Horses, soma, riddles, magi, and animal style art in southern China

« previous post | next post »

Two of the best known displays of Chinese culture worldwide are the Lion Dance and Dragon Boat Races.  The former, including the Chinese word for "lion", is actually an import from the Western Regions (Central Asia, or East Central Asia more specifically).

Compare Old Persian * (*šagra-) (sgl /sagr, sēr/) (> Persian سیر(sīr)). The Middle Persian word is cognate with Parthian (šarg, "Leo; Lion"), Khotanese [script (šarau, "Leo; Lion"), Khwarezmian شرغ(šrγ /šarγ/, "Leo; Lion") and Sogdian (šrwγ /šruγ/) , ܫܪܘܮ(šrwγ /šruγ/, "Leo; Lion")

Middle Persian:

Manichaean: ‎ (šgr)

Source

Kipling-Disney:  Shere Khan (" Tiger Lion" — from Persian and Mongolian)

The latter cultural display, Dragon Boat Races / Festival, is also called Duānwǔjié 端午節 or Double Fifth Festival because it occurs on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, commemorating the suicide-death of the renowned poet, Qu Yuan (ca. 340 BC-278 BC), China's first poet known by name.  The composition of the celebrated Chǔ cí 楚辭 (Elegies of Chu) anthology, often referred to as Songs of the South in English, is ascribed to him.  The Chu ci (Elegies of Chu) are considered to be quintessentially representative of Chu culture, one of the most important regional cultures of what later became the Chinese empire, but always with a distinctive southern stamp.

Among the verse in the Chu ci (Elegies of Chu) are the "Nine Songs" (Jiǔ gē 九歌).  In these songs, a ritual plant named shūmá 疏麻 is referred to.  Chinese commentators have been bedeviled by this term, which has the semblance of a partially transcribed and partially translated foreign word.  In her paper titled "Is Shuma the Chinese Analog of Soma/Haoma? A Study of Early Contacts between Indo-Iranians and Chinese", Sino-Platonic Papers, 216 (October, 2011), 1-36, ZHANG He makes a persuasive case that shuma is indeed the same plant as that used in the preparation of the ritual drink, soma / haoma, beloved of the Vedic-Avestan Indo-Iranians.

(BaxterSagart): /*sra/
(Zhengzhang): /*sŋra/
(BaxterSagart): /*C.mˤraj/
(Zhengzhang): /*mraːl/

Diana S. Zhang cautions us against ignoring the regional aspects of Old Sinitic, and surely southern Chu ci language of the 4th c. BC would be significantly different from that of the northern Shī jīng 詩經 (Poetry Classic) of the 6th c. BC.  She tentatively reconstructs 疏麻 as *sm(r)a for the Chu ci, taking into account (and documenting) the Chu penchant for dividing up a disyllabic, partially transcribed and partially translated (as I described it above) word, e.g., the spirit of the wind, 飛pə廉rəm spells 風 (prəm).  It's noteworthy that Diana's "*sm(r)a" is remarkably close to "soma", yet she arrived at it independently without my telling her that Zhang He and I suspected that shūmá 疏麻 may be a transcription-translation (*s- + -m[r]a ["hemp"]), thus a "hemp[-like]" plant whose name resembles *s- + -m(r)a.

Zhang He also calls our attention (p. 25) to the conspicuous occurrence of the spiritually powerful wū 巫, which she connects with "the proto–Indo-Iranian, or Indo-Iranian, or Scythian-Saka [VHM:  N.B.] peoples from the west and northwest, i.e., Central Asia and Iran" in Chu ci.  Like most scholars, she loosely translates wū 巫 with the Tungusic (the etymology is contested) word "shaman", but I have assembled abundant archeological, epigraphical, phonological, textual, religious, and other types of evidence to link the wū 巫 with Iranian magi.  See Victor H. Mair, "Old Sinitic *Myag, Old Persian Maguš, and English Magician," Early China, 15 (1990), 27–47.  Notice that the earliest Sinograph for 巫, viz. ☩ (U+2629), is identical with the Cross Potent or Cross of Jerusalem, which has been the symbol of magicians for millennia.

Aside from the "Nine Songs" (Jiǔ gē 九歌), another peculiar, lengthy poem in the Chu ci (Elegies of Chu) is "Heavenly Questions" (Tiān wèn 天問), which has perplexed scholars for more than two thousand years.  It consists almost entirely of mystifying questions — without answers.  I translated the entire text with massive footnoting at the beginning to show that "Heavenly Questions" is essentially an Indo-European riddle text sharing close parallels, and even virtually identical lines, with similar texts in the Indic Vedas, the Iranian Avesta, and Old Norse Eddas.  See:

Victor H. Mair, "Heavenly Questions", The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, ed. Victor H. Mair (New York:  Columbia University Press), pp. 371-386, also in The Shorter Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, ed. Victor H. Mair (New York:  Columbia University Press), pp. 192–208.

