An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Literature in the Western Xia Empire

Jul 24, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

The formation of the Western Xia Empire did not only require some administratorial and governmental adaptions to the Chinese Song Empire 宋. Instead of simply using the Chinese script (and therewith the Chinese language), the first rulers of the Western Xia, Li Deming 李德明 and his son Li Yuanhao 李元昊 are said to have invented or developed a special script for the Tangut language, the script was later perfected by Yeli Renrong 野利仁榮 "Teacher Iri". It is partially modeled after the Chinese characters with diagonal brush strokes prevailing, but the value of the 6600 Tangut characters is rather phonetical than ideographical, that means, that the Tangut script mainly consists of a few hundred syllables, and "pictures" only serve as a complement for understanding. Many logographic characters are composed of two or more other characters, like "not" and "moving" for "fixed", or "mouth", "no" and "water" for "thirsty". More than 160 ideographs are identified today with their meaning, and we are able to understand a great part of the text without knowing the exact pronuniation. The Tangut characters follow the compounding patterns for characters that are also used by the Chinese: two symbols form a new character, or a phonetical (sound) and a semantical (meaning) part form a new character. The sources for the Western Xia language and script are mainly inscriptions of multi-language stelae (steles) of Jiuyongguan, of Liangzhou, of the Mogao Grottoes and some more. Much more important for the deciphering process are the dictionaries found by Kozlov. Some earlier authors differentiate a larger and a smaller Tangut script. The "larger" style is the earlier one that could have incorporated original Chinese characters. The "smaller" style (xiao fanwen zi 小蕃文字) was thoroughly Tangut. The Tangut script did not only endure as long as their own empire lasted (1032-1227). It survived also the Mongol assault and was used in the western parts of modern China still in the 14th century, the Tangut script has therefore a long history of 460 years.

Excerpt from a Tangut translation of a Buddhist sutra.
For the understanding of the Tangut script, Xixia dictionaries like Wenhai 文海 and Yintong 音同 are of great importance. Unfortunately, nothing of the Tangut historiography has survived, and we only possess very few other works concerning Confucian literature.