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Saturday, 8 December 2018

Khitan Fragments from the Tomb of Yelü Pugu

Jinbaotun Cemetery

In 2016 two large tombs (designated M1 and M2) were excavated at the Jinbaotun cemetery 金宝屯墓地 in Kailu County in eastern Inner Mongolia. The excavation has been reported online in various places, for example:

Both tombs date to the Liao dynasty (907–1125), and the larger tomb, M1, has distinctive green glazed bricks, which had previously only been found in the tomb of Yelü Yuzhi 耶律羽之 (890–941), suggesting that this must be the tomb of someone very important.

Tomb M1 with green glazed bricks

Both tombs have been robbed several times, so very few tomb goods remain, although some of the looted burial goods were recovered by the police. However, some of the walls of the passageways and chambers of both tombs preserve the remains of murals, although most have already flaked off. What is most interesting is that a number of ink inscriptions in Chinese and Khitan characters have been preserved on the walls of the passageway for Tomb M1, reportedly amounting to more than a hundred characters in both scripts in total. The ink inscriptions in Chinese include the name 蒲骨 (púgǔ), from which the archaeologists have inferred that the occupant of M1 was Yelü Pugu 耶律蒲古 (d. 1031), a fourth generation descendant of the younger brother of Abaoji, founder of the Liao dynasty.

Mural of a Khitan man on the passageway of Tomb M1

The online reports of the excavation do not specify whether the Khitan script written on the walls is Khitan Large Script [KLS] or Khitan Small Script [KSS] (see The Mystery of Two Khitan Scripts for details), or provide any details about how many inscriptions in Khitan were preserved. However, in September 2016 Jerry You posted a couple of photos of the Khitan inscriptions on twitter, from which it can be seen that the inscriptions are in the Khitan Large Script. Unfortunately, the inscriptions are very incomplete, and must only represent a small part of what was originally written on the wall. Nevertheless, the few Khitan characters that do survive are very clearly written.

This site is about 215 km north of the site of the Mausoleum for Emperor Jingzong where the KSS marble tablets that I discussed last week were found. The closest Khitan script remains found to date is the KLS epitaph for the Prince of the North 北大王 (Yelü Wanxin 耶律萬辛, 972–1041), whose tomb is about 45 km north-west of the Jinbaotun tombs.

Location of the Jinbaotun tombs

Approximate location: 43°37'33"N 121°36'44"E

Green tags are sites of Khitan Small Script finds
Yellow tags are sites of Khitan Large Script finds

Khitan Large Script Inscription A

This inscription consists of just three characters. They may be all that is left of a longer inscription, but I am inclined to think that these three characters are complete in themselves, and represent the name of the person who was originally depicted in the mural at this location.

KLS Inscription A

KLS Inscription A
No. Glyph N4631 Notes
1  1521 Only elsewhere attested in the Epitaph for Yelü Xinie 耶律習涅 (1063–1114) line 24. Probably a variant form of  [0200] which occurs in the Epitaph for the Princess of Yongning Commandery 永寧郡公主 (1033–1091) line 12 and the Epitaph for Yelü Qi 耶律褀 (1033–1108) line 8.
2  0386 Possibly a borrowing of the Chinese character xiào 孝 "filial". This is a rare character that only elsewhere occurs in the Epitaph for Yelü Changyun 耶律昌允 (1000–1061) line 25, although the inscription is not very clear, so in Liu Fengzhu and Wang Yunlong's 2004 study of this inscription the character is transcribed like 芓.
3  0819 Quite a common character, frequently occurring immediately after  [1254] or  [1726], often in contexts suggesting it is a name or a title. Although it looks like the Chinese character tián 田 "field", it is probably unrelated. Liu Fengzhu and Wang Yunlong 2004 propose the reading [ku].

If these three characters are a label identifying the name of someone depicted in the mural, the first character is probably a family name, and the second and third characters are probably his or her personal name. The collocation  also occurs in the Epitaph for Yelü Changyun 耶律昌允 (1000–1061) line 25, where it may also be a personal name. Yelü Pugu (d. 1031) was a contemporary of Yelü Changyun, and so it is not impossible that the same person is referred to in the two cases.

