Ersu Shaba, a divination script used by the shaba, or religious practitioners of the Ersu people of Tibet and southern Sichuan province, is highly unusual, and in two respects almost unique: it is one of the last surviving pictographic writing systems; and it is one of at most two scripts that use a quality we think of as being only whimsical: color. Some Mayan glyphs used shading to suggest meaning, and the Ditema tsa Dioko script can use color for expressiveness, but in Ersu Shaba, the color of ink used can directly affect the meaning of the symbol.
Nobody knows how old the script is. Some Ersu say it is ten generations old, others much older. One account says Zhu Liang carried books written in the script into battle with him, and when he lost the battle, he scattered them, and only a few survived. Analysis suggests Ersu Shaba developed around the same time as another Chinese pictographic script, Dongba.
Ersu Shaba is neither an alphabet nor even a conventional writing system: its glyphs do not correspond with spoken sounds, and the roughly 200 single-formed words that have been identified, most representing objects, are not intended to carry the entire range of the Ersu language. Most Ersu cannot read or write it; only the shaba themselves understand it.
Yet it is by no means arbitrary or wholly subjective. Individual pictograms may be executed in more or fewer strokes in any order, but their basic form and meaning remains constant. In fact, even though shaba rarely meet, books found in different counties look similar, and are pronounced and interpreted almost identically. Nor does it lack complexity: a single scripture may contains several hundred composite diagrams, each made up of single-formed words.
One such diagram is interpreted as: “The ninth day of the first lunar month, a dog day, will be a fire day. In the morning there will be fog under the earth. Before sunrise, clouds will appear in the sky. A ritual sword and a religious implement will appear afterwards. This means that the morning will be a good morning. After midday, two stars will die, only one of the three will still be shining and the sun will be in an abnormal condition. One can surmise that there is a deity under the earth; it is better not to move earth that day.”
The script is written by hand, usually with a bamboo brush or animal hairs dipped into red, yellow, blue, white, black, and green inks, and the color may affect the meaning of the symbol. The researcher Sun Hongkai reported seeing the pictograph “stars and moon” written in black to mean “dim” or “not brilliant,” whereas when written in white it meant “shining,” and was thought to be auspicious.