BabelStone Blog

Monday, 11 July 2011

A Mirror on the Khitan Language

Several bronze mirrors with Khitan inscriptions are known, including this well known example with a 28 character poetic inscription in the Small Khitan script :

Bronze mirror with Small Khitan inscription at the National Museum, Seoul, Korea

[CC-BY-SA-2.0 by John S Y Lee]

However, such mirrors are exceedingly rare, and so when a correspondent recently sent me a picture of a bronze mirror with an unreadable inscription that had been unearthed in Inner Mongolia I was naturally delighted to find that the unknown writing on the mirror was actually the Small Khitan script :

Bronze mirror from Ulanqab, Inner Mongolia

[picture courtesy of Andrey Shakhman]

The mirror was reportedly found somewhere in the viscinity of Ulanqab in central Inner Mongolia. This would have been on or just beyond the border of the Jin regime (during which time the mirror was cast), and somewhat distant from the Khitan homeland of Liaoning and eastern Inner Mongolia, where large numbers of Khitan memorial tablets dating to the Liao and Jin dynasties have been found (see map). However, we would expect to see a wider distribution of portable objects such as mirrors compared to the distribution of memorial tablets, so the find location is plausible.

The mirror is in relatively good condition, with a clear and legible inscription, and based on both the physical form of the mirror and the inscription on it, it appears to be genuine (although not having held it in the hand I cannot be 100% certain). Curiously enough, for an extinct and poorly understood language written in a largely undeciphered script, the inscription on the mirror is completely understandable, and I translate it thus :

On the 19th day of the 9th month (the month of the wood dog) in the 2nd year of the Tiande era (the year of the metal horse) [1150], the Prince of the State of Yue.

The reason why this particular inscription is so easy to translate is that it uses a limited range of calendrical vocabulary that is attested on many monumental inscriptions. For reference, I have provided several tables of calendrical vocabulary for both Khitan large and small script at the bottom of this post. These are largely, but not entirely, based on Professor Daniel Kane's The Kitan Language and Script (Brill, 2009). The images of small Khitan logograms and phonograms on this page are from an experimental small Khitan font that I created especially for this blog post. I intend to work on this font further after the summer, and will make it available for free download at a future date. In the meantime, I have made Professor Kane's list of 380 small Khitan glyphs available here.

Analysis of the Inscription on the Mirror

The Small Khitan script is a mixed writing system comprising single-character logograms representing the meaning of certain high frequency words such as numbers, together with multi-character phonogram clusters (which I will call "polygrams", following Vladimir Sergeevich Starikov) that represent the pronunciation of a word (a few characters act as both logograms and phonograms). A polygram comprises between one and eight phonograms arranged into a rectangular block, with the individual phonograms making up the polygram ordered left-to-right and top-to-bottom. The readings for phonograms given here follow Kane 2009, and the reconstructed pronunciations for Chinese glosses of Khitan words have been kindly provided by Marc Miyake.