Khitan Large Script Inscription B

The second inscription is more substantial than the first, and appears to comprise narrative text rather just a simple label naming someone depicted in the mural. There are two columns of text, although it is not clear whether these two lines are connected together in a single sentence or not. Unfortunately, most of this inscription has been lost, and only seven complete characters survive.

KLS Inscription B

KLS Inscription B Line 1
No. Glyph N4631 Notes
1  0759 The identification is not certain. This is a rare character, which may be a mistake for  [0261] or  [1767] meaning "elder brother" (derived from the Chinese character xiōng 兄 "elder brother").
2  0821 This character occurs four times in the Epitaph for Dorlipun 多羅里本 (1037–1080); twice in the Epitaph for Yelü Xinie 耶律習涅 (1063–1114); and once in the Epitaph for Yelü Qi 耶律褀 (1033–1108). In all seven cases it immediately precedes  [0454], so the occurrence here in front of a different character is unexpected. The Epitaph for Yelü Qi also has  [0997], immediately preceding  [0461], which may be the same character. Liu Fengzhu and Wang Yunlong 2004 propose that it is read [xwɑ], transcribing Chinese huà 化, but I do not know what the basis for this reading is.
3  0748 A common character, but its meaning is unknown.
4 ? ? Only part of the character remains so it is difficult to identify. Possibly one of:      . It is not exactly aligned with the previous three characters, so it may belong to a new inscription.

KLS Inscription B Line 2
No. Glyph N4631 Notes
1 ? ? Only a small part of a single stroke of this character survives.
2  0580 Identification not certain. Possibly a variant form of  [0547], a common character meaning "great".
3  1672 Genitive suffix -ən for stems with a [ə] vowel. Extremely common character.
4  1186 Very common character. The sequence  [1729 1186] has been interpreted as meaning "female person", with the sense "wife". Liu Fengzhu and Wang Yunlong 2004 propose that 1186 is read [khu] on the reading of a Khitan Small Script character that may correspond to it.
5  1147 Very common character, frequently occurring after 1186.
6  1521 Variant form of  [0670].

The fourth and fifth characters of the second line of Inscription B  [1186 1147] are a very common term, occurring in at least six KLS epitaphs. Most studies of KLS epitaphs that I have seen do not translate this term, but in Liu Fengzhu's 2010 study of the Epitaph for the Prince of the North, in one place only he glosses the two characters as the official title zhīhòu 祗候 "Usher", which is defined by Hucker as "a [Song dynasty] title for eunuch attendants in the Palace Domestic Service serving at court audiences". That is to say, it was a junior position at court for meeting and greeting guests, and as there were no Khitan eunuchs at the Liao court, it could not have been a eunuch position if held by a Khitan. The basis for this gloss is the Chinese epitaph for the prince that is carved on the underside of the lid for the Khitan epitaph (the top of the lid is inscribed with the title "Tomb epitaph for the Grand Prince of the North" 北大王墓誌 in Chinese characters). Although the Chinese epitaph is not a translation of the Khitan epitaph (or vice versa), there are some parallel sections which aid in the decipherment of the KLS text.


The Prince first married a girl called Dahe, who died young at the age of 16, having given birth to a son called Majiu who became a councillor at the prince's court. Then he married Madam Liunü, who passed away at the age of 38, having given birth to a son called Sanbunu, who became an Usher. He also married ...

Chinese epitaph for the Grand Prince of the North, lines 4–6


Khitan epitaph for the Grand Prince of the North, lines 4–6

I have underlined in red some of the words we already know in the Khitan epitaph, translated below, and it is clear from this that the Khitan and Chinese texts correspond quite closely, but that the Khitan text provides additional details such as the ages of the sons when they attained their official positions:

Grand Prince ... wife ... 16 years old ... son ... 45 years old ... second wife ... 38 years old ... son ... 30 years old {Usher?} ... third wife ...

