Pan Zhongxi daily laments her son's inability to grasp the language of their Shui ethnic group. "My husband and I speak Shui at home, hoping our son can learn the language, but so far although he understands us, he cannot speak any of the words," said Pan, Director of the National Institute of Sandu Shui Autonomous County in southwest China's Guizhou Province.
Pan's 14-year-old son receives his education in Mandarin and, like most Shui ethnic children whose parents have moved to towns or big cities to make a better life, he is one of the younger generation who seems unlikely to carry on the ancient language of his people.
The Shui is one of China's 56 ethnic groups, living mainly in Guizhou with a population of around 400,000. Almost half of the Shui people live in Sandu, making up 64 percent of the total population of the county.
This ethnic group is one of the oldest in China and boasts its own language and a unique writing script.
The Shui characters, called shui shu in Mandarin, have existed for several thousand years. Having a similar appearance to hieroglyphics, Shui characters comprise many signs that resemble flowers, birds, worms, fish or other things found in nature, and even symbolic animals such as dragons. In academic circles these characters are seen as a living example of hieroglyphics, as they are still used today.
Shui shu has a double meaning-one is the writing script of the Shui ethnic group, and the other is the books written in Shui characters, which normally cover astronomy, calendars, geography, religion, folk customs and ethics, almost like an encyclopedia of the Shui. It is regarded as extreme disrespect to sit on, step over or in any way defile the script.
According to Pan, who has devoted more than 10 years to the study of Shui culture, the current research proves that this ethnic group originally lived in the northern part of the country, located in today's Henan Province. But later, because of wars, the ancestors of the Shui moved southward.
The migration meant that the Shui script avoided the unification of characters by Emperor Qinshihuang (B.C.259-B.C.210), the first monarch of China who unified the country during his reign. Not every character in the spoken Shui language has a corresponding script, and the spoken language is far richer than the written form, according to Pan.
A dying breed
But with the modernization, this old writing style has gradually faded into obscurity. Pan introduces, only a select group of about 500 shui shu masters can read the script.
These masters command a high status in the Shui ethnic group, and are highly respected by others. They play a very important role in the life of Shui people. All important activities, such as house building, weddings, funerals or ancestor worship, require the presence and assistance of shui shu masters. These masters can determine the right season, date and even time of a day to hold such activities or ceremonies.
Pan also stresses the importance of the masters to the passing-on of this old language and its mysterious script. "Every master is like a museum of Shui culture, and as they pass away, part of our history will be lost with them," she said.
In many cases, when a master dies, his family will burn his shui shu books as part of the death process, as he has no successor, Pan said.
Originally, the passing-on of shui shu knowledge is through the word-of-mouth method, such as a father teaching his sons or a master receiving one or two students. Only men can be taught this knowledge.
But the current problem is that less and less young people are interested in learning things that are of little use in their modern life.
According to an investigation, in Sandu, very few young and middle-aged Shui people have a basic knowledge of shui shu, and among teenagers aged from 7 to 16 years, no one can read Shui characters.
"It's a serious problem," said Pan, "as most of these masters are now older than 60, and we are at a loss of how to replace them."
Shui shu is the very essence of the Shui culture, which, Pan said, is why the state is making efforts to rescue it. "If this script disappears we will have lost our history," said Pan.
Keep the flame burning
To find more materials to assist with the study of shui shu, Pan and her colleagues often visit remote Shui villages to collect script books from villagers and shui shu masters.
The masters have also made their contribution to the preservation of the old language and writing scripts. Meng Xineng is one of the famous shui shu masters in the region who has offered his services to the local government to translate shui shu books into Mandarin.
This rescue work has had exciting results. Researchers have found more than 1,400 old characters or signs, and some of them are similar to those on the unearthed potteries of China's Xia Dynasty (2070 B.C.--1600 B.C.), based on which experts guess that the ancestors of the Shui people could very likely have originated in the Xia Dynasty.
There are also some contents found to be closely related with I Ching, or Book of Changes, an ancient Chinese divination manual and book of wisdom.
The county where Pan lives has now published a series of easy-to-learn textbooks about the history, folk customs, language and writing characters of the Shui, aiming to continue the ethnic culture from childhood.
"We intend to cultivate the Shui identity in our children. It is a natural duty of every parent to make their children familiar with our own language and characters and not to forget our own ethnic culture," said Pan.
The textbooks are used in primary schools in local areas and shui shu masters have been invited to give lectures at schools.
Another important work that Pan and her colleagues have undertaken is to record the knowledge of shui shu masters. She says the majority of the background to the Shui is not found in books but in the memories of the masters.
All these efforts seem to be reaping dividends. More and more Shui people are now aware of the value of their language and scripts. Some young people have started to learn shui shu from masters, giving a ray of hope.
In June 2006, China listed shui shu as one of the intangible cultural heritage of the country, which ensures that the old and mysterious scripts will be well protected and passed on to future generations.