2265Re: [ANE-2] Re: Dating Chinese writing
- Aug 17, 2006To: ANE-2
In Response To: B E Colless
On: E/W Relations and Origins of Chinese Writing
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
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.
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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