We could try to fill in the gaps, and provide meanings for most of the other Khitan words in this section of the epitaph, but for the present we are just interested in the Khitan word  (underlined in blue) which occurs immediately after "30 years old" and preceding the sentence about the third wife. The name of the son must be in front of "30 years old", so the KLS characters following "30 years old" should be his official rank, in which case  should correspond in meaning to zhīhòu 祗候 "Usher" in the Chinese epitaph. The Khitan term is almost certainly not a phonetic transcription of the Chinese title because in the word wife  the second character cannot plausibly be read as a phonetic transcription of a Chinese character pronounced like zhī.

The term  occurs a total of five times in the Epitaph for the Grand Prince of the North, but zhīhòu 祗候 "Usher" only occurs the one time in the Chinese epitaph, probably because the Chinese text is abbreviated compared with the Khitan text. That Liu Fengzhu only glosses one of the five occurrences of  as zhīhòu 祗候 suggests that he may not be entirely convinced by the translation. Let us look at the occurrence on line 11 of the Khitan epitaph, which has no parallel in the Chinese epitaph:

  

When [Yelü Wanxin] was 39 years old, in the 29th year of the Tonghe era [1011], Emperor Shengzong ... {Usher?} ...

Khitan epitaph for the Grand Prince of the North, line 11

In this example, it seems that Emperor Shengzong does something related to  when Yelü Wanxin was 39 years old (we can be sure the subject of the sentence is Yelü Wanxin as he died at the age of 69 in 1041). The most obvious interpretation would be that Emperor Shengzong appointed Yelü Wanxin to this position, but it seems unlikely to me that a Khitan aristocrat would be appointed to the menial position of Usher at the ripe age of thirty-nine, so perhaps there is some other explanation.

In the History of the Liao Dynasty (Liáo Shǐ 遼史), the term zhīhòu 祗候 occurs about 160 times, but as an official title the vast majority of occurrences are as part of the official title zhīhòu lángjūn 祗候郎君 "Court Attendant Usher". The typical use is in biographies, where it is stated that in such a year or during such an era the subject of the biography filled a position as Court Attendant Usher (bǔ zhīhòu lángjūn 補祗候郎君), as in these examples:

The position seems to have normally been given to young men at the start of their career, for example Oulisi 歐里思 is specified as "not yet having been capped" (wèiguān 未冠) and Yelü Shilu 耶律室魯 is specified as "just having been capped" (fǔguān 甫冠) when they were appointed as Court Attendant Ushers (the capping ceremony for young men occurs when they are about twenty years of age). However, some appointments were only made to men in their thirties, for example it is stated that when Xiao Changge 蕭常哥 was first appointed a Court Attendant Usher he was already aged more than thirty (年三十餘,始為祗候郎君), although perhaps his age is mentioned specifically because he was unusually old for his first official appointment.

The two KLS characters  have been interpreted as corresponding to the Chinese official title lángjūn 郎君 "Court Attendant", with the reading shali, for example in the Epitaph for Dorlipun and the Epitaph for Yelü Qi. In the KLS epitaphs I have examined, the two characters  never occur immediately next to , as might be expected if  means zhīhòu 祗候 "Usher".

The term  frequently occurs immediately in front of the character  (in the extant monuments it is written in a range of glyph forms, but below I have standardized to the same glyph for all occurrences). In the inscription on the mural for Yelü Pugu, the character following  is evidently a variant of . This sequence of three characters is attested eleven times in KLS epitaphs that I have seen, and in all cases the sequence forms one of the two following four-character phrases, so there is a good chance that the last three characters of Inscription B line 2 are the first three characters of one of these two phrases:

Images of rubbings from epitaphs of all the examples of these four-character phrases that I have been able to find are shown below (my thanks to Viacheslav Zaytsev for preparing the images).

