The decipherment of dead languages in China: the case of Kitan

Many visitors to Xi’an go to the Tomb of Empress Wu 武則天 (624-705), where their attention may be brought to a tall stele, the Wu zi be 無字碑 (Stele without an inscription). Despite its title, there is indeed an inscription, though it is too high to be easily read. Rubbings show that it is in two languages: Chinese and another where ‘not a character can be understood’. Wylie (1860) translated the Chinese text and thought that the other text was in Jurchen, because of a reference to the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234).

Later the unknown language was shown to be Kitan, clearly the same as an inscription from an imperial tomb of the Liao dynasty (907-1125). As other inscriptions came to light, there were many attempts to decipher the language. Little progress was made until the formal publication in 1985 of a study by the Kitan Small Character Research Group in China. But although words, sentences, and even whole inscriptions could now be transcribed, very little could be understood. For one expert on dead languages, ‘the Kitan script is becoming more and more incomprehensible. Things which we were not able to understand before, we are even less able to understand now’. This talk will survey developments in the decipherment of Kitan.

More information on the lecture can be found here.

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