"Civilization on a palm leaf" to be preserved in China

People's Daily, Sept 30, 2005

Beijing, China -- China has made efforts to preserve the traditional cultures of its various ethnic groups as they fall under increasing threat from the country's rapid modernization.

The palm-leaf manuscripts of Buddhist sutras, dubbed "civilization on palm leaves", for example, have been well preserved in China.

By the end of August, China collected approximately 400 volumes of palm-leaf manuscripts, and 37 volumes of singing forms, said Yan Xiangzai, head of the Ethnic Affairs and Religious Bureau of Xishuangbanna Prefecture, in southwest China's Yunnan Province.

Palm-Leaf sutras refer to the Buddhist classics inscribed on the leaves of palm trees. The practice originated in India and was introduced into China more than 1,000 years ago during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Palm-leaf sutras are very popular in the areas inhabited by the Dai ethnic groups in southwest China. Besides Buddhist sutras, Ethnic local Dai people also inscribed folklore, astronomy, history, medical science, education, society, sports, psychology, laws, politics and literature on palm leaves, thus the palm-leaf manuscripts are called the "Encyclopaedia of the Dai Ethnicity".

According to 2004 figures, there are 577 Buddhist temples in Xishuangbanna Prefecture, where more than 50,000 copies of Palm-Leaf sutras are stored.

China launched a program to rescue this cultural heritage in 2003 with an aim to collect and publish 100 volumes of the palm-leaf manuscripts, including copies of original palm-leaf sutras, versions marked with international phonetic symbols, the new Dai ethnic language, old Dai ethnic language and Chinese translation.

The whole program is expected to completed in 2007, said Yan.

So far, the local government has invited 46 experts to sort out and translate these cultural heirlooms.