Moreover, the bulk of "Heavenly Questions", with its baffling allusions to ancient myth and lore, draws on traditions that are also present in the most recondite of ancient Chinese texts, the Yi jing / I ching 易經 (Book of Changes; Classic of Changes), which is permeated with Indo-European themes.

Wolfgang Behr recently informed me that Nicholas Morrow Williams, author of "Mastering Caution amidst Hermeneutic Acrobatics" (11/1/19) is engaged in an intensive study of "Heavenly Questions".  Since Nick is also learning Sanskrit, I expect that he will fill in many gaps in our understanding of the details of the text that escape those who only pay attention to Chinese sources and commentaries.  We need to do that, of course, but we also have to be willing to follow leads that take us beyond the Sinosphere.

See "Thai 'khwan' ('soul') and Old Sinitic reconstructions" (1/28/19) for a post that discusses a correspondence between the "Summons of the Soul", another poem in Chu ci, and a similar phenomenon and term in Thai.

On September 20-21, 2019, a US-China Chu Culture Symposium, co-organized by the National East Asian Languages Resource Center of The Ohio State University (OSU) and Yangtze University, Jingzhou, Hubei Province, China, was held at OSU.  Among the featured events at the symposium (including a full orchestral concert played on replicas of ancient instruments — bronze bells, stone chimes, ocarinas, wind instruments including pan flutes, various string instruments, drums, etc. — recovered from the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng 曾侯乙墓, which dates to around 433 BC), the most spellbinding for me was a paper delivered by Professor Xu Wenwu 徐文武 of Yangtze University.  In his paper, Professor Xu analyzed the relationship between the extensive description of chariots in Chu ci (Elegies of Chu) and archeological materials from the excavations undertaken around Jingzhou.

As I heard Professor Xu speak, I was dumbfounded by the thought of such intimate knowledge of horses and chariots as that presented in this southern literary work, Chu ci, since these are cultural manifestations of the northern steppes.  Even more astonishing was the good professor's account of the two thousand tumuli in the Jingzhou area, many with horse burials in them, including one with the remains of upwards of six hundred horses.  Such a lavish expenditure of horses, which must have been extremely costly and rare in that hot, humid environment, simply boggles the mind.

I know of a similar excessive burial sacrifice of horses hundreds of miles to the northeast in Shandong, at the tomb of Duke Jing of Qi (r. 547-490 BC; d. 490 BC) in the village of Yatou 崖头 in Linzi District of Zibo, where the procurement of such large numbers of horses would be somewhat less unlikely than in Jingzhou, southern Hubei, but still hundreds of miles south of their natural steppe habitat.  From such extravagant funeral outlays, the power and prestige of the horse and its equipage — even in regions that are distant from their native terrain — can readily be imagined.

Chu culture was situated in south central China, far removed from the steppes whence came the nomadic peoples who left their artistic and literary impress upon southern realms (like the wide-ranging Vikings in Anatolia, Ukraine, etc.).  The evidence for the presence of steppe nomads in the central and southern parts of what is now China is overwhelming.  One of the most conspicuous aspects of this are the scenes of animal combat on gold plaques that are prevalent in the Chu culture sphere.  Another are the composite tomb guardian figures (zhènmù shòu 鎮墓獸) incorporating elements of steppic animals.

For recent doctoral dissertations on these topics and on the horse in early China, see:

Andreeva, Petya. "Fantastic Beasts of the Eurasian Steppes:  Toward a Revisionist Approach to Animal-Style Art."  Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2018.

Chaffin, Cortney E.  "Strange Creatures of Chu:  Antlered Tomb Sculptures of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods."  Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2007.

Wan, Xiang.  "The horse in pre-imperial China."  Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2013.

Who were the carriers of these cultural attributes from western Eurasia to Central Asia, thence to the northern part of East Asia, and then, as we have seen, to the south central part of East Asia, and as we will momentarily discover, to the southern part of East Asia?  The main vector was the highly mobile group of Iranian nomads known as the Saka:

The Saka, Śaka, Shaka or Sacae (Old Persian: Sakā; Brahmi: Gupta allahabad sh.svgGupta allahabad k.svg Śaka, Sanskrit: शक, Śaka; Ancient Greek: Σάκαι, Sákai; Latin: Sacae; Chinese: , old *Sək, mod. Sāi, Egyptian: /sꜣgskš) were a group of nomadic Iranian peoples who historically inhabited the northern and eastern Eurasian Steppe and the Tarim Basin.

