In the comments to a previous entry whose thread had turned into a discussion of whether the Chinese language developed in the north (where history places it) or in the south (as its affiliation with the Tibeto-Burman languages would seem to suggest), xiaolongnu wrote:

I am going to a conference in Philly this weekend where someone is giving a paper called “Origins of Sino-Tibetan and Prehistoric Linguistic Exchanges in Eurasia.” The speaker is a Chinese scholar called Xu Wenkan, so I expect it’s pretty current Chinese scholarship on the subject. If there is sufficient interest I will report on this when I return, probably Monday or Tuesday. Or should this maybe be a new thread?

So here’s the new thread, and I eagerly await new information!


  1. All right folks, as the guest content-provider of the moment, I am sorry to report that Xu Wenkan did not show up for the conference in Philadelphia, so I can’t tell you what the latest scholarship on Sino-Tibetan is.
    In lieu of the promised material, I’d like to share with you some ancient documents that bear, not on the history of Chinese, but on the history of the Chinese postal service. Here we have moved from the question of language itself to the problem of how to move language around – linguistic technology, if you will. Founded around 206 BC by the First Emperor Qin Shihuangdi, the Chinese postal service has been delivering the mail more or less on time for the past 2209 years or so, with occasional interruptions from famine, epidemics, drought, and the periodic shifts in the course of the Yellow River. That’s a pretty impressive record. The system was coterminous with the organization of government hostels for travelling officials, and it basically consisted of a national network of post roads with post stations of different sizes (arranged in a hierarchy, natch) at regular intervals along them. The widths of roads and the lengths of chariot axles were also standardized to allow traffic to pass freely in both directions, each keeping to its respective lane. (Think about the importance of this technological development next time you are driving on the interstate.) The post stations included government stables where messengers could change horses, and hostels where they could spend the night (which also served as inns for travelling officials, diplomatic missions, and other guests of the government). In addition, each post station served as a distribution center for any mail that arrived for local residents.
    Around 1990 a cache of Han documents was found at a site called Xuanquan near Dunhuang (an oasis town on the Silk Route, now in northwest Gansu province in China; it was where the northern and southern Silk Routes separated to go their separate ways around the Taklamakan Desert). The documents, like most Han texts, were written on strips of bamboo bound together with string after the fashion of a bamboo blind or sushi-rolling mat. Typically the bamboo is a lot more durable than the string, so usually these documents are found as heaps of bamboo strips; it is as though each line of a written text had become separated from the other lines. The first problem (after conservation) is usually to reunite them in their proper sequence. So this explains why the Xuanquan texts were unpublished until recently, when the Shanghai guji chubanshe brought out a volume of the roughly 10 percent of the documents that have been more or less reconstituted. (The book is called Dunhuang Xuanquan Han jian shi cui, ed. Hu Pingsheng and Zhang Defang.) And it turns out that Xuanquan was a postal dispatch station, which was also used as a way station and government hostel for visiting emissaries from the various kingdoms to the west. The documents are the files of the postal station, and concern themselves with the daily working of the station and its staff. This is far more quotidian stuff than usually gets preserved in China or anywhere else, and it’s fascinating. So here are a few of the interesting examples, with thanks to Yang Jidong for bringing them to my attention. Each is a rough and partial translation of a few representative lines of each document. They really await somebody who works on this period (not me) to do a good translation: consider this a sketchy and not very scholarly introduction to a complicated and interesting body of material.
    No. 95. The Yuankang Fourth Year [62 BC] Chicken Register” Literally, a register of chickens in and chickens out (which is the literal translation of the beginning of each line):
    “Provided one chicken, to feed the [official] Fan Qing. He ate two meals, then departed to the east.
    “Provided one chicken, to feed the [official] Wan Qiu. He ate one meal, then departed to the east.
    “Received two chickens, on the [nth] day of the tenth month, from the [municipal functionary; the post stations were administered nationally but funded locally].
    “Received one chicken, on the [nth] day of the tenth month, which died through the carelessness of the kitchen boy.
    Ninth month: No spare chickens.”
    No. 97. A roster of post horses in the station stable. Interestingly, each of the horses has been given a name, for example:
    “One relay horse [i.e. property of the postal system rather than the specific station; these horses were changed Pony Express-style by messengers who could cover long distances relatively quickly by riding a different horse from station to station], red roan, a stallion, obtained from the east [?], by his teeth eight years of age, in height five chi eight cun, a lead horse [this either means that he was accustomed to draw a single chariot by himself, or that he was the lead horse in the typical three-horse team], called Tiezhu [Iron Pillar].
    “One relay horse, chestnut, a mare, obtained from the east [?], by her teeth nine years of age, in height five cun eight chi, an outside horse [one of the two side horses in a three-horse team], …, called Wanxing [Complete Good Fortune].
    “One privately owned horse, brown [?], a stallion, obtained from the east [?], by his teeth seven years of age, in height five chi nine cun, provided as a replacement for a horse lacking from the Xuanquan station complement.”
    No. 89 A receipt for grain received from the municipal government:
    ”Received, by the small shi measure, nine shi six dou of millet, in the first year of the Shenjue reign [61 BC], received by [official] of the Xuanquan station from the Controller of the Dunhuang granary.” [The measures used here were also standardized by Qin Shihuangdi, but as you can see they became unstandardized pretty quickly.]
    There are also various receipts for mail received and sent out, which include the date and time the mail arrived, the condition in which it was received and the type of enclosure (a document sent from the emperor in the capital was sent in a yellow silk bag, while a series of documents from western outposts of the empire were enclosed in green and ochre-colored silk bags: apparently the color-coding indicated the degree of urgency of the delivery), the date and time it was sent on to the next post station, and/or the date and time it was delivered and a record of who received it. Interestingly, I have not seen that any of the documents discuss letters in other languages than Chinese, although we know (from the famous “Sogdian Letters” found by Aurel Stein at another site near Dunhuang) that in later years the Chinese postal service would handle what for lack of a better term we might call the international post. Similarly, the embassies recorded below clearly include representatives of other literate societies: the Shanshan left documents in Kharosthi script which Sven Hedin found at Loulan, and if memory serves the Khotanese also had their own written language, though I can’t remember offhand what they used to write it – possibly also Kharosthi. One wonders what the conventions of address were, and if the Xuanquan postal station kept some bilingual experts around to figure things out.
    Possibly most interesting is the following genre of documents, which record from the point of view of the administrators of the government hostel the comings and goings of various foreign embassies, often too insignificant to be recorded in the official Han histories. There was also some evidence that travelling merchants from Central Asia might represent themselves as emissaries rather than commercial interests, since ambassadorial status would get them the kind of treatment described below. Otherwise it’s hard to account for the frequency of “embassies” passing through Xuanquan:
    No. 136 A record of an embassy that passed through Dunhuang.
    “Served a meal to the shoushu [official] Meng Chang and an assistant ambassador sent from the kingdom of the Shanshan [i.e. Loulan aka Kroraina, in modern Xinjiang], and his retinue. After a second meal, they departed to the west.”
    No. 143 An embassy from the Wusun
    “In the third year of the Hongjia reign [18 BC], on the [nth] day of the 3rd month, the [official] Dan Peng, escorting the Bo Duke, the assistant ambassador from the Great Kunmi of the Wusun [a state located in the Ili river valley and Issyk Kol basin in what is now northwest Xinjiang], and a Wusun general, all presented their credentials to stay in the hostel, and according to regulations were presented with a carriage and two people [as servants?]. On the [nth] day of the 3rd month, they departed to the east. The [official] from Dunhuang… followed after them with the rest of their entourage during the sixth month, according to the regulations.”
    No. 145 A very important Khotanese embassy
    “The account is made separately: today [we] received the emissary Wang Junjiang, the king of Khotan and a retinue of 1,074 persons, who had set out in the fifth month from Fulu [modern Jiuquan, in central Gansu] and took [n] days to reach Yuanquan.”
    From these documents we get a really interesting ground-level picture of the everyday life of what was at that point (in the first centuries BC and AD) really a frontier town in northwest China, responsible not only for keeping track of chickens in and chickens out, but also for controlling the borders and receiving the emissaries of foreign kings. I hope you all find it interesting.

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