Toward a Decipherment of the 1084 Kitan Inscription in Khentii, Mongolia: Paleographic Notes Based on a Recent Visit

Andrew E. Shimunek

Toward a Decipherment of the 1084 Kitan Inscription in Khentii, Mongolia: Paleographic Notes Based on a Recent Visit

(63rd Annual Meeting Ulaanbaatar, 2021)

The 1084 Kitan inscription in Khentii province, Mongolia, is rarely noted in studies of Kitan, where the focus is on inscriptions found in former Kitan territory in what is now China. The first known photos of the 1084 inscription were published in 1899 by the German-Russian scholar Friedrich Wilhelm Radloff in his Alterhümer der Mongolei. Radloff mislabels the inscription as “Chinesische Inschrift auf einem Felsen des Ssulbur-Ula” [sic] (Radloff 1899, Taf. CXVII). These mountains are known by locals as the Salbar Uul (Literary Mongolian salbur aγul-a); Radloff’s “Ssulbur” is an error for Salbar. Due to technological limitations, Radloff’s photos leave much to be desired, but they are significant as the first known physical documentation of this inscription. After Radloff, the inscription was mostly forgotten until Academician B. Rinchen (1959) published a copy of the inscription. At the time, Kitanology was still a nascent field; as a result, Rinchen tentatively identified the inscription as Jurchen or Kitan (1959), later speculating it was Jurchen (1968).

Mongolian archaeologist Kh. Perlee (1977) was the first scholar to assert that the inscription is in Kitan and not Jurchen. Perlee also provides a brief overview of studies and copies of the inscription.

Daniel Kane demonstrated that the text is definitely ‘Kitan Large Script’ (1989: 86)—i.e. ‘Kitan Linear Script’ in György Kara’s terminology (1977)—and deciphered part of the inscription.

Sun Bojun’s 孫伯君 paper (2007) is the first attempt at deciphering the full inscription. Her main contribution is in determining the reign period as Dakang 大康 and not Da’an 大安, thus precisely dating the inscription to the 10th year of the Dakang 大康 reign period, i.e. 1084.

These previous studies are all based on the best copies that the scholars had available to them at their respective times of writing—in most cases, low-quality photographs or low-quality rubbings of the inscription. No high-quality photographs have been published, and no paleographic study of the text has been attempted.

In 2009 and again in 2019, I personally travelled to Khentii to visit the inscriptions and take photographs. This paper, based on my 2009 and 2019 photographs, attempts a preliminary paleographic analysis of the text, revising many of the previously proposed readings, and offering a small step forward in understanding this important early Kitan text.

Key words: Middle Kitan (ca. 907-1125), Serbi-Mongolic language family (сяньби-монгол хэлний овог), historical linguistics, script decipherment, paleography, Kitan Empire, Liao, philology, Salbar Uul Inscription (Салбар Уулын бичээс), Khentii province (Хэнтий аймаг), rock inscriptions of Mongolia, Kitan Linear Script (‘Large Script’)