Why the Khitan / Liao ruler Abaoji refused to speak Sinitic with his fellow tribesmen

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The mighty Liao Dynasty (907-1125) of the Khitans ruled over a vast empire in Northeast Asia and Inner Asia that included Mongolia, Manchuria, parts of the Russian Far East, northern Korea, and northern China.

They spoke a language that is held to be Proto-Mongolic and had two writing systems, known as the large script and the small script. The two writing systems were separate, but seem to have been used simultaneously and continued in use for a while after the fall of the Liao.

The Liao Dynasty was destroyed by the Tungusic Jurchens (ancestors of the Manchus) of the Jin dynasty (1115-1234) in 1125.  The remnants of the Khitan established the Qara Khitai (Western Liao dynasty, 1124-1218), which ruled over parts of Central Asia before being defeated by the Mongols.

I have spent so much time introducing the Khitans (called Qìdān 契丹 in Chinese), since their name is the source of the Russian word for China, Китай (Kitay), and the English word Cathay.  Considering their legacy, one can well imagine how powerful they must have been when they were at their apogee.

In the Xīn wǔdài shǐ 新五代史 (New History of the Five Dynasties) (Beijing:  Zhōnghuá shūjú 中華書局, 1974), 72.890, we find this interesting statement attributed to Abaoji, the founder of the dynasty:

Wú néng Hànyǔ, rán juékǒu bù dào yú bùrén, jù qí xiào Hàn ér qièruò yě.

「吾 能漢語,然 絕口不道於部人,懼其效漢而怯弱也。」

“I can [use] Han language, yet I refuse to speak it with the tribesmen, fearing that they would emulate the Han and become timid and weak.”

The north(west)ern rulers who dominated the Chinese for long periods of history* often issued warnings to their people to shun the language and ways of their subjects, who, though vastly more numerous than themselves, they viewed as effete and cowardly.

Perhaps the Liao Khitan ultimately fell because they failed to pay sufficient heed to the ancestral precepts of Abaoji to maintain their separate identity, including language.  This is the so-called process of Sinicization, which is a hotly contested topic in Chinese historiography.

——

*See Victor H. Mair, "The North(west)ern Peoples and the Recurrent Origins of the 'Chinese' State", in Joshua A. Fogel, The Teleology of the Modern Nation-State:  Japan and China (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 200), pp. 46-84.

[Thanks to Zach Hershey]



17 Comments

  1. tony in san diego said,

    November 30, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

    It is not uncommon for a court to use a different language than the populace.

  2. Eidolon said,

    November 30, 2015 @ 2:57 pm

    It is interesting that to Abaoji – supposedly, no way to validate whether he said it – speaking the Han language was equivalent to emulating and "eventually becoming" Han. Rather ironic, actually.

  3. languagehat said,

    November 30, 2015 @ 2:57 pm

    This is the so-called process of Sinicization, which is a hotly contested topic in Chinese historiography.

    Could you give a brief rundown of the opposed positions, or at least link to one? It sounds interesting.

  4. Eidolon said,

    November 30, 2015 @ 3:27 pm

    Also, were this quote to be believed, then the tribesmen must have known the Han language as well, else why would Abaoji have a choice in the first place?

  5. Jongseong Park said,

    November 30, 2015 @ 6:48 pm

    I'm reading Norman Davies's Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe at the moment, and I've been discussing with an American colleague what an East Asian version of the book might look like. The Liao Dynasty was one of the candidates I considered as a vanished state that has its own fascinating tale to tell.

    The Khitans are called 거란 Georan [ɡ̊ʌɾan] in Korean. It appears in the dictionary without hanja, meaning that it is not considered a Sino-Korean term, although the etymology is given as 契丹. (To be considered a Sino-Korean term, it is not enough to be derived from Chinese—it should not be too far removed from the canonical readings.)

    One might guess the Sino-Korean reading of 契丹 to be *계단 Gyedan [ɡ̊(j)edan] based on the most common reading for 契, but in this case, the correct reading for 契 is 글 geul [ɡ̊ɯl]. But *글단 Geuldan [ɡ̊ɯldan] still isn't quite right either (or at least isn't recognized in dictionaries), because 丹 gets an irregular reading here as 안 an [an]. So according to the dictionary, the Sino-Korean reading of 契丹 is 글안 Geuran [ɡ̊ɯɾan]. This is a very obscure form (I certainly don't remember seeing it before looking up the dictionary a few days ago), but apparently it was used by the historian Sin Chaeho 신채호 (1880-1936).

    I have a suspicion though that 글안 Geuran instead of *글단 Geuldan might just be an attempt to approximate the popular pronunciation 거란 Georan [ɡ̊ʌɾan] as much as possible while maintaining the pretense of a Sino-Korean reading.

    The form 거란 Georan must have come from 契丹 or a similar source through internal sound changes in Korean. It is well known that the /l/-coda in Sino-Korean readings correspond to /t/ in Middle Chinese, so the original reading could have been something like *[kɨttan] (ignoring the vowels for this discussion), which one could imagine simplifying to *[kɨtan] (cf. 木瓜 모과 mogwa [moɡwa] instead of the expected *목과 mokgwa [mokkwa]) and then turning to *[kɨɾan] by the same process that turned the /t/-coda to /l/ in Korean. I happen to like the theory that the /t/-coda regularly turned to [ɾ] when followed by a vowel (similar to the flapped t in American or Australian English) and was reanalyzed as /l/ in all positions, [ɾ] being an allophone of the liquid phoneme in Korean.

  6. Matt said,

    November 30, 2015 @ 7:21 pm

    Eidolon: I dunno, this was the age of rulers converting to different religions on behalf of their entire nation. If Abaoji had decided to adopt Chinese, presumably his tribesmen would have been expected to get with the program sharpish. (As a practical matter, of course, you're right; it seems unlikely that the idea of Chinese language as moral hazard would appear unless there were already enough tribesmen who had been Sinicized in this way to irritate or concern the ruling class.)

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 30, 2015 @ 7:24 pm

    I wonder if similar pronouncements were issued by Khan Asparukh to the Bulgars, or by William the Conqueror to the Normans.

  8. Jongseong Park said,

    November 30, 2015 @ 7:41 pm

    So I looked up the original quote from 五代史 Wudài shǐ (History of the Five Dynasties) in Korean translation. It is from Abaoji's speech to 姚坤 Yáo Kūn, an ambassador sent from the Later Tang Emperor 明宗 Míngzōng to inform the Khitan ruler about the death of the previous emperor, who was killed by rebels.

    At this point, Abaoji was about to attack Balhae 渤海 in Manchuria and northern Korea (Bóhǎi in Chinese), so he wanted to be on good terms with the Later Tang of northern China (whose first emperors were Sinicized Shatuo). Abaoji tells Yáo Kūn that he has heard that the late emperor was fond of women and drinking and hunting, which he suggests was the reason for his downfall. Abaoji then goes on about how different he is. He would have stopped the drinking, let go of the dogs and hawks used in the hunt, and disbanded the musicians. He has a thousand musicians just like the late emperor, but only uses them for official feasts, he says. How could he have ruled for as long as he had already done if he had behaved like the late emperor?

    It is in this context of this admonition/brag that he tells Yáo Kūn that he doesn't speak the Han language with the tribesmen lest they become weak.

  9. Michael Watts said,

    November 30, 2015 @ 8:03 pm

    A little off topic, but can anyone suggest a good biographical treatment of Yelü Chucai, who according to legend persuaded Genghis Khan not to just kill all the Chinese, or a good historical work where such a treatment might incidentally be found?

  10. Victor Mair said,

    November 30, 2015 @ 9:48 pm

    Sinicization

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinicization

    The two main figures in the debate were Ping-ti Ho (pro) and Evelyn Rawski (con), both of whom were presidents of the Association of Asian Studies when they made their major statements on the subject.

    The following Google search will bring up the relevant articles:

    https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=Ping-ti+Ho+Evelyn+Rawski+sinicization

    Note especially "New Qing History" which reprises and advances the debate.

    But the influences flowed in both directions, and I've often referred to the Tabgachization, etc. of the Chinese.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuoba

  11. languagehat said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 9:14 am

    Thanks, that Google search is just the ticket.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 11:50 am

    Some observations by Sasha Vovin:

    I think that you are right about sinicization as the reason of the fall. Khitan certainly became highly sinicized by the end years of Liao. Actually, this is the problem that all steppe empires experienced — the full blown textual evidence for this attitude comes from the earliest Turkic inscriptions.