Though closely related, the Sakas are to be distinguished from the Scythians of the Pontic Steppe and the Massagetae of the Aral Sea region, although they form part of the wider Scythian cultures. Like the Scythians, the Sakas were ultimately derived from the earlier Andronovo culture. Their language formed part of the Scythian languages. Prominent archaeological remains of the Sakas include Arzhan, the Pazyryk burials, the Issyk kurgan, Saka Kurgan tombs, the Barrows of Tasmola and possibly Tillya Tepe.

In the 2nd century BC, many Sakas were driven by the Yuezhi from the steppe into Sogdia and Bactria and then to the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, where they were known as the Indo-Scythians. Other Sakas invaded the Parthian Empire, eventually settling in Sistan, while others may have migrated to the Dian Kingdom in Yunnan, China. In the Tarim Basin and Taklamakan Desert region of Northwest China, they settled in Khotan, Yarkand, Kashgar and other places, which were at various times vassals to greater powers, such as Han China and Tang China.

Source

The Saka did not stop in south central China, but went on farther south all the way to what is now Yunnan, where they had a conspicuous influence upon the Dian kingdom (279-109 BCE; the culture extended for several centuries before and after that period), famous for its bronze drums and cowry containers.  Many of these impressive artifacts are decorated with depictions of warriors having Caucasoid features wearing Central Asian, Iranian style clothing (tunics and jackets with belts and trousers [the better for riding horses]) and carrying typical Saka / Iranian weaponry (long swords and akinakes, sagaris, spears, and probably also their characteristic compound bows, though I personally do not recall having seen them represented in Dian artifacts).  Even here in the far south, still warmer than and as humid as south central Chu, the horse is prominent among the elite, as are massive oxen with spreading horns.

Since the Sakas (and other nomadic peoples, not all speaking Iranian languages) and their horses were traversing Eurasia from one end to the other, carrying with them their art, clothing styles, weapons, and other cultural attributes, naturally they would also have taken along that aspect of their cultures that was most intimate to them as human beings — their languages.



16 Comments

  1. Victor Mair said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 9:24 am

    The name of the most spectacular, recently discovered horse and chariot burial site in Chu is Xióngjiā zhǒng 熊家冢. Reports and descriptions (mostly in Chinese), plus photographs, may be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

    With thanks to Xu Wenwu and Li Minru.

  2. Frank L Chance said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 11:02 am

    What if any links are there between the "Saka, Śaka, Shaka" and the "clan" to which the Buddha belonged?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 12:28 pm

    Here's a mind-boggling photograph of one burial pit of sacrificial horses discovered in the tomb of Duke Jing of Qi.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 12:41 pm

    @Frank L Chance:

    See the first and last paragraphs of this article on Shakya.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 3:14 pm

    As a horse lover, I find the "mind-boggling photograph of one burial pit of sacrificial horses" utterly sickening.

  6. Noel Hunt said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 3:37 pm

    (Ghandi) How mankind treats animals indicates the level of civilization.

  7. Bathrobe said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 5:17 pm

    "How mankind treats animals indicates the level of civilization". You forget that in a much earlier era they practised human sacrifice: Ancient China Human Sacrifice. Slaughtering horses is a step up….

  8. Nick Williams said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 7:35 pm

    Victor, do you have any thoughts on how Bole 伯樂 (a.k.a. Sun Yang 孫陽) fits into this picture? Not a horse "marshal" but a connoisseur of horseflesh, and an important figure in early Chinese mythology and history.

  9. Chris Button said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 10:43 pm

    The former, including the Chinese word for "lion", is actually an import from the Western Regions (Central Asia, or East Central Asia more specifically).

    Pulleyblank suggests the most immediate association of 獅子 to be with the Tocharian forms ṣecake (B) / śiśäk (A).

    Diana S. Zhang cautions us against ignoring the regional aspects of Old Sinitic, and surely southern Chu ci language of the 4th c. BC would be significantly different from that of the northern Shī jīng 詩經 (Poetry Classic) of the 6th c. BC. She tentatively reconstructs 疏麻 as *sm(r)a for the Chu ci, taking into account (and documenting) the Chu penchant for dividing up a disyllabic, partially transcribed and partially translated (as I described it above) word

    I like the 疏麻 "Soma" connection. The only slight concern I have is the reconstruction of 麻 to which Zhengzhang quite correctly assigns an original *-l coda (Baxter & Sagart's *-j may be better treated as an evolution from earlier *-l). In Diana S. Zhang's reconstruction, are we to assume that the earlier *-l was lost rather than palatalized in the Southern Chu ci language (I'm assuming no trace of the medial of the medial -r- was left at that stage)? Regardless, I wonder if semantic consideration could have been the decisive factor in going with 麻 for the transcription in any case?

