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Beyond the pictogram: echoes of the Naxi in Ezra Pound’s Cantos


Two unusual characters appear in the closing lines of Ezra Pound’s Canto CXII (from his “Drafts and Fragments”), characters that may offer up the most complete example of Pound’s much-discussed “ideogrammic method”. The characters discussed in this paper belong to the Naxi dongba script, the logographic writing system of a tribe in China’s south-western province of Yunnan. Pound’s sources are analysed and a new theory of the origin of the two characters—from Joseph Rock’s translation of a Naxi ritual text—is put forward. The two Naxi dongba characters in Canto CXII unlock the meaning of the canto within which they appear, and echo themes that run through the Cantos when taken as a whole. But we can also see Pound using both pictorial and phonetic elements of the script to create a “cumulative ideogram”, and through this comparative Poundian lens we can update our historically limited understanding of the Naxi writing system.

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  1. 1.

    See Pound (1975, pp. 784–785).

  2. 2.

    Lanciotti (1970), Terrell (1984), Qian (2008).

  3. 3.

    Pound followed Joseph Rock (1884–1962), an Austrian American botanist and self-taught expert on the Naxi, using the latter’s rather arcane and Wade-Gilesian method of transliteration in calling them the Na-Khi, but here I use Hanyu Pinyin romanisation. The Naxi people actually have two scripts: a phonetic syllabary (the geba script) and the logographic dongba script. Only the latter, being the main medium for the transmission of the Naxi “literature”, is discussed here. The dongba script has been dated by Naxi scholar Fang Guoyu to the early Tang dynasty (Fang 1991).

  4. 4.

    I contend that we can loosely conceive of Cantos CIV, CX, CXII and CXIII as the “Naxi Cantos”, a counterpoint to the “China Cantos” (Cantos LII–LXI).

  5. 5.

    Qian Zhaoming has published two volumes on Pound’s Chinese connections: Ezra Pound and China (2003), and Ezra Pound’s Chinese friends (2008).

  6. 6.

    Some representative scholars of the former camp are Anthony Jackson, Michael Oppitz and Yang Fuquan; and of the latter camp are Deng Zhangying, Yu Suisheng and Alexis Michaud, to name a few.

  7. 7.

    See Carne-Ross (1979, p. 214).

  8. 8.

    The debate is fairly succinctly explained in Chen (2008).

  9. 9.

    For the lower figure, see Zou et al. (1999), for the higher, see Zhao (1993).

  10. 10.

    See Boodberg (1937).

  11. 11.

    See DeFrancis (1989, p. 100).

  12. 12.

    Achilles Fang to Noel Stock, 20 July 1955, in University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Pound Collection.

  13. 13.

    In an introductory note to the 1936 edition of The Chinese written character as a medium for poetry, Pound called the essay “a study of the fundamentals of all aesthetics.”

  14. 14.

    Fenollosa’s example of direct representation: “man sees horse”, in Chinese ren jian ma (人見馬), would, in the dongba script, resemble even closer the nature of the things themselves: a stick figure, two eyes looking, in motion, and a galloping horse (forcing the Naxi into the Chinese grammar). Of course, the word order Fenollosa said to be bequeathed by nature in the Chinese—agent, act, object—would be missing; for as in most Tibeto-Burman languages, Naxi verbs are generally found at the end of the sentence.

  15. 15.

    I use official Naxi pinyin here, a system formulated by Naxi scholar He Jiren alongside a team of Naxi language investigators in 1958. Naxi pinyin records the tonal features of Naxi with final consonants, unlike the tone diacritics of Hanyu pinyin.

  16. 16.

    The very first page of Anthony Jackson’s Mo-so magical texts (1965) calls the script both “pictographic” and “undecipherable”; the very title of Michael Oppitz and Elisabeth Hsu’s ethnographic compilation, Naxi and Moso Ethnography: Kin, rites, pictographs (1998), also speaks for itself here.

  17. 17.

    Mosuo/Moso/Mo-so (Chinese 摩梭/麼些) are all names given to the Naxi before they were “officially named” as an ethnic group after the Communist revolution.

  18. 18.

    Alongside his National Geographic articles about the Naxi and their culture, Rock authored the first Naxi-English dictionary, an ethnographic study of the Naxi people, and several full-length translations of Naxi ritual texts.

  19. 19.

    See Jackson (1979), where he states in the acknowledgements: “I am heavily indebted to the work of one man, J. F. Rock…it will be obvious that I could not have written this work without the assistance of his careful and compendious writings.”

  20. 20.

    As Taiwanese scholar Li Lin-tsan said of the characters: “they are writing, but they are also pictures”.

  21. 21.

    See Zhou (1998).

  22. 22.

    See Yu (2008, 12–37).

  23. 23.

    See Yu (2003, 83–91).

  24. 24.

    See Boltz (2001, 6). Boltz insists on calling Chinese “logographs”, and this I would contend is also the best descriptor for the Naxi script.

  25. 25.

    “This book is dedicated to DR JOSEPH F. ROCK”. For more on the relationship between Goullart and Pound, who were acquaintances, see Emily Mitchell Wallace’s essay, “’Why Not Spirits?’—‘The Universe Is Alive’: Ezra Pound, Joseph Rock, the Na Khi, and Plotinus”, in Qian (2003, pp. 213–277).

  26. 26.

    See Rock (1948, 67).

  27. 27.

    Lionello Lanciotti says “It is a contaminatio of two meanings of the same pictogram—a procedure dear to Pound every time he indulges in etymosinology”.

  28. 28.

    Fang uses IPA transcription with numerical notation of Naxi tones.

  29. 29.

    See Rock (1939, p. 9).

  30. 30.

    See the incisive essay on Pound’s use of Chinese: Porteus (1950).

  31. 31.

    See George Kennedy’s article “Fenollosa, Pound and the Chinese character”, where he calls Fenollosa’s essay on the Chinese character “a small mass of confusion” (Kennedy 1964, p. 444).


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Poupard, D. Beyond the pictogram: echoes of the Naxi in Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Neohelicon 43, 233–249 (2016).

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  • Ezra Pound
  • Naxi
  • Ideogram
  • Dongba
  • Pictogram