    Yet, let me take a liberty to point out that some of the statements in your post are not completely accurate. Let me go by the citation method below.

    =====

    The mighty Liao Dynasty (907-1125) of the Khitans ruled over a vast empire in Northeast Asia and Inner Asia that included Mongolia, Manchuria, parts of the Russian Far East, northern Korea, and northern China.

    =====

    Khitans might have controlled the territory that roughly corresponds to both modern Hamgyeong provinces of Korea in the North-East (these were not perceived by Koreans as their own lands, but rather those of Jurchen until at least the fourteenth century), but they never ruled Phyeongyang or the rest of North Korea, which was under firm Koryeo control in spite of Khitan incursions into Koryeo.

    =====

    They spoke a language that is held to be Proto-Mongolic

    =====

    No, Khitans, never spoke proto-Mongolic. They spoke a para-Mongolic language which is related to proto-Mongolic (ancestor of Middle Mongol and modern extant Mongolic languages), but it is bevertheless quite different.

    =====

    and had two writing systems, known as the large script and the small script. The two writing systems were separate, but seem to have been used simultaneously and continued in use for a while after the fall of the Liao.

    The Liao Dynasty was destroyed by the Tungusic Jurchens (ancestors of the Manchus) of the Jin dynasty (1115-1234) in 1125.

    =====

    Strictly speaking, Manchu are descendants of just one Jurchen tribe, not of all Jurchens.

  13. Eidolon said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

    The debate over "sinicization" feels rather outdated. When Ping Ho-Ti passionately argued for it back in the 80s and 90s, the assimilation of foreign peoples, including invaders, was seen as a modus operandi of Chinese civilization/culture. But the more we learn about world history, the more we realize that all civilizations/cultures assimilate foreign peoples/invaders, and that this isn't a one-way process. The idea of a constant culture, immortalized in stasis, to which other cultures attach themselves and are absorbed, does not exist. Chinese culture/civilization might have been more conducive to assimilating foreign peoples/invaders than others but the standard has to be a cross-cultural one, and this is rarely done in "sinicization" debates.

    In fact, the very need for a new word, with respect to China, for what amounts to the dual process of acculturation and assimilation common to all cultures, bespeaks of an old Sinological exceptionalism. To me, there is little practical difference between the way the Chinese assimilated the Khitans, Jurchens, and Mongols into the modern Han Chinese, and how the Anglo-Saxons assimilated the Celts and the Normans into the modern English.

  14. JS said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 11:44 pm

    To me, there is little practical difference between the way the Chinese assimilated the Khitans, Jurchens, and Mongols into the modern Han Chinese, and how the Anglo-Saxons assimilated the Celts and the Normans into the modern English.

    Whether it bespeaks historical fact (dubious) or historiographical prejudice, I guess the difference is that "Chinese" is at both ends of your first transformation.

  15. maidhc said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 2:34 am

    Coby Lubliner:
    I wonder if similar pronouncements were issued by Khan Asparukh to the Bulgars, or by William the Conqueror to the Normans.

    There were the Statutes of Kilkenny (1366) telling the Anglo-Normans in Ireland they had to speak English. In order to be understood, though, the Statutes were written in French.

    https://www.uni-due.de/LI/Anglo_Norman.htm#statutes

  16. Rodger C said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 8:59 am

    Well, the Statutes of Kilkenny were about speaking English as opposed to Irish, and they were written in French because legal documents had to be. Or have I missed your point?

  17. Eidolon said,

    December 2, 2015 @ 1:02 pm

    @JS but the name "English" came from the "Angles," and the term "Anglo-Saxons" is practically synonymous with "main English ancestors" in historiography, so it's not all that different. Would it be easier to use "Huaxia" in place of "Chinese"? It'd be harder to understand, as "Chinese" is, after all, an useful exonym, but it'd have the same effect in terms of understanding. So imagine I had said this:

    "There is little practical difference between the way the Huaxia assimilated the Khitans, Jurchens, and Mongols into the modern Han, and how the Anglo-Saxons assimilated the Celts and the Normans into the modern English."

    I'd say they're functionally equivalent for those of us outside of China.

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