Khitan Reading Interpretation
Logogram meaning "heaven", here used as part of a reign era name. Khitan reign era names almost always start with either this character or the logogram for "great".
d.iu.rẻn Polygram representing the Khitan word meaning "virtue" (Chinese 德). This and the preceding word "heaven" form the Khitan name for the Jin dynasty Tiande (天德) "Heavenly Virtue" reign era (1149–1153).
Logogram meaning "two".
Logogram meaning "year". Up to this point the inscription means "2nd year of the Tiande era", which corresponds to the year 1150.
ai.en Polygrams representing the Khitan word for "cyclical year" (Chinese suìcì 歲次), which go with the following two words to give the cyclical year corresponding to the reign year Tiande 2, i.e. the year of the metal horse.
Logogram meaning "white", here corresponding to the element metal and the heavenly stem 庚 (gēng) in the Chinese calendrical system.
mo.ri Polygram representing the Khitan word "horse" (cf. Mongolian ᠮᠣᠷᠢᠨmori(n)), corresponding to the earthly branch 午 () in the Chinese calendrical system.
Logogram meaning "nine".
*sair Logogram meaning "month". The Chinese gloss for the Khitan word for "month" given in the History of the Liao Dynasty is 賽咿兒 (sàiyī'ér) *sair, cognate to Mongolian ᠰᠠᠷᠠᠨsara(n) meaning "moon" or "month". Polygram representing the Khitan word that corresponds to the element wood and the heavenly stem 甲 (jiǎ) in the Chinese calendrical system, probably meaning "blue". This word is also written as s.iau.qú or s.iau.qu, with different medial and/or final phonograms. The medial phonogram as written on the mirror looks like Kane 191 () but is in fact Kane 161 (au).
ńi.qo Polygram representing the Khitan word "dog" (cf. Mongolian ᠨᠣᠬᠠᠢnoqai).
ho.l.bun Polygram of uncertain meaning that always occurs after lunar cyclical dates, presumably indicating that the preceding two words are the cyclical terms corresponding to the calendar month.
Logogram meaning "ten".
Logogram meaning "nine".
Logogram meaning "day". The Chinese gloss for the Khitan word for "day" given in the History of the Liao Dynasty is 捏咿唲 (niēyī'ér) *ñair, cognate to Mongolian ᠨᠠᠷᠠᠨnara(n) meaning "sun".
y.e Polygram representing the Khitan transcription of the Chinese place name Yue 越. The first phonogram is the same as the logogram for "month" (see above), but here may be equivalent to the dotted form of the same graph that is elsewhere used as a phonogram for y.
g.ui Polygram representing the Khitan transcription of the Chinese word 國 "country". In modern Mandarin 國 is pronounced guó, but in Old Mandarin it was homophonous with characters that are pronounced gui in modern Mandarin (cf. the Phags-pa spelling of ꡂꡟꡠ gue for 國). The native Khitan word for country is g.úr.en, cognate with Jurchen gurun and Manchu ᡤᡠᡵᡠᠨgurun.
Polygram representing the Khitan transcription of the Chinese word wáng 王 "prince". These last three words together transcribe the Chinese title 越國王 "Prince of the State of Yue", and is attested on the Memorial for Xiao Zhonggong (see below).

Please see this post (2011-07-10) and this post (2011-07-11) on Amaravati: Abode of Amritas for Marc Miyake's notes on the Khitan characters on the mirror inscription.

Who was the Prince of Yue?

The Prince of Yue refers to Xiao Zhonggong 蕭仲恭 (1090–1150) [《金史》卷八十二], a Liao dynasty general who was captured with the last Liao emperor in 1125, and who subsequently pledged allegiance to the Jin dynasty. He served the Jin dynasty faithfully for twenty-five years, serving in various high positions and receiving numerous titles. In the first month of Tiande 2 [1150] he was made Prince of the State of Yue, but just a few months later, on the 2nd day of the 5th month, the day before his 60th birthday, he died of natural causes. Xiao Zhonggong's tomb in Xinglong county, Hebei was robbed by local peasants in 1942, and his memorial tablet was discarded on the open ground nearby. In 1954 the memorial tablet was recovered by the Jehol Provincial Museum, and found to comprise a long inscription in the Small Khitan script (at 50 lines in length, it is one of the longest known Khitan texts).

Lid for the Memorial Tablet for Xiao Zhonggong

Source: Zhōngguó Mínzú Gǔ Wénzì Túlù 中國民族古文字圖錄 (Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Chubanshe, 1990) ill. 249a

The middle three words, now defaced, apparently read "Prince of the State of Yue" (越國王) in Khitan, although I cannot make them out. The bottom two characters on the 3rd (leftmost) line are the Khitan for "memorial tablet" (墓誌).

The memorial tablet for Xiao Zhonggong is dated the 19th day of the 9th month of Tiande 2, the exact same date as the inscription on the mirror, and so it can reasonably be supposed that the mirror was cast in memory of Xiao Zhonggong at the time of his entombment.