  10. Gail Brownrigg said,

    November 12, 2019 @ 10:16 am

    Don't forget the excellent book about Chinese chariots and their origin via transmission across the steppes: Hsiao-yun Wu, Chariots in Early China: Origins, cultural interaction, and identity (BAR International Series), Oxford, 2013.

  11. Su-Chong Lim said,

    November 12, 2019 @ 3:21 pm

    My understanding is that the Malay name for Singapore is Singapura, deriving from Sanskrit "Lion City", and that simha is Sanskrit for lion. (Real lions — Panthera leo — were never naturally found in this region, and the story goes that one of the early Malay speaking colonizing rulers saw a beast that was mistakenly identified as a lion. Or perhaps this was merely the same situation as "Shere" of Shere Khan fame being used indiscriminately to name lions and tigers alike.)

  12. Chris Button said,

    November 12, 2019 @ 9:18 pm

    The only slight concern I have is the reconstruction of 麻 to which Zhengzhang quite correctly assigns an original *-l coda (Baxter & Sagart's *-j may be better treated as an evolution from earlier *-l). In Diana S. Zhang's reconstruction, are we to assume that the earlier *-l was lost rather than palatalized in the Southern Chu ci language (I'm assuming no trace of the medial of the medial -r- was left at that stage)?

    Thinking about this again, it is far more efficient in terms of Middle Chinese to assume that the *-l coda in 麻 *mrál never went through a -j phase (as Baxter & Sagart reconstruct it) to instead just postulate a simple loss of *-l. I suppose the evidence for a *-j coda in Min dialects and Vietnamese and Korean loans that Pulleyblank suggested as an intermediary phase to support the association with his intermediary -j may rather be a consequence of the affinity of -l and -j as clearly attested by the well-known confusion of the *-əl and *-əj rhymes (corresponding to Baxter & Sagart's *-əj and *-i(j) in which the latter *-i ~ *ij is highly problematic in terms of surface phonetics once one steps out of the realms of abstract phonology).

  13. Chris Button said,

    November 12, 2019 @ 10:39 pm

    And even if there were indeed an intermediary *-j stage from earlier *-l, it would have disappeared by the Late Han anyway and well before the 4th century anyway… In short, I'm convinced by the phonology.

    Separately, it's interesting to note Pulleyblank's (1975) comparison of 磨 *mál "grind" with Proto-Indo-European *melh₂- "grind". I believe Prof. Mair (1991) originally compared that PIE form with 麥 *mrə̀k "wheat" although we discussed elsewhere on Language log how PIE *mr̥k- barley is the better fit.

  14. Chris Button said,

    November 13, 2019 @ 6:57 am

    Separately, it's interesting to note Pulleyblank's (1975) comparison of 磨 *mál "grind" with Proto-Indo-European *melh₂- "grind". I believe Prof. Mair (1991) originally compared that PIE form with 麥 *mrə̀k "wheat" although we discussed elsewhere on Language log how PIE *mr̥k- barley is the better fit.

    This now has me idly wondering if there is any association between 麻 *mrál (EMC maɨ) and the first part of "marijuana" now…

  15. Chris Button said,

    November 14, 2019 @ 8:55 pm

    It turns out that in Sino-Platonic Papers #153, 2005, Prof. Mair is noted as having suggested a possible association of the word "marijuana" with the Semitic root mrr "bitter", from whence Arabic murr (sing.) ʾamrār (pl.) "myrrh", and possibly also Chinese.

    The merger of *-r with *-l in Old Chinese means 麻 *mrál could have gone back to an earlier 麻 *mrár which then aligns very nicely with the Semitic source to support Prof. Mair's suggestion.

    We already have a precedent for a borrowing of this nature in 桂 *qájs "cinnamon, cassia" which could regularly go back to *qjáts and is likely associated with Hebrew qetsia "cassia".

  16. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2019 @ 10:15 am

    I asked John S. Major the following questions:

    Basic notes and questions about 熊 in Chu culture:

    1. It's the clan name of the royal, founding family, right?

    2. Is it supposedly a word in Chu language? Or, if not, do we have a
    Sinographic transcription of the sound of it in Chu language?

    He replied:

    What I know about this is summarized in Barry Blakeley's essay in Cook & Major, Defining Chu, pp. 53-54. Blakeley doubts that Xiong was a lineage name for the Chu ruling family; he finds the most likely explanation of the term (choosing from among several competing explanations) is that it derived from an old official title. That would imply that it was a Chu word, and that the graph 熊 was borrowed to convey the sound of that Chu word (however it was pronounced 3,000 years ago). I don't know of any credible attempts to reconstruct the Chu language.

RSS feed for comments on this post