Many visitors to Xi’an go to the Tomb of Empress Wu 武則天 (624-705), where their attention may be brought to a tall stele, the Wu zi bei 無字碑 (Stele without an inscription). Despite its title, there is indeed an inscription, though it is too high to be easily read. Rubbings show that it is in two languages: Chinese and another where ‘not a character can be understood’. Wylie (1860) translated the Chinese text and thought that the other text was in Jurchen, because of a reference to the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234).
Later the unknown language was shown to be Kitan, clearly the same as an inscription from an imperial tomb of the Liao dynasty (907-1125). As other inscriptions came to light, there were many attempts to decipher the language. Little progress was made until the formal publication in 1985 of a study by the Kitan Small Character Research Group in China. But although words, sentences, and even whole inscriptions could now be transcribed, very little could be understood. For one expert on dead languages, ‘the Kitan script is becoming more and more incomprehensible. Things which we were not able to understand before, we are even less able to understand now’. This talk will survey developments in the decipherment of Kitan.
Professor Daniel Kane is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the extinct Jurchen and Khitan languages and their scripts. He has held academic positions at both the University of Melbourne and was Professor of Chinese at Macquarie University until his retirement. Professor Kane has also had a career in diplomacy. He joined the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs in 1976 and was posted to Beijing. He was also Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing during the 1990s. His interest in undeciphered scripts goes back to his teenage years. His first acquaintance with Kitan was in 1970. He wrote the standard book on Kitan in English in 2009.