Images of rubbings from epitaphs
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
line 9
line 11
Xiao Paolu
lines 2–3
Xiao Paolu
line 5
Yelü Qi
line 10
Yelü Qi
line 12
Yelü Qi
line 15
Yelü Qi
line 16

9 10 11
Yelü Qi
line 35
Yelü Xinie
line 8
Yelü Xinie
line 14

The table below gives the above examples in context, with a literal word-for-word translation into Chinese and a rough translation into English, as far as it is possible to do so given our limited understanding of the Khitan Large Script.

Transcriptions and translations
No. Text Source



During the time of the Chongxi Emperor (i.e. Emperor Xingzong, 1032–1055), {????} ...

Dorlipun lines 8–9



At the age of 32, {????} ... Northern Establishment ...

Yelü Changyun line 11



... Minister Duke {????} ... Court Attendant ...

Xiao Paolu lines 2–3



When the Grand Councilor was 19, {????} ...

Xiao Paolu line 5



At the start of the Chongxi era (1032–1055), {????} ...

Yelü Qi line 10



forty ... {????} ...

Yelü Qi line 12



... {????} ...

Yelü Qi line 15



In the sixth year of the Qingning era (1060), {????} ...

Yelü Qi line 16



... {????} ...

Yelü Qi line 35



The Defender-in-chief {????} ... Court Attendant ...

Yelü Xinie line 8



In the seventh year of the Da'an era (1091), at the age of 29, {????} ... establishment ...

Yelü Xinie line 14

In six out of these eleven examples (1, 2, 4, 5, 8, and 11), the terms  or  are preceded by a date and/or an age, and are consistent with a statement that somebody was given an official position at such a date or at such an age. The ages mentioned in three of the examples (19, 29 and 32) are consistent with a junior appointment, and match the range of ages for appointment as Court Attendant Usher given in the History of the Liao Dynasty discussed above. It is a great shame that there are no biographical entries in the History of the Liao Dynasty for any of the subjects of epitaphs discussed in this post, not even the Grand Prince of the North, so it is not possible to confirm what official positions they actually held.

Conclusive evidence for the meaning of  and  is still lacking, but they should refer to some sort of junior official title. If the interpretation of  as Court Attendant lángjūn 郎君 is incorrect, then perhaps  refers to Court Attendant Usher (zhīhòu lángjūn 祗候郎君), and  refers to some other variety of Court Attendant (e.g. yùzhǎn lángjūn 御盞郎君 "Court Attendant in charge of the imperial cup, páiyìn lángjūn 牌印郎君 "Court Attendant for paizi and seals"), with the common element  meaning Court Attendant lángjūn 郎君.



Addendum [2023-01-22]

I have now been able to access a paper written by Changhai 長海 and Lian Jilin 連吉林 entitled 《開魯縣遼代皇族墓葬出土墨書題記相關問題初步研究》 [Preliminary research on issues relating to the ink inscriptions unearthed at the Liao dynasty aristocratic burial in Kailu county] which was published in 《西域歷史語言研究集刊》 [Studies in history and linguistics of the Western Region] (社會科學文獻出版社, 2019) vol. 12 no. 2, pp. 22–31. This paper includes the three photographs of detached fragments of plaster with ink inscriptions in Chinese and Khitan large script which are reproduced below.

Detached fragments of plaster with ink inscriptions in Chinese and Khitan

Khitan fragments on the left, and Chinese fragments on the right

Source: 《開魯縣遼代皇族墓葬出土墨書題記相關問題初步研究》 Fig. 3

Detached fragments of plaster with ink inscriptions in Khitan large script

Higher resolution images of 23 of the Khitan fragments

Source: 《開魯縣遼代皇族墓葬出土墨書題記相關問題初步研究》 Fig. 4

Detached fragments of plaster with ink inscriptions in Chinese

Higher resolution images of some of the Chinese fragments

Source: 《開魯縣遼代皇族墓葬出土墨書題記相關問題初步研究》 Fig. 5

I discuss these fragments in detail in a forthcoming paper (Two recent discoveries of fragments of Khitan inscriptions) which expands upon my two Khitan blog posts of this year (this blog post and a post on the marble slips from the Liao Mausoleum at Yiwulü Mountain), and corrects some errors of interpretation.

Last modified: 22 January 2023


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