An 8th-century Chinese epitaph written by a Japanese courtier

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Here's news of a remarkable discovery:

"Ancient Chinese epitaph penned by Japanese found in China", THE ASAHI SHIMBUN (December 26, 2019 at 19:00 JST).

The article includes a photograph of a rubbing of the last line of the epitaph with the following kanji:


I can read that easily as Sino-Japanese "Nihonkoku chōshin Bi sho", which would mean "written by the Japanese courtier [Ki]bi".  The article says that the last line of the epitaph reads “Nihonkoku Ason Bi Sho", so it would appear that I am reading "朝臣" incorrectly as "chōshin" instead of as "ason".

Aside from "chōshin" ("courtier"), "朝臣" may also be read as "ason", which is "a prestigious title (under the eight kabane system), initially conferred in the Nara period of the history of Japan, on princes who had been reduced to the commonalty." (source, see also here)  In addition, "朝臣" has the archaistic reading "asomi" ("second highest of the eight hereditary titles" designated by Emperor Tenmu in 684 AD). (source)  Other pronunciations include "asson" and the name "Asatomi".

I have long been familiar with the illustrious figure Kibi no Asomi Makibi (吉備 真備, 695 – November 3, 775), probably primarily because of a famous narrative handscroll in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Kibi has sometimes been credited with inventing the katakana phonetic syllabary and writing system.

A late 12th century narrative handscroll in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston depicting Kibi's journey to China is one of the earliest of all Japanese narrative pictorial handscrolls (e-maki) known. It is believed to have been commissioned to help support the prestige of a school of divination that claimed connections to Kibi. Its purchase by the museum in 1932 directly led to the strengthening of Japanese laws against the removal of cultural properties of particular importance from the country.

Just this one term is enough to remind me, as a Sinologist, that reading Japanese texts (even early ones) requires special skills and training.

[h.t. Nathan Hopson]


  1. liuyao said,

    December 30, 2019 @ 3:29 pm

    There already are questions about its authenticity, as reportedly "found on the market".

  2. Ross Bender said,

    December 30, 2019 @ 7:55 pm

    Regardless of the authenticity of this rubbing, Kibi no Makibi was an extraordinarily important figure in mid-Nara history. Among other things, he taught Chinese military tactics to Japanese troops.

    As Great Minister of the Right, he was a mainstay in the cabinet of the Last Empress Regnant of Nara, along with Fujiwara no Nagate, the Great Minister of the Left. (Left of course took precedence.) After the defeat of the rebel Fujiwara no Nakamaro (Nagate's younger brother), the Empress Regnant exiled the puppet emperor Junnin, and later had him strangled to death.

    Makibi had been her tutor as a child. During the years 765 until her death in 770, he, Nagate, and the priest Dokyo were at the center of her administration. In 769 she appointed him to the Senior 2nd Rank, ordinarily reserved for royalty.

    It is extremely doubtful that he had anything to do with the invention of the katakana syllabary. Also, Asomi was in practice the highest of the hereditary titles — in Shoku Nihongi for the years 749-770 it appears 1442 times. "Mