Dongba Prayer Song (Up At The Top of the Jade Dragon Mountain)

This is the song I wrote for a Talking Stick tour at the Rubin Museum recently, based on my loose translations of the pictographs in a Dongba funeral prayer book on display there, as written by a priest of the Naxi people (Chinese minority), probably some time in the 19th century. I did attempt to find and accurately translate as many of the symbols as possible, but I am sure I missed at least one idiomatic meaning per panel.  In fact, it is possible that this is actually page 1 of a story on “How Dancing Was Invented.”  The first verse is based on a 1950’s report by Li Lin-Ts’an, art historian.  My translation starts in the second verse.

It feels a little absurd to state this, but I’m not actually a fan of suicide.  Take this song with several grains of salt, or at least some sort of reporter’s distance or ironic distance.

Flash file w/ song, scanning the funeral book in a storyboard fashion:

Dongba Prayer Song

Up at the top of the Jade Dragon Mountain,
Under the white snowy peak, is a kingdom
Thousands of flowers of different kinds
Cover the fields in this wonderful land                                   ( /world)

It’s called the kingdom of suicide lovers
If you live in torture from your love frustration
Climb to this place with your forbidden love,
Climb to this place and kill both of yourselves

You never will part from each other again
And will keep all your beauty forever and always, amen.


But when everyone dies they first go straight to hell
Appeal to the spirits and they’ll help you out
A tiger will offer steamed rice to the mountain peak
Your monkey ancestors from heaven hang down to eat

Wind shuts the door, and the wind blows the clouds
The Yaks of Good Fortune reopen the door
The tiger will order some wine from the rabbit
He’ll hold out his paw and that means you should grab it

Drink it with mushrooms and go down the stairs but beware,
There’s an angry Bird God who been banned from that bar.


The Bird God will sic his pet jellyfish on you
Placate the Bird God with big bowls of steamed rice
The tiger will offer more rice to the mountain peak, and
Pray for good fortune and starlight and all your teeth

Flowers will break through the floors of gazebos
Rabbits with scissors protect you from fires
Finally a spaceship will take you away
And you’ll be united through hailstorms, through sunrise

You never will part from each other again
And will keep all your beauty forever and always, amen.

–Steve Espinola (2011)

First verse uses words from an report by Li Lin-Ts’an, art historian, 1955 or 1958

According to a 1955 assessment of the Library’s manuscripts for the Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology Academia Sinica (Taipei, Taiwan, 1958) by art historian Li Lin-Ts’an, “The Yunnan Province was famous for Yunnan pines. Their wood, after being set on fire, liberates a soot which is easy to collect. This soot, when mixed with some glue and water, forms an excellent ink. During winter, the leisure season for farmers, the [Naxi] sorcerers, without any farming work to do, sat down by their fireplace and using a bamboo pen dipped it into their ink while humming to themselves, and they began to write a Sacred Book for pleasure or for some special festival usage.”

Mr. Li wrote: “The books for sacrifices to those who committed suicide from frustrated love are the most romantic and poetic of the [Naxi] people. The [Naxi] youth all believe that at the upper part of the Jade Dragon Mountain, just under the white snow peaks, there is a wonderful land, with thousands of kinds of flowers covering its fields, called ‘The Kingdom of the Suicide Lovers.’ If any couple, who because of love frustration, climb to this wonderful place and kill themselves, they will never part from each other again and will keep their youth and beauty forever, and will be happy always.

Mr. Li reported that 440 of the volumes in the Library’s collection were for funeral ceremonies. “This great number is due to the fact that the [Naxi] people look upon death as an affair of great moment.” The Naxis believe the soul goes immediately to hell. One of the Dongbas’ primary duties is to lead souls out of hell. Another 74 volumes were used for divination, wrote Li. “The [Naxi] people are a tribe whose members like divination above all other things.”

Photos used by permission of the Rubin Museum.
Song Copyright 2011 by Steve Espinola. All rights reserved.