Southwest China’s Naxi ethnic minority has acquired a certain antiquarian fame for their ceremonial texts written in a unique, and endangered, pictographic script. While various preservation efforts have over the last decade aimed at sorting and translating the Naxi books available in archives, very little attention has been given to the repatriation of these texts back to their communities of origin. The ironies here are multiple. Because Naxi communities lost the majority of their books over the last century—to the 1960s Cultural Revolution and to large-scale collection efforts in the name of research—most remaining Naxi texts exist in archives, far removed from the people who know how to use them, and indeed how to teach them to others.
Katie Dimmery’s 2016-2018 dissertation research centered in southwest China’s Sanba Township, formerly a regional center of Naxi textual production, but with a typically impoverished textual archive in the present. By the time Katie’s research began, the Dongba Culture Research Institute (of Lijiang, China), led by Institute researcher Wang Shiying, had worked with Beijing’s Minzu University to digitize and catalogue a 1500-volume collection of Naxi books stored at Minzu University. Collaborating with both organizations, Katie oversaw the return of these books—digitally or in printed hard copy—to Sanba ritualists, researchers, and schools. Ultimately, 26,823 pages of written text, as well as multiple digital copies of the entire archive, made it back to Sanba. The result is that Sanba communities now have the ability to hold ceremonies that have been lost for decades, and Sanba people have access to books written by deceased ancestors, friends, and neighbors. What, exactly, they will do with these books remains to be seen, of course.
The work was funded in part by UM's Center for Chinese Studies and the National Science Foundation. But the whole grand scheme would have fizzled out at the start if not for the moral support and wily bureaucratic advisement of Katie’s advisors in China and the US, Miranda Brown, Erik Mueggler, and Wang Shiying.