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2087Re: Dating Chinese writing Re: [ANE-2] Cherubim Origins

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  • E Bruce Brooks
    Aug 5, 2006
    • 0 Attachment
      To: ANE-2
      In Response To: Peter Daniels
      On: Chinese Writing
      From: Bruce

      Peter has previously, but on that occasion privately, chided me on my
      suggestion about date nomenclature. I may as well repeat here the gist of my
      earlier answer to him:

      ME: Chinese chronology is disputed earlier than the year 0841 (this is a
      culture-neutral way of writing 841 BC);

      PETER: No, it is not. It is an immensely confusing perversion of the
      phenomenon of the meaningless leading zero -- precisely because we have
      learned from our earliest age to disregard leading zeros!

      ME: Non sequitur. It is culture-neutral because the standard conventions in
      English, BC or BCE, both *assume* English, that is, they are abbreviations
      of English words and thus culturally centered in English. Those conventions
      do not adequately represent French (where a different phrase is in use), or
      German, or in fact anything other than English. I always recommend that
      conventions in any subject should be as widely based, or as widely
      acceptable, as is reasonably possible. The other neutral device (that is,
      the other device not based on words in a particular language) which one
      sometimes encounters is a minus sign prefixed to BC dates. The troubles with
      this are two: (1) it does not allow for convenient hyphenation of dates (if
      Confucius was born in -551 and died in -479, how would you give his
      lifespan, without running into hierarchic hyphen problems on the page?), and
      (2) it conflicts with established astronomical usage, which differs by one
      from "historical" usage. Since astronomical dates are frequently cited in
      ancient studies (eclipses are important evidence), that conflict cannot
      easily be shrugged off. All in all, then, it seems to me that the leading
      zero convention, which raises neither of these practical problems, and also
      does not rub Englishness in the faces of other language speakers, has a good
      deal going for it. Respectfully suggested, to those capable of entertaining
      such suggestions in tranquility.

      As to Peter's substantive objection, minus "perversion" and other somewhat
      unscientific lexical items, we, or at least a good many of us, have NOT
      "learned to disregard leading zeroes." They are increasingly common, and we
      often have to pay attention to them in daily life. Those citing an ISBN
      number, to take only one instance, will disregard the leading zero at their
      and/or Amazon's peril. It is precisely this greater familiarity with leading
      zeroes in modern life (including modern banking) which makes a leading zero
      convention less strange to the ordinary citizen, and thus more practical as
      a general convention, than it would have been 30 years ago. There will
      always be people who like what they have, and Peter has signed on as one of
      them. His distaste for this specific suggestion may or may not be widely
      shared, but his arguments in support of that distaste don't strike me as
      having general weight.

      Now we come to Chinese writing.

      ME: the Jou conquest of Shang was within 50 years or so of 01000, and
      writing was introduced to China three or four
      centuries before that.

      PETER: That's highly unlikely. By the time Chinese writing is first attested
      (Oracle Bone Inscriptions, ca. 1250 BCE), it is a (functionally speaking)
      fully developed writing system, and in the other known cases of script
      invention (Sumerian and Mayan), it took many, many centuries to achieve that
      status -- in both cases, moreover, the mediation of writing in other
      languages was certainly (Sumerian) or probably (Mayan) involved, which
      provided the impetus for full phoneticization. We might then expect the
      first experiments with Chinese proto-writing to reach back close to the 3rd

      ME: That timescale might fit that hypothesis, but that hypothesis itself
      doesn't convince me. It is agreed that Chinese oracle bone writing emerges
      rather full-blown. That suggests one of two things: either (1) Chinese
      writing went through a long period of local development which, and the
      social concomitants of which, are both utterly lost to us, or (2) it arose
      and quickly developed, in idiosyncratic local form, but as the result of
      stimulus from outside.

      It may be objected that Chinese is typologically different from all the
      other Asian writing systems which might have suggested it. That, to my mind,
      implies stimulus (knowledge of the *idea* of writing, without any guidance
      as to method, and thus a local resort to rebus procedures, much as in
      Kipling's story) rather than direct imitation. But the distances involved do
      not make that a less likely possibility. As for the missing alphabet, at
      least one scholar (Pulleyblank) has suggested that the seemingly meaningless
      series of cyclical (calendrological) signs, in two series of 10 and 12,
      totaling 22, may be distributed across the phonological system in such a way
      as to suggest an original consonantal set. If so, that possibility was not
      followed in the further development of the script, and represents a fossil
      rather than a fairway. But it might provide evidence of a sort of
      typological transition.

      The stimulus theory is anathema to the Chinese government, and thus to most
      Chinese scholars and indeed citizens, numbering in the millions, most of
      them passionately involved. But if one can get off in some quiet corner to
      consider the matter, it would seem that the stimulus hypothesis is subject
      to test as well as to feelings. The test might run this way: Is there any
      other cultural item which also arises rather suddenly in China, at about
      that same time, and have we any indications as to the provenance of that
      item? I would say, Yes and Yes, respectively.

      2. Bronze casting of remarkable quality and sophistication. Even some
      leading Chinese scientists (such as An Jr-min) now concede that, both
      technically and typologically, this is most intelligible as an introduction
      from the West, and not as an independent evolution. For one thing, no such
      evolution is attested, and with such hard items as bronze sacrificial
      vessels, likely to be preserved in tombs or concentrated at ritual centers,
      we would expect it to be.

      3. The war chariot. It was conceded by Shaughnessy, in a remarkably candid
      article some years ago in HJAS, that the Chinese war chariot is not only
      without local precedent, but is closely similar to the Mesopotamian war
      chariot. See the recent book by Robert Drews, with references.

      4. Wheat. I think it was the Russians who found that the particular strand
      of wheat used in Shang China has no species width in China, and thus does
      not look like a local domestication. The same strain of wheat is found along
      a sort of crescent, reaching from Mesopotamia up a little, and then down
      into North China. Species width obtains in Mesopotamia (as I recall), and
      thus domestication there is a plausible scenario. Wheat in early Chinese
      culture was exclusively an elite foot; the general populace ate millet. This
      makes three items so far which are restricted to the military elite culture
      of Shang.

      5. Horses. As is I think by now pretty well known, the horse (and without a
      horse, there is no great amount of use in the war chariot) is known all over
      East Asia by some version of a word which seems closely cognate to IE
      (specifically, OHGm) marah. Horses are also restricted to elite culture.
      Remarkably, the Chinese did not ride horses for the first thousand years of
      their acquaintance with horses. They only drove them. This is narrowness of
      use is perhaps typologically a little like the species narrowness of wheat;
      see above.

      Each of these items, though undoubtedly controversial in large sections of
      the planet, seems nevertheless fairly convincing when examined purely on the
      evidence. What is additionally convincing, at least to me, is that together,
      they all have the same character, which is not the character of a gradual
      local evolution, they all come in at roughly the same time, and thus suggest
      a culture complex rather than a group of disconnected culture traits
      requiring to be independently accounted for, and they all point in the same
      direction outside of China.

      I might add that it would be of great utility to Chinese studies (which as
      it stands is ill-equipped to deal with these questions in their fullness) if
      a knowledgeable ANE person or two got involved in the other ends of these
      equations. If there are any volunteers, I will be glad to hear from them,
      preferably off-line.


      E Bruce Brooks
      Research Professor of Chinese
      Warring States Project
      University of Massachusetts at Amherst
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