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Ancient writing systems of China’s ethnic minorities

Author  :  SUN BOJUN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-11-24

FILE PHOTO: A rubbing of a stele at the Mogao Grottoes, inscribed with a Buddhist mantra written in six different scripts, namely the Han Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Tangut, Phags-pa, and Huihu scripts

China’s ethnic writing systems include the ones that were once used and are still being used by the Chinese ethnic minorities. China has diverse writing systems. According to the Chinese linguist Fu Maoji’s count, there are 57 ancient and modern writing systems of ethnic minorities in China. Nie Hongyin, a research fellow from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), believes that there are nearly 40 ancient ethnic writing systems, which, together with the ethnic scripts created by missionaries since the 20th century and the scripts created and tested in China since the 1940s, amount to nearly 100 Chinese ethnic writing systems, both past and present.

Various types

The Revolution of 1911 divided Chinese ethnic writing systems into the ancient and the modern. Various writing systems created or borrowed in China to record ethnic languages other than Han Chinese before the Revolution of 1911 can be called ancient ethnic writing systems. The earliest use of ancient Chinese ethnic scripts can be traced back to the 2nd–3rd centuries, such as the Qulu (Kharosthi) script, an ancient script most likely used in the Kingdom of Khotan (in present-day Hotan Prefecture, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region) and the Kingdom of Shanshan (in present-day Ruoqiang County, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region) in around the 2nd century. These scripts have a variety of origins and sources.

In addition to the square-shaped Zhuang characters [also known as Sawndip, logograms used by the Zhuang ethnic group since the 7th century] and square-shaped Bai characters [also known as Bowen script, used by the Bai ethnic group in the past] that imitate the Han Chinese characters, there are some scripts derived from the structure of the Han Chinese characters, including the Khitan large script and the Khitan small script [both were writing systems used during the 10th–12th centuries by the Khitan people], the Jurchen script [used during the 12th–15th centuries by the Jurchen people], and the Tangut script [used for writing the Tangut language of the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227)].

Moreover, some ancient ethnic writing systems were derived from the overseas Aramaic alphabet, such as the Qulu script, Sogdian script [a script that constituted the lingua franca of Central Asia in the second half of the 1st millennium CE], and the Turkic script [used by the G?ktürks and other early Turkic khanates from the 7th to 10th centuries]. Several writing systems were further derived from the Sogdian script, such as the Huihu [used in the Kingdom of Qocho from the 8th to 15th centuries], Mongolian, Manchu, and Sibe [used by the Sibe ethnic minority in northwest China] scripts. There were also some scripts developed based on the Brahmī alphabet from ancient India, including the Tocharian [mainly used around the Tarim Basin from the 3rd to 9th centuries], Khotan, Dai [used by the Dai ethnic minority in southwest China], and the Tibetan scripts. The Phags-pa script, used as an “official script” of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), was a variant of the Tibetan script. Together with the Han Chinese writing system, these ancient ethnic writing systems constitute the Chinese family of scripts.

Measures to promote this discipline

Some ancient ethnic writing systems, such as the Khotan, Tangut, Khitan, Jurchen, and Manchu scripts, are usually considered “dead scripts” by academia, because the ethnic groups that used these scripts have integrated into the Han or other ethnic groups, and now there are no ethnic groups using these scripts to record their languages. Studying the history, ancient language, and culture of these ethnic groups can only be achieved through the interpretation of remaining archives.

As early as 2009, CASS set up a project to inherit and protect the “special disciplines,” in which the ancient Chinese ethnic writing systems were mainly presided over by experts from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at CASS. In 2018, the National Social Science Fund of China set up the “Juexue” [academic disciplines that are esoteric or almost lost] project and increased capital investment in it. A number of projects on studying the archives written in ancient ethnic scripts were launched. The state invests enormous sums in supporting the studies of ancient Chinese ethnic scripts by adding them to the “Juexue” project, for the purpose of protecting and inheriting this academic discipline and nurturing talent in this field.

