Archives in non-Han Chinese languages unearthed from the Western Regions

By RONG XINJIANG / 03-24-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: Khotanese pādā (legal documents) preserved in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum, including two purchase contracts, with the previous contract erased and replaced by a new one
The study of archives in non-Chinese languages unearthed from the Western Regions, such as Kharosthī, Buddhist Sanskrit, Khotanese, etc., is not common. Nevertheless, Professor Duan Qing and her team from the School of Foreign Languages at Peking University have been working on these archives for many years, and have made remarkable academic achievements.
Study of Kharosthī
The Kharosthī script was an ancient Indian script, used to write a vernacular dialect known as Prakrit spoken in Gandhāra in northwest India. The Kharosthī script was later named Gāndhārī by Professor H. W. Bailey, and this name was widely accepted by academia. In addition to northwest India, archives written in the Kharosthī script were also discovered in some regions in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, such as the Hotan Prefecture, Loulan [an ancient kingdom on the northeastern edge of the Lop Desert], and Kucha [also known as Qiuci, an ancient kingdom on the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert].
In the early 20th century, Marc Aurel Stein obtained nearly 1,000 Kharosthī manuscripts in Central Asia. Sven Hedin and E. Huntington also recovered documents there. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, from 1959 to 1997, archaeologists discovered wooden plates inscribed with Kharosthī script at the Niya ruins [where the ancient Jingjue city-state was located, in present-day Xinjiang]. These plates are now preserved in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum, Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, and Hotan Museum. 
In the 21st century, Duan and her team began to collate and study the archives in Kharosthī script preserved in China. The first thing they did was to verify and interpret a group of texts in the collection of the National Library of China. Their work was published in 2013, titled Xinjiang Manuscripts Preserved in the National Library of China: Sanskrit Fragments and Kharosthī Documents. The second half of this book is devoted to the interpretation of the five Kharosthī wooden texts, including black-and-white pictures of the wooden plates, transliteration to Latin script, Chinese translation, and explanatory notes on proper nouns. 
The content of these five texts are as follows: the first one is a court’s decision made in the 6th year of the reign of King Mairi of Shanshan [previously known as Loulan], concluding that the defendants, Saǵamovi and three others, didn’t kill anyone on the way back to Jingjue from Qiuci. This document dates from the end of the 3rd to the beginning of the 4th century. The second text is a purchase contract made in the 4th year of the reign of King Vasmana of Shanshan (around the beginning of the 4th century). The third document is a letter about debt repayments from the ruler of Shanshan named Namsimta to the magistrate of Kranaya. The fourth text is a land sale contract made in the 8th year of the reign of King Vasmana of Shanshan. The last one was examined by Duan, but its content is unknown. The scripts of the fifth text are different from the scripts unearthed at the Loulan and Niya ruins, but are consistent with that of the No. 661 manuscript found by Marc Aurel Stein in Endere, which was recorded according to chronological order of the Khotan kings’ reigns. Therefore, the fifth text may be more precious because it was probably a document written in Kharosthī but used in the Kingdom of Khotan. All the scripts, except for new finds that are under analysis after being transliterated and translated, are collected into the “General List of Vocabulary in Kharosthī Documents” after the interpretation of all aforementioned documents.
After working on these five texts, Duan and her team collated and researched the Kharosthī texts preserved in the Hotan Museum. Duan pointed out that the No. 29 site of Niya excavated by Stein was where Saǵamovi’s home was located. 22 Kharosthī documents [preserved in the Hotan Museum] and two Kharosthī archives preserved in the National Library of China were excavated from this site. Based on these documents, she outlined Saǵamovi’s experiences from going to Qiuci to escape a marriage, then back to Shanshan, to changing his identity and relocating in a new settlement. These documents also reveal the family institution and social relations of the Kingdom of Shanshan. Duan pointed out that the earliest piece about Saǵamovi preserved in the Hotan Museum archive proves that this man purchased a house in Qiuci when he fled there.
The Niya ruins are located in the lower reaches of the Niya River, in the hinterland of the Taklimakan Desert. It was within the territory of the Jingjue city-state during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE–8 CE). During the Eastern Han Dynasty (8–220), Jingjue became part of the Kingdom of Shanshan, and was called Cad’ota raya. The Kingdom of Shanshan fell in 442, and the land of Jingjue was later incorporated into the Kingdom of Khotan as its easternmost town. Since a large number of Kharosthī documents unearthed in the early days were translated and published quickly, it led to an abundance of related research. Duan and her team sorted the Kharosthī documents scattered throughout China, interpreted many unpublished texts, and further studied the administrative system, family structure, litigation system, and other institutions of Shanshan, and promoted the study of the Kharosthī documents and related issues that had been neglected for many years. 
