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

Presented by ANU College of Asia & the Pacific

Many visitors to Xi’an go to the Tomb of Empress Wu 武則天 (624-705), where their attention might be brought to a tall stele in front of the tomb, the Wu Zi Bei (The Tomb without an Inscription). It is named so, it is said, because the achievements of Empress Wu were without limit. If one looks closely, however, one might notice that there is indeed an inscription, though it is too high to be easily read. One may see evidence that someone has made some rubbings of the mysterious inscription, which is actually in two languages: Chinese and another where “not a character can be understood”. A. Wylie (1860) translated the Chinese text and thought that the unknown text was Jurchen, because of the reference to Da Jin, the dynastic title of the Jin Dynasty (265-420).

Later the unknown language was shown to be Kitan, as it was clearly the same as an inscription from a Liao dynasty (907-1125) imperial tomb. Other inscriptions came to light over the years, with many attempts to decipher Empress Wu’s stele only yielding small progress. This remained the case until the formal publication of a study by the Kitan Small Character Research Group in China. This book identified about 200 of 300 characters, based on Chinese official titles and place names. There was a feeling in the air that the script had finally been deciphered. But while now words, sentences, and even whole inscriptions could be transcribed, very little could actually be understood. To quote a famous expert on dead languages, Nishida Tatsuo, “To tell you the truth: the Kitan script is becoming more and more incomprehensible. Things we were not able to understand before, we are even less able to understand now”. This talk will conclude with the present state of affairs in the decipherment of Kitan.

About the speaker
Professor Daniel Kane is one of the world's foremost authorities on the extinct Jurchen and Kitan languages and their scripts. He held academic positions at the University of Melbourne and Macquarie University, where he was Professor of Chinese until his retirement. Professor Kane joined the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs in 1976 and was posted to Beijing. He was also Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing during the 1990s. His interest in undeciphered scripts goes back to his teenage years. His first acquaintance with Kitan was in 1970, an interest he developed over the coming decades. He wrote the standard English language book on Kitan, The Kitan Language and Script, in 2009.

The George Ernest Morrison Lecture series was founded by Chinese residents in Australia and others in honour of the late Dr G. E. Morrison (1862-1920), a native of Geelong, Victoria, Australia.

The objects of the foundation of the lectureship were to honour for all time the memory of a great Australian who rendered valuable services to China and to improve cultural relations between China and Australia. The annual Morrison Lecture is organised by a committee of ANU colleagues from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific.

The George E. Morrison Lecture Series is sponsored by the China Institute and the Australian Centre on China in the World.