Kitan language crash course at Yale University 11th – 19th May 2016

yale 2.jpgThe Kitan Language Crash Course began on the sunny morning of May 11th 2016. There were around twenty of us, gathered around a conference table in a room deep in the corridors of Yale University’s splendid Sterling Memorial Library. We were anticipating a potentially tough nine days of instruction in a language long dead and little understood. We knew, however, that we were in good hands. Professor Daniel Kane, our instructor, has an academic career spanning five decades and has made contributions to the study of the history of the Chinese language, the Jurchen language and most significantly for this workshop, the first full length volume in English to be devoted to the Kitan language, The Kitan Language and Script, published by Brill in 2009.

The crash course was convened by Professor Valerie Hansen, who in her opening remarks savoured the observation that this was the first ever of its kind in history. The language under study had effectively died, or at least disappeared from historical reference, some eight hundred years ago. It has only come to light again since the 19th century, with new discoveries of inscriptions at the rate of about one a year.

The nine day course aimed to do several things. It aimed to ensure the participants became familiarised with the major reference works to date on the language, in order to set them themselves up for further independent research. It was also designed to help participants understand the range of methodologies and expertise that can be brought to the table in the study of Kitan, and understand how they can contribute to the research in their own way. As for knowledge of the language itself, the course aimed to give us a grasp of what we know so far of how the Kitan script works, and to be able to recognise many graphs in context. Practically, we were to come out of it able to attempt punctuation of texts (as like classical Chinese, Kitan primary sources have no punctuation); to do this requires a basic understanding of the morphology and syntax of Kitan. And we were to read selected short Kitan texts that are reasonably well understood.


The workshop brought together scholars from many different countries; Australia, France, Israel, Korea, the PRC, the US and the UK. It also represented a convergence of diverse academic backgrounds within the humanities, including art history, intellectual history, social history and political history, and a broad regional focus, ranging from as far west as Persia to as far east as Japan. The twenty participants were also composed of researchers at different stages of their academic career, making the seminar of some twenty participants a forum that was international, interdisciplinary and intergenerational.

But why the interest in Kitan language? And why now?

The idea of the workshop was first conceived at the ‘Perspectives on the Liao’ conference held at Yale University and Bard Graduate Centre, 30th September to 2nd October 2010. As the name suggests, the focus of the conference was the Liao dynasty (907-1125), a period in Northeast Asian history characterised as under the rule of a ‘conquest dynasty’, a dynasty where areas and populations that are conventionally argued to be Chinese were ruled over by non-Chinese, nomadic northern rulers. The ‘Perspectives on the Liao’ conference and Issue 43 of the Journal of Song Yuan Studies that came out of it, devoted to the Liao, contributed research that countered this conventional characterisation. The conference and journal symbolise the adoption of a fresh paradigm to recognise the Liao not in a binary relationship with its ‘Chinese’ neighbours to South, but integrated into a wider multipolar world; connected culturally and politically to Inner Asia, the Korean peninsula and Japan. The once marginalised Liao dynasty has begun to be viewed as a regional centre.

Integrating perspectives on the Liao from other regions helps in challenging the Kitan-Chinese binary, however, most of our historical sources regarding the Liao and the Kitan are in classical Chinese. The Liao was not the only so-called ‘conquest dynasty’ in Chinese history. The Qing (1644-1911) is more famous, where traditional scholarship focused on the Chinese language sources to reconstruct the political and social events of the dynasty. These methods were challenged, however, with a turn often referred as the New Qing Studies, in which Manchu language sources were consulted and given priority, painting a different, insider, account of the dynasty.  Likewise, it is hoped that increased access to the contents of Kitan language sources may yield similar insights into the dynasty from the perspectives of the Kitan.

The decipherment of Kitan language and script, however, represents a formidable challenge that requires the enlisting of specialists from many disciplines. As we have come to recognise the interactions of the Kitan Liao with the wider multipolar world of Asia, we have been inspired to incorporate current understandings of a wider range of languages and cultures in our attempts to unravel its mysteries. The language is currently characterised as para-Mongolic; it is believed to share a common, unknown ancestor with Mongolian. What is known about the syntax and morphology of Kitan shows that the language belongs to the family known generally as Altaic, sharing commonalities with Mongolian (Modern and Middle), Old Turkic, Jurchen, Manchu, Daur and Tuvan, among others.

The script, however, seems to have been largely informed by knowledge of the Chinese script, in particular with regards to the ductus (that is, the manner in which the graphs of the script are composed and written out by hand) and the favouring of using square blocks for lexical units (as opposed to the linear arrangement of letters into words seen in English and many other languages). The Kitan Small Script (or Assembled script) presents a combination of logographs (graphs that represent a word/unit of meaning) and phonographs (graphs that represent a phoneme or sound, be it a syllable, consonant or vowel); such a practice can be found in modern Japanese. Many of these graphs are arranged into a single block, often representing a word, a practice also employed in the Korean script, Hangul, invented in 1443.

The decipherment of the Kitan language is by no means a solely philological exercise; beyond knowledge of Inner and East Asian languages of the past and present, historical information is also indispensable. After all, the source materials we have in the Kitan language are often tomb inscriptions of elite persons, and as a result are replete with names, titles, toponyms and vocabulary specific to the Liao milieu. The funerary or commemorative context in which the Kitan source material was produced and found must also be understood, which demands the input of archaeologists, art historians and social historians.


How do you learn/teach an undeciphered language?

There is a degree of circularity in trying to make progress with the Kitan script. It is hoped that through the script we can learn more about the Kitan language. However, at the same time, it is hoped through what we know of the Kitan language we can decipher the script. In the background of all of this, though, is a limited knowledge of the precise relationship between the language and the script. So ideally to understand the inscriptions we would need a Kitan-English dictionary, which we don’t have. In order to produce one we would need to understand the inscriptions. With this issue in mind it is obvious that a crash course in Kitan would not be a typical ancient language workshop. The aims were not so much to teach us the language but to get us up to scratch on what has been done so far on Kitan, how it has been done, and how we can help.

The first half introduced many of the issues involved in understanding Kitan and the basics of what we know already. In the second half we then proceeded to use this knowledge in guided group reading and translation of selected texts. The first text was the Langjun inscription, the only inscription for which we have an almost bilingual account, the stele presenting both the Kitan and a rough Chinese translation (think an imprecise Rosetta stone). The second text we read together was the epitaph for Yelü Dilie, a figure of the late Liao, for which we have scattered historical accounts in Chinese sources. Much of this latter Kitan inscription remains a mystery, and what has been worked out are mostly Chinese loanwords. Working with these two Kitan language inscriptions thus gave us an understanding of how Kitan has been deciphered so far, and the difficulties in working with Kitan even when there is a parallel Chinese text to hand. The murkier second text was instructive of the degree of conjecture and uncertainty involved at this stage in research and how much more work needs to be done.

Alongside the Kitan language content of the course, each participant was allocated 10-20 minutes to briefly present their work to the group, regardless of what stage they were in their academic career or how complete their current projects were. This gave the crash course as a whole the additional function of a mini-conference, greatly enhancing the collegiate and collaborative atmosphere of the sessions over the nine days.

The group contact hours took up the mornings. Office hours with Professor Kane and a room furnished with all the necessary reference works for independent study were made available for the afternoons when no classes were scheduled.

The fifth day, the Sunday, was the designated free day, where many participants, myself included, took advantage of the proximity of New York to make a trip to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The “Met”, as it is commonly referred to, boasts a rich collection of East Asian artefacts, and our visit coincided with an exhibition on the Seljuqs (1037-1194), a dynasty which ruled partially contemporary to the Liao (907-1125) on the far west side of Asia. Despite this distance of geography, there were cultural parallels to be drawn between the Seljuqs and the Kitan, both having been characterised as nomads ruling over sedentary populations.

What did we get from it?

In the space of nine days this crash course not only achieved its goal of helping us to familiarise ourselves with the methodology and outcomes of research into the Kitan language, it also provided a platform to exchange ideas with a diverse set of scholars with a common interest in the Liao or the history of Northeast Asia.

This exchange undoubtedly will extend beyond the limited time frame of the crash course, and contacts established here show the promise of strengthening an international community of scholars, which will almost certainly go on to produce collaborative projects on a period of history and part of the world that is still unduly marginalised in scholarship. There are already plans in motion to reconvene and broaden this gathering of scholars a year from now.

The lessons to be taken away from the Kitan language at this stage are less direct. The exercise was humbling, as not only does so much remain unknown about the Kitan language, but the extent to which it is knowable is also uncertain. This severely restricts what Kitan language materials have to offer historians besides the fact of their existence. Furthermore, the current collection of Kitan materials are disproportionally tomb inscriptions. As a specific genre of performative writing concerned with eulogy, even should they be translated and apprehended in their entirety they may inevitably only provide a selective understanding of Kitan linguistic features (e.g. everything is in the past tense) and historical data.

Nevertheless, this invaluable initiation into the state of field for Kitan language opens up the study to a variety of interested scholars beyond its original dedicated coterie of Linguistics specialists, Sinologists and Altaicists. There were also discussions towards the end of the sessions about how the decipherment of the Kitan language may be made more accessible through digital humanities projects. Spreading the word about the Kitan language may encourage a broader base of interest and potentially more attention and investment not only in research on discovered sources, but also the investment in archaeology to discover more.  Regardless of the challenges and the uncertainty of reward in Kitan language research, the possibility of being able to recover a lost voice of the past should make the task an imperative of any historian working with this period and part of the world.

It is thanks to Professor Valerie Hansen and everyone at Yale University who helped make this happen through organisational, administrative and financial efforts, to Professor Daniel Kane, not only for his instruction at this event, but also for his years of work on Kitan, and to everyone in attendance for creating such a friendly, engaged and collegiate atmosphere, that this crash course was so successful and exciting to attend. It is thanks to Yale University and the University of Birmingham that my supervisor Professor Standen, my colleague Xue Chen, and I were able to take part in this unique and inspiring event.

Lance Pursey 


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