elsewhere in the world to a ferocious degree, we will always send our blessings to our overseas friends, convincing them that the crisis can be surmounted as long as we stay strong and united," Zhou said.

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