At present, courses such as “Chinese Language and Literature” provided by China’s universities only cover the education and research of the Han Chinese characters and language, while the languages and writing systems of ethnic minorities are seldom involved. Meanwhile, universities mainly designated for ethnic minorities in China usually focus on the study of ethnic minority languages rather than that of the ancient Han Chinese. In the future, the study of ancient ethnic writings should draw on the textual study methods applied in the study of the Han Chinese language and literature, focus on the contact, mutual influence, and mutual verification of the Han Chinese and ethnic minorities’ languages, and extensively collect and sort out the languages recorded in ancient ethnic scripts. These practices not only aim at providing materials for ethnic languages, but also at incorporating the content of the archives of Chinese ethnic minority languages into the macro-system of traditional “Chinese language and literature,” so as to break through disciplinary barriers.

There are many transliteration materials in ancient ethnic language archives. The systematic arrangement of these transliteration materials of non-Han Chinese and Han Chinese languages can make up for the shortcomings of the books on the classification of the Han Chinese characters, and provide valuable materials for drafting the phonetic values of Chinese characters. At the same time, numerous Confucian classics and Buddhist scriptures translated from Han Chinese in the archives written in ancient ethnic scripts also provide references for the study of diachronic phonology, vocabulary evolution, and grammatical composition of Han Chinese, as well as the history of the spread of religious culture.

Since the Liao Dynasty (907–1125), the formation of the jingu guanhua [the Mandarin dialect natively spoken by most people from the 10th to 20th centuries], the predecessor of the Beijing dialect, has been affected by the long-term contact between the Han and the Altay people. Under the influence of the Altaic languages, such as Khitan, Jurchen, Mongolian, and Manchu, modern Beijing dialect has become a Han Chinese dialect that has developed quickly with the simplest structure.

Mutual benefit

From ancient times to the early 20th century, China saw nearly 40 ancient ethnic writing systems. Ancient ethnic scripts creatively inherited and developed the manners in which the Han Chinese characters were formed, and flexibly “borrowed” the Han Chinese characters. It greatly enriched the traditional theory known as Liu Shu [Six Writings, a theory that divides the Han Chinese characters into six types in the terms of their composition]. The extraordinarily diverse sources, forms, and styles of ancient ethnic writing systems provide rich materials for the study of general philology. The Lisu syllabary [used by the Lisu ethnic minority in southwest China] invented by Ngua-ze-bo between 1923 and 1927 is a typical example. It has a total of 989 glyphs, most of which are graphic symbols composed of arcs and curves. Though formed in a primitive way, these glyphs are typical syllabaries. The creation of the Lisu syllabary inspired us to think about the following questions: (1) What are the criteria for judging the maturity of an ancient writing system? Its degree of symbolization, its age, or its ability to record the most basic unit of its language—“character” or syllable—in word order? (2) Like the Lisu syllabary, most of the ethnic scripts found in China were created by individuals at one time, such as the Tibetan, Khitan, Jurchen, Tangut, and Phags-pa scripts. In the history of Han Chinese characters, there are legends of Cangjie inventing the Han Chinese characters. However, academia has doubts that the Han Chinese characters were created by a sole inventor. They would rather believe that the Han Chinese characters are the product of social needs and were created by the masses, and Cangjie may be a legendary rather than historical figure. Even if Cangjie was a historical figure, academia believes that he might have just done some sorting work. Undoubtedly, the inventions of ethnic writing systems provide more materials for supporting the idea that Cangjie was the inventor of the Han Chinese script.

The historical culture recorded by the ancient ethnic scripts is an organic part of traditional Chinese culture. Archives written in ancient ethnic scripts can be mutually confirmed with the historical materials written in Han Chinese, thus presenting the process of ethnic minorities integrating into the Chinese nation from the perspective of the “Other.” When interacting with the dynasties of the Central Plain, ethnic minorities were strongly influenced by the Central Plain culture, which was manifested in the use of new scripts modeled after the Han Chinese characters, and being cultivated by Confucian culture through translating a large number of books from the Central Plain dynasties.

Documents recorded in ethnic scripts not only contribute to the construction of the nation’s history and culture, but also provide important references for studying the history and culture of surrounding ethnic groups and the history of communication and integration among various ethnic groups of the Chinese nation. Some ancient ethnic scripts were once used as the “official scripts” of the dynasties established by ethnic minorities on the Central Plain. The contents of their documents were actually written jointly by all the ethnic groups in China’s history, presenting the historical process of the formation of a community for the Chinese nation.


Sun Bojun is a research fellow from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.





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