Traditionally, the Lisu inhabit the Weixi Lisu Autonomous County of the Deqin Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province, China.
The Lisu Bamboo Script, or Lisu Syllabary, or Lisu Monosyllabic Scripts, was one of at least half-a-dozen scripts we know of that were created by someone who, in conventional terms, was illiterate, and thus his invention brought literacy to both himself and his community.
Its author was Ngaw Rengbo (1900–1965), a Lisu farmer born in one of the poorest families in the village of Yezhi Town to the east of the Lancang River, Weixi County.
At the age of 11, he became an orphan, and subsequently suffered what might be termed a writing-related injustice—a dismayingly common phenomenon for minority cultures around the world.
At the time, the Lisu did not have their script, so they recorded important events and made economic contracts by carving symbols on wood chips. The local government refused to accept these records as legal, and after an unfair court judgment, Ngaw lost all his savings. Despite having no writing experience beyond the wood chips, he decided to create a Lisu script.
By his own account, he began conceiving his syllabary in 1925 by inscribing a stone chip with a needle. The result was an expression of traditional Lisu religious beliefs—a significant choice of subject given that at least two missionary scripts had already been created for the Lisu language.
Over the next six years he used his spare time to write down various monosyllabic glyphs and eventually compiled 900 of them into 25 books. He proceeded to write basic tutorials, including a ballad of 291 sentences written in these glyphs, and tried to spread his creation among the Lisu people. Not getting any support from local government, Ngaw had to teach without charge in some Lisu stockade villages of Weixi and Deqin County.
Despite these obstacles, more than 1000 people learned to use this script before 1949, and at least some documents in the syllabary were printed.
As many of the Lisu characters were engraved in bamboo, the books written in this script are also known as “the bamboo books of the Lisu.”
Most of the Lisu Bamboo Script materials were destroyed or lost in the Cultural Revolution. Some 25 manuscripts are known to have survived, along with 21 manuscript fragments on wood chips, a woodblock for printing, and a stone inscription. Some of these may have been written by Ngaw himself; some of them might have come from his students, because, as a folk custom in Southwest China, villagers used to recopy the books they borrowed or inherited.
More information about the script can be found in the Unicode proposal. We don’t know whether anyone in the Lisu community still uses the syllabary. We’d love to hear from anyone who has first-hand information that would help.
N 27° 19′ 48″, E 99° 0′ 0“