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Chinese Language and Script
The Khitan Script

The Khitan script (in Chinese called Qidan wenzi 契丹文字) was a script used by the federation of the Khitans that founded the Liao dynasty 遼 (907-1125) which ruled over northern China during the 10th and 11th centuries. The script was modeled after the Chinese script but included more phonetic elements than the latter. There is a larger Khitan script and a smaller Khitan script. The larger script was officially issued in 920. It had been developed by two scholars called "Yelü Tulübu 耶律突呂不" and "Yelü Lubugu 耶律魯不古". The smaller script has been, according to tradition, created by Yelü Diela 耶律迭剌, brother of Emperor Taizu 遼太祖 (r. 907-927). The date of official adoption is not clear. The script is mainly preserved in tomb inscriptions, inscriptions of stone stelae, tallies and other official documents, of which unfortunately only a very small amount has survived. Some few words have been preserved in Chinese sources, namely the history Beiyanlu 燕北錄 and in Tao Zongyi's 陶宗儀 calligraphic compendium Shushi huiyao 書史會要. After the conquest of the Liao empire by the Jurchens the Khitan script continued to be used and was also used as a model for the creation of the Jurchen script. In 1191 the Khitan script was officially prohibited, at least in China. In the empire of the Western Liao 西遼 (1124-1218) the script continued to be used until the early 14th century.
In 1922 a tomb inscription of Emperor Xingzong 遼興宗 (r. 1031-1054) and his empress was excavated from the tomb mound Liao Qingling 遼慶陵 in the Ĵoo-uda League 昭烏達 (today Ulaγanqada), Inner Mongolia. In 1951 a tomb stone of Xiao Xiaozhong 蕭孝忠 with an inscription was excavated at Mt. Xigu 西孤山 near Jinxi 錦西, Liaoning. Two other, similar tomb inscriptions were discovered later. Khitan script is also preserved on some mirrors, silver ingots, jade cups, tallies, seals, and coins. The inscriptions from Mt. Xigu are thought to written in larger script, that of the imperial Qingling tomb in smaller script. The most important inscriptions and documents written in the larger Khitan script are:
  • Inscription about the wife of a regional commander discovered in the Ulaγanqada League (大遼大橫帳蘭陵郡夫人建靜安寺碑)
  • The tomb inscripton of Yelü Yanning discovered in 1964 in Chaoyang 朝陽縣, Liaoning (耶律延寧墓志)
  • A stone inscription of the Great Preceptor, acquired as antique in 1939 in a store in Shenyang (故太師銘石記)
  • Two fragments of an inscription discovered in the old Northern Capital
  • Tomb inscription of Yelü Wanxin 耶律萬辛, Prince of the north, discovered in 1975 in the Ulaγanqada Leage, Inner Mongolia (北大王墓志)
  • A stone coffin inscription discovered in 1977 in Jianchang 建昌縣, Liaoning (石棺銘文)
The following documents are written in the smaller Khitan script:
  • The tomb stone on the grave mound of Emperor Xingzong, carved in 1055 and discovered in 1922 (興宗皇帝哀冊文)
  • The tomb stone of Empress Renyi, consort of emperor Xingzong, carved in 1076 (仁懿皇后哀冊文)
  • The tomb stone of Emperor Daozong, discovered in 1930, with a Chinese inscription of different content (道宗皇帝哀冊文)
  • The tomb stone of Empress Xuanyi, consort of Daozong, carved in 1101 (宣懿皇后哀冊文)
  • Tomb inscription of Xiao Fuliu, carved in 1057 and discovered in 1950 in Fuxin 阜新縣, Liaoning (蕭富留墓志銘 or 蕭令公墓志銘)
  • Tomb inscription of the Prince of Xu, carved in 1105 and discovered in 1975 in Fuxin, Liaoning (許王墓志)
  • Tomb inscription of Yelü Dabuye 耶律撻不也, carved in 1115 and discovered in 1960 in the Ulaγanqada League, Inner Mongolia (故耶律氏銘石). It is rated as the most beautiful inscription in smaller Khitan script.
  • A "non-character" inscription of 96 characters in the area of the Tang emperors' tombs in Shaanxi (無字碑)
  • Inscription of a princely military commissioner, carved in 1134, found in the tomb area of the Tang emperor in Shaanxi (大金皇弟都統經略郎君行記 or 郎君行記). This is a very important bilingue.
  • The same inscription preserved as a fragment, discovered in 1982.
  • Tomb inscription of Xiao Zhonggong, carved in 1150 and discovered in 1942 in Xinglong 興隆縣, Hebei (蕭仲恭墓志)
  • Tomb inscription of Yelü Renxian, carved in 1072 and discovered in 1983 in Beipiao 北票縣, Liaoning (耶律仁先墓志). This inscription is 5,100 characters long and the longest Khitan inscription known.
The larger script has a quite square appearance, like the Chinese script. It also includes a lot of pure Chinese characters. The smaller script makes use of elements from Chinese characters and includes a lot of phonetic parts. Researchers have established different patters how small Khitan characters were composed. There were up to seven components that could make up very large characters. The script is written in columns from right to left, like Chinese. The larger script consists of 3,000 characters.
Because the smaller script contains more phonetic parts it is also that of the two which is better studied. The Chinese scholars Wang Jingru 王靜如, Li Dingkui 厲鼎煃 and Luo Fucheng 羅福成 were able to isolate names and dates. The Japanese scholars Yamaji Hiroaki 山路広明, Nakamura Shichirō 村山七郎 and Otagi Matsuo 愛宕松男 concentrated their studies on the pronunciation of the characters during the 1950s. A study group of Chinese scholars tried in the 1970s to isolate words and phonetic elements and presented a list of 300 words and the pronuncation of more than 100 characters, with more than 20 grammatical particles. This attempt has later been disputed as overhasty attempt to read a script written in a language of which almost nothing is known. Scholars identified 378 basic elements (yuanzi 原字). There were also some Soviet scholars studiying the Khitan script and language, namely P. N. Rudov, V. S. Taksin, E. V. Shavkunov, and V. S. Starikov.
Recent research has been made by Yan Wancao 閻萬章、Liu Fengzhu 劉鳳翥 and the Japanese Toyota Gorō 豐田五郎 and Nakada Natsuki 長田夏樹. The latest publication on the Khitan scripts was written by Daniel Kane (2009), The Kitan Language and Script (Leiden: Brill).

Sources: Chen Naixiong 陳乃雄 (1986), "Qidanwen 契丹文", Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Minzu 民族 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), p. 368. ● Chen Naixiong 陳乃雄 (1988), "Qidanzi 契丹字", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Yuyan wenzi 語言•文字 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), pp. 311-312. ● Liu Fengzhu 劉鳳翥 (1986), "Qidanwen shike" 契丹文石刻, in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Kaoguxue 考古學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), p. 371. ● Liu Fengzhu 劉鳳翥 (1992), "Qidanzi 契丹字", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, p. 768. ● Takeuchi, Yasunori. "Kitan transcriptions of Chinese velar initials", Acta Orientalia (Budapest) 64, no.1 (Mar 2011) p.13-23 ● Tranter, Nicolas. "The 'ideal square' of logographic scripts and the structural similarities of Khitan script and Han'gul", In: Lee, Sang-Oak; Iverson, Gregory K., eds. Pathways into Korean language and culture: essays in honor of Young-Key Kim-Renaud. Seoul: Pagijong Press, 2002. 662p. p.441-461

April 20, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail