October 06, 2008


My friend Amritas' website is waaay above my level. Both my husband and I have said that if anyone thinks we're smart, they should meet this guy. And it is so flattering that such an intelligent man reads my dopey little blog.

Amritas honors my blogoversary with a Tangut of my name. I think he's my longest-running blog friend.

Posted by Sarah at October 6, 2008 09:57 PM | TrackBack

Thanks for linking to me.

I haven't written for 'civilians' (not in the usual sense of the word for readers of this blog!) for so long that I don't know if my post makes any sense. I hope this comment makes sense ...

Some background:

The Tangut were a 'barbarian' tribe on the western periphery of China who built a landlocked empire seemingly out of nowhere beginning in the late 10th century.

In 1036, a standardized writing system ('tangraphy') was introduced by decree of the Tangut emperor. Tangraphy superficially looks like Chinese but is much more difficult. It is not based on pictures; each character ('tangraph') usually contains two or more abstract line patterns that may or may not have identifiable semantic and/or phonetic values. In 1916, the early Tangutologist Berthold Laufer declared tangraphy to be "the most complicated system [of writing] ever invented by the human mind" - appropriate for the empire that the Tangut called 'the state of ten thousand secrets'. Sample tangraphic texts:



The Tangut Empire was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century. The surviving Tangut faded away, taking the secrets of tangraphy with them.

Centuries after the fall of the Tangut Empire, some Chinese found a stela with tangraphy. Unable to read it, they were stricken with terror:

"... the people were convinced that it was the work of the devil, and walled it up to protect themselves from its evil influence (they were too afraid to simply destroy it)."

(source: http://unicode.org/~rscook/Xixia/)

The decipherment of tangraphy began in the late 19th century and its analysis is still ongoing on my blog today (ha, ha).

The last century of Tangutology has been exciting, to say the least. It's a story that encompasses a secret library of Tangut books beneath a 'dead city' buried in the Gobi Desert, Stalin's Great Terror, execution by the NKVD, Zhou Enlai, a big-budgeted Japanese historical epic movie, and more ...

The tragic events of the twentieth century have cast a long shadow over Tangut studies, and the twenty-first century promises to be exciting in a different way with the computerization of tangraphy and tangraphic texts. I look forward to Tangut in Unicode:


It's a shame that the late Tangutologist Ksenia Kepping (1937-2002) could not live to see this new era of Tangutology. I agree with her assessment of Tangut civilization, and hope that her prediction comes true:

"The Mi-nia [= Tangut] culture is the last lost civilization of the Old World. In sharp contrast with the last lost civilization of the New World (Mayan), which has been meticulously studied and widely popularized, almost nothing is known about the Mi-nia outside the small team of specialists working on the subject in different countries (mainly Russia, China, Japan and the USA). It is therefore often defined as a 'mysterious kingdom'.

"But the Mi-nia Empire (1032-1227) was every bit as significant in the history of Central Asia as the Mayan was to Central America, and the culture it created no less fascinating. On the basis of my life-long work with Mi-nia materials, I would define their culture as exquisitely sophisticated. Once revealed to the public and popularized, it certainly will occupy its due place in world history."

(source: http://www.kepping.net/pdfs/works/Guanyin_Icon.pdf)

PS: If Tangut is hard, the Voynich manuscript is even harder:


Posted by: Amritas at October 7, 2008 03:52 AM

I'm blocked from posting a link to a photo gallery of the lost Tangut city. The photos can be found by Googling "Mongol ghost city dehydrated and sacked by Ming armies".

"Mongol" is misleading; the city was conquered by the Mongols, but it was the Tangut in the city who stocked the secret library around the end of the 14th century.

"These materials ... represent their message to posterity. They wanted us to know what really brought their state to an end."

- Ksenia Kepping

Posted by: Amritas at October 7, 2008 04:05 AM

This is totally cool! I was a linguistics major not *too* long ago... and this sort of thing is just thrilling to me! Thanks for the broad scope of interests here!!! :-)

Posted by: kannie at October 7, 2008 05:13 PM