Buddhist Sanskrit
Sanskrit was the standard written language of ancient India. It was originally the language of upper-class intellectuals in northwest India, as opposed to Prakrit, the vernacular dialect used by commoners. Buddhist scriptures were originally written in vernacular language, which were then gradually Sanskritized, and this became a special script known as Buddhist Sanskrit, or Hybrid Sanskrit. With the spread of Buddhism from northwest India to the Western Regions, Sanskrit texts entered the oasis kingdoms of the Western Regions from about the second half of the 2nd century, and became popular in Khotan after the 5th century. With the advent of [modern] explorations in the Western Regions between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous Buddhist Sanskrit document pieces were brought to the West.
Duan was a student of Ji Xianlin [1911–2009, a great Chinese Indologist, linguist, and historian, who was proficient in many languages including Sanskrit] at Peking University. Ji majored in Sanskrit under Professor Ernst Waldschmidt at the University of Göttingen in Germany. Later, Duan learned Khotanese at the University of Hamburg in Germany, and became the only Chinese specialist on Middle Iranian (4th century BCE–9th century CE) languages who received professional training at the University of Hamburg.
Xinjiang Manuscripts Preserved in the National Library of China: Sanskrit Fragments and Kharosthī Documents published all the Sanskrit and Kharosthī manuscripts collected by the National Library of China in recent years. In this book, the “Bhadrakalpika sutra” was collated by Duan. She noted that this is the only Buddhist Sanskrit manuscript in Brahmi script discovered so far, so it is very precious.
Khotan was the center of Mahayana Buddhism in the Western Regions between the Han and Tang (618–907) dynasties. These manuscripts are vital to the study of the history of Buddhism in the Western Regions. This kingdom was also a conduit through which Buddhism was introduced from ancient India to China, and many Chinese translations of Buddhist scriptures originated from Khotan. Hence, these Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures are significant to the study of Chinese Buddhism.
Buddhist scriptures and documents in Khotanese
Khotanese was the official language of the Kingdom of Khotan. It was a subgroup of the Eastern Iranian languages, and was written in Brahmi script. Khotanese came into use around the 5th century and lasted through the early 11th century. Since the late 19th century, a large number of classics and documents in Khotanese have been discovered in the Hotan Prefecture, though most of them have been brought to Russia, Britain, Sweden, Japan, and other countries. In recent years, a considerable number of additional Khotanese documents were discovered in the Hotan Prefecture. The Khotanese archives collected by museums were sent to Duan for collation and research. Xinjiang Manuscripts Preserved in the National Library of China: Khotanese Remains (2015), by Duan, published a batch of Khotanese Buddhist scriptures and three Khotanese manuscripts preserved in the National Library of China.
Compared with Buddhist scriptures, non-religious texts in Khotanese are of greater value. They provide first-hand materials relevant to the study of Khotan’s history. The most striking discovery of non-religious Khotanese documents is a batch of pādā [legal documents], some of which belong to the same person, and most of them bear the chronology of the kings of Khotan.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum has four Khotanese manuscripts in its collection. They were inferred to be originally unearthed from the same site, since they were all about the family of Sudapuñä. Duan interpreted them one after another.
The pādā published in the “Khotanese Major Pādā: A Study on the Early Tang Dynasty Pādā Preserved in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum” actually includes two contracts. One is a contract to purchase a woman in the 38th year of the reign of King Vijinta Sinhä. This document was found to be erased afterwards, and another contract was written over it. The previous one is roughly identifiable because it was not completely erased. The pādā written later was a contract of Sudapuñä’s purchase of the woman and her son in the 12th year of the reign of King Viśya Samgrrāmä of Khotan.
The pādā published in “A Chaghaniyan Baby: A Khotanese Pādā Newly Preserved in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum” records that Sudapuñä adopted a boy from the Chaghaniyan [a medieval region and principality located on the right bank of the Oxus River] people in the 49th year of the reign of King Vijinta Sinhä. This adoption was witnessed by the Chaghaniyan people who came to pay tribute as well as guides and local officials.
On the basis of predecessors’ efforts and newly-discovered materials, Duan made new interpretations for some previously unknown or difficult Khotanese vocubulary, pioneering the international research of Khotanese. Those non-religious documents cover many aspects of Khotan’s history, including royal lineage, social structure, contractual relationships, taxation systems, background of residents, and agricultural planting, and they provide a wealth of information for further research on related issues.
Rong Xinjiang is a professor from the Department of History at Peking University.