In conclusion, we have an inscription that on the one hand is completely understandable, but on the other hand tells us almost nothing about the Khitan language. We can work out the rough pronunciations for a large number of Chinese words transcribed using Khitan polygrams, and work out the meaning (but not pronunciation) of logograms representing a small number of Khitan words, with the result that we can read and understand simple sinified Khitan text, but still we don't have much of a clue when it comes to pure Khitan text. Sadly, this mirror merely reflects our fundamental lack of understanding about the Khitan language.

To tell you the truth, the Khitan script is becoming more and more incomprehensible. Things which we were not able to understand before we are even less able to understand now.Nishida Tatsuo 西田龍雄, 1991


1. Liao and Jin Dynasty Era Names

Both Khitan scripts continued in use for at least fifty after the fall of the Liao dynasty in 1125, and memorial tablets dating to the 1170s are known in both the large and small scripts. It is thus that the Khitan names for about twelve Liao dynasty (916–1125) eras and six Jin dynasty (1115–1234) eras have been deciphered. Almost all the known Khitan era names start with either the logogram for "heaven" or the logogram for "great", although in some cases this appears to be an optional prefix which in some circumstances can be omitted.

Some of the Khitan era names are direct translations of the corresponding Chinese names (e.g. the Da'an era name means "great peace" in both Chinese and Khitan; and the Tiande era name means "heaven virtue" in both Chinese and Khitan), but some Khitan era names only correspond partially to the Chinese name (e.g. the Qingning era name means "clear tranquility" in Chinese, but "heaven clear" in Khitan; and the Shouchang era name means "longevity prosperity" in Chinese, but "great longevity" in Khitan), and some Khitan era names seem to have no relationship at all to the corresponding Chinese name (e.g the Tonghe era name means "united peace" in Chinese, but "great inheritence" in Khitan).

1.1 Liao Dynasty Era Names

Era Name Dates Start Year Khitan Large Script Khitan Small Script Reading
916–921 丙子
922–926 壬午
926–938 丙戌
938–947 戊戌
947–947 丁未
947–951 丁未
951–969 辛亥
969–979 己巳
979–983 己卯
983–1012 癸未

heaven +
1012–1021 壬子

heaven +
1021–1031 辛酉

great +
1031–1032 辛未
1032–1055 壬申

heaven +
ú.dû or
1055–1064 乙未

heaven +
1065–1074 乙巳

heaven +
1075–1084 乙卯

great +
t.iu.rẻn or
1085–1094 乙丑

great +
ú.dû.ó.o.ón or
1095–1101 乙亥

great +
1101–1110 辛巳

heaven +
1111–1120 辛卯

heaven +
1121–1125 辛丑

1.2 Jin Dynasty Era Names

Period Dates Start Year Khitan Large Script Khitan Small Script Reading
1115–1116 乙未
1117–1123 丁酉

great +
1123–1137 癸卯

heaven + or
1138–1140 戊午

heaven + or
1141–1149 辛酉

te.p hóńi
1149–1153 己巳

heaven +
1153–1156 癸酉
1156–1161 丙子
1161–1189 辛巳 or

great or heaven +
1190–1196 庚戌
1196–1200 丙辰
1201–1208 辛酉
1209–1211 己巳
1212–1213 壬申
1213–1213 癸酉
1213–1217 癸酉
1217–1222 丁丑
1222–1223 壬午
1224–1232 甲申
1232–1232 壬辰
1232–1234 壬辰

2. Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches

The Chinese calendar makes use of a sixty year cycle in which individual years are identified by means of a combination of one of ten "heavenly stems" (tiāngān 天干) and one of twelve "earthly branches" (dìzhī 地支).

In the Chinese system pairs of adjacent heavenly stems are associated with one of the "five elements" (wǔxíng 五行). However, the Khitan terms corresponding to heavenly stems are generally thought to be colour names, which is also the case with Mongolian and Manchu. The reason why the Khitan terms are thought to be colours is that : a) Khitan small script words for "gold", "fire" and "water" have been identified, and these are not the same as the words used as calendrical terms; and b) the small Khitan character corresponding to the element "earth" is used to represent the name of the Jin dynasty in other contexts, and as Jin (金) literally means "gold", it is thought that as a cyclical term it means "golden yellow". However, it should be noted that no cognates with colour names in any other language have been identified, so it is not certain that the terms are all colour names.

In the Chinese system the twelve earthly branches are associated with a zodiacal animal, and these animals have been adopted (with some small modifications) in all derivitive systems (Tibetan, Mongolian, Manchu, etc.). The Khitan terms corresponding to the earthly branches are the names of the associated animals. The Khitan names for rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, chicken and dog are cognate with the corresponding Mongolian words.

The Khitan small script terms for "yellow" and "white" are written using logograms (which may be dotted or undotted in different contexts); all other small Khitan terms for the colours and animals are written as polygrams.

2.1 Heavenly Stems

Stem Element Colour Khitan Large Script Khitan Small Script Reading
(jiǎ) 木 (wood) blue or or s.iau.qú or
s.iau.qu or
(bǐng) 火 (fire) red l.iau.qu
() 土 (earth) yellow or or
(gēng) 金 (metal) white or
(rén) 水 (water) black or yô.ú

2.2 Earthly Branches

Branch Animal Khitan Large Script Khitan Small Script Reading Mongolian
() rat (鼠) quluqana
(chǒu) ox (牛) uni üker
(yín) tiger (虎) bars
(mǎo) rabbit (兔) or or tau.lí.a [glossed as "陶裏" (tǎolǐ) in the Liáo Shǐ] taulai
(chén) dragon (龍) lu luu
() snake (蛇) or or mu.ho.o moɣai
() horse (馬) or or or mo.ri mori(n)
(wèi) sheep (羊) or iam.a qonin
(shēn) monkey (猴) or or p.o ~ p.o.o bečin
(yǒu) chicken (雞) te.qo.a takiya
() dog (狗) ńi.qo [glossed as "捏褐" (niēhè) *ñiqo in the Liáo Shǐ] noqai
(hài) pig (猪) ui ɣaqai

3. Numbers

All of the numbers in both large and small script are represented using logograms. There are special characters for the multiples of ten from twenty to ninety, which suggests that, as is the case for Mongolian, there were distinct words for these numbers. The numbers one through nine (exept seven) occur in undotted and dotted forms, which may indicate grammatical gender, the undotted form used with feminine and neuter words, and the dotted form used with maculine words.

Because the numbers are represented using logograms it is not easy to reconstruct their pronunciations. However, we are able to work out the pronunciation of a few numbers based on the use of the logogram as a phonetic element in other words. For example, the large Khitan character for "five", which is identical to the Chinese word for five ( 五), also occurs as the first character in the large Khitan script word for "rabbit" (glossed as táolǐ 陶里 in the History of the Liao Dynasty), and as the second character in the large Khitan transcription of the Chinese title zhāotǎo 招討 "bandit suppression [commissioner]", which suggests that the Khitan word for "five" was pronounced tau, probably cognate with Mongolian tabun ᠲᠠᠪᠤᠨ "five".

Chinese Number Khitan Large Script Khitan Small Script Reading Mongolian
Undotted Dotted (♂)
1 nigen
2 qoyar
3 ɣurban
4 or dörben
5 tau [glossed as "討" (tǎo) in the Liáo Shǐ] tabun
6 ǰirɣuɣan
7 doloɣan
8 naiman
9 yisün
10 arban
二十 20 or or qorin
三十 30 ɣučin
四十 40 or or döčin
五十 50 tabin
六十 60 ǰiran
七十 70 dalan
八十 80 nayan
九十 90 yeren
100 ǰaɣun
1,000 mingɣan
10,000 or tümen

4. Other Common Terms

Chinese English Khitan Large Script Khitan Small Script Reading Mongolian
Spring heu.úr qabur
Autumnúr namur
Summer ju.un ǰun
Winter u.ul ebül
East or deu
South siỏ
西 West or
North or
Day [glossed as "捏咿唲" (niēyī'ér) *ñair in the Liáo Shǐ] nara(n) "sun"
Month [glossed as "賽咿兒" (sàiyī'ér) *sair in the Liáo Shǐ] sara(n)
Year ai on



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