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2265Re: [ANE-2] Re: Dating Chinese writing

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  • E Bruce Brooks
    Aug 17, 2006
      To: ANE-2
      In Response To: B E Colless
      On: E/W Relations and Origins of Chinese Writing
      From: Bruce

      BEC: I hope Bruce is still listening, as there is some ("dodgy") evidence I
      want to bring in to the debate.

      EBB: Sure, always listening. And I guess I should respond to the second
      iteration of this note, within one calendar day. But I don't know what I can
      usefully contribute. I don't specialize in this area, and I have only a
      general sense of the issues involved. I will say what occurs to me, in good
      faith, from that general standpoint.

      First, a context warning: This whole topic is very much constrained at the
      Sinological end, as I tried to indicate in an earlier note. As it happens, I
      received just today an envelope containing some writings (on paper and disk)
      by a colleague who happens to differ from the official Chinese Government
      position on ancient chronology. He was concerned that something might happen
      to him, and he wanted there to be a second copy in existence. My job is to
      maintain custody of that second copy, and if possible secure its
      dissemination. That's the kind of game this is. I doubt that ANE people
      operate under anything like those conditions, but the ambience has to be
      understood as obtaining in Sinitic matters, before scholarly opinions in
      this area, especially recent ones, can be properly and objectively

      I here try to keep things brief, while being at least minimally responsive.
      More available if anyone should be interested.

      BEC [summarizing a publication of his own from 1972]: I suggested that
      Li-chien, Li-kan, and Ta-ch'in were all transcriptions of Alexandria (taking
      note of Karlgren's reconstructions). And there was the question whether
      An-hsi (An-syiek) represented Arsak or Antioch (Parthia or Syria), and
      whether T'iao-chih was Tigris or Antiokhia.

      EBB: Such are, and have always been, the uncertainties. One problem on the
      Chinese end is that reconstructions of old Chinese have not been done on the
      comparative method, but as backward projections of modern Mandarin, ignoring
      intermediate stages and going directly for the prize: Tang Chinese (famous
      for literature) and Classical Chinese (famous for the classics). Some
      linguists are beginning to take my advice of decades ago and pursue the
      matter in smaller, but also more directly knowable, stages. That work is
      just beginning, and its effects on conjectures about the more remote stages
      of the language are not yet felt. Karlgren has lots of problems (beginning
      with a wrong evaluation of Japanese phonetic evidence for Tang; he missed
      the fact of significant sound change in Japanese over the last thousand
      years, which was discovered by Hashimoto et al only later). In my opinion,
      some of these problems are not yet satisfactorily fixed by later attempts,
      including Li, Starostin, or Baxter-Sagart. Pulleyblank years ago, starting
      from discontent with Karlgren precisely because it ignored transcription
      evidence, and wasn't helpful for the history of China within the larger
      Asia, tried to redo the job. Some of Pulleyblank's insights are undoubtedly
      in the right direction. But of course there is a danger built into
      transcription evidence too: it helps if we know what original name we are
      transcribing, and if we don't know that, there is a danger of circularity.
      And so it goes. In my view, which is not that of one on the front lines of
      this particular advance, the end is not yet in sight. Meanwhile, I find it
      hard to speak with assurance on the phonetic side, meaning that, to me, more
      of the argument is going to rest on the historical side. We can't depend on
      the unsupported sounds (as presently reconstructed) to reliably give us the
      answer by themselves.

      One recent and careful attempt to reassess these West Asian place name
      identifications is by John Hill, who has posted an annotation of the
      relevant chapter of the Hou Han Shu (HHS 88) on the Silk Road Seattle site:


      This is the latest thing as far as I know. Comments welcome. I am in touch
      with John, and can pass on any comments to him (for that matter, I think
      there is a mail like at this site).

      BEC: A legendary Chinese account of an ancient embassy in the time of Yao
      (one of the Five Sages, I think): envoys of a race called *Yüeh shang shih*
      arrived from the south and presented tribute to the emperor (Yao, I

      EBB: Presumptions are part of the problem. The other part of the problem is
      legends as such. It is too often assumed that legends are in substance true.
      I would suspect that, for the most part, legends are not a way of recording
      facts, but are rather a culture's way of filling an uncomfortable gap in the
      facts, or of replacing an uncomfortable fact by a more comfortable
      concoction. Assuming for the moment that there is some sort of event at the
      core of a given legend, the next question is, what is the date of that
      event? In my experience, not only with Chinese legends or historical
      statements, that date is very likely to be near the time of the writing of
      the legend, and not the time *referred to* by the legend. Of this sort of
      historical retrojection there are thousands of examples. That's the general
      situation. I would need to know the source of this particular legend in
      order to comment further. But if it has its roots in a real contact, that
      contact need not necessarily be early. I think that Wellhausen made this
      point long ago, for the history of Israel. I find that it applies to the
      history of anything whatever. Most ancient texts are not themselves
      antiquarian in nature; they intend to speak to their own time.

      BEC: This same *Yüeh shang* nation is said to have sent another mission
      during the reign of Ch'eng Wang, in 1110 BCE (let's call it 01111, with a
      hand of four aces).

      EBB: I would have to know what text first tells that story. It is, for
      instance, absent in the Shr Ji account of the Jou dynasty, including
      Chvng-wang (SJ 5; that account was written well before 0111, so that I lose
      the chance of referring to a "hand of three aces"). Not knowing the date, I
      can't evaluate it. But I can decode it, and so can anyone; it doesn't take
      some ingenious French anthropologist. Most Chinese myths in this area have
      as their content the message that China rightly rules the entire world, and
      that since from time immemorial it always *has* ruled the entire world. The
      only type of external political or cultural contact which Chinese orthodoxy
      can readily imagine or comfortably internalize is one of complete
      subordination to China. As Macartney and others found to their discomfort.

      BEC: Later commentators state that this country could be reached within a
      year (by sea), after passing Biu-nam (Fu-nan, Khmer region, Cambodia) and
      Lin-yi (Champa,southern Vietnam peopled by speakers of a Malayo-Polynesian

      EBB: Again, how much later? But on information provided, it looks as though
      some trans-Bnam sea contact of mediaeval times was (a) being rationalized
      into a tribute mission the other way, and then (b) being furnished with a
      wholly invented pedigree, which took the asserted relationship back to the
      time of the (imaginary) Sage Kings.

      BEC: . . . However, Cordier (p8, n4) dismisses the sweeping generalization
      of Terrien de Lacouperie (1894) "that the Chinese civilization had its
      origin in western Asia and more particularly from Babylonia and Elam".

      EBB: It seems to me doubtful that a theory of wholesale cultural
      transplantation from Mesopotamia to China can work (the Ten Lost Tribes
      theory is only one of its variants). Doubtful a priori. Chinese civilization
      also has fairly clear East Asian connections. But that China has from time
      to time received significant infusions of ideas and techniques (in some
      cases, along with a few termina technica in IE languages; I earlier
      mentioned "horse") seems much more likely, and at minimum to be rationally

      Though pursuing that possibility won't get you anywhere either with the guys
      in Peking or with Colin Renfrew, and both these facts have considerable
      inhibiting force on the question itself. This situation in effect relegates
      the topic to the fringe, where less scientific modes of discourse easily
      come to obtain. It needs to be discussed, not at the fringe, but by people
      in the center, with methodological rigor and with a linguistic conscience.
      Maybe that can take place in the 22nd century; the present one seems to be
      pretty much shot for this and other purposes.

      BEC: But the interesting detail is in the tribute brought to Yao (before the
      time of the Shang Dynasty): a tortoise, which was allegedly one thousand
      years old, and which had an inscription on its shell, in strange characters
      resembling tadpoles. / Or, we might say, looking like wedges, and thus
      cuneiform writing.

      EBB: Whatever the age and probity of this account, and I am dubious on both
      scores, I don't think we can get from tadpoles to wedges. Two points: (1) It
      was conjectured fairly early (by the Chinese) that some ancient worthy was
      inspired to invent writing from seeing the marks on the shell of a turtle.
      Whether that implies some knowledge of oracle bone writing (writing incised
      into turtle plastrons, among other bone types) I don't know, though it is
      imaginable. But in any case, as far as the actual origin of writing goes,
      this aetiology looks like a free invention. (2) Some ancient writing does
      look very like tadpoles. Those used to ordinary Chinese writing of the late
      pre-Imperial period should, with that visual background, then take a look at
      the inscription on a sword once belonging to a King of Wu (a non-Sinitic
      area). The shapes of the latter, especially as viewed in that context, are
      remarkably tadpole-like. Knowledge of such script forms (obtained from an
      artifact or two then still above ground) plus the fact that these
      inscriptions could not be read, could easily have given rise to the idea
      that tadpole writing is more ancient than the other kind.

      That's about as far as I get at this moment.

      Best wishes,


      E Bruce Brooks
      Warring States Project
      University of Massachusetts at Amherst

      [To be fair, I should add that another nature source for writing given in
      the Chinese apocrypha is bird tracks. If we are aiming at wedges, bird
      tracks may be a graphically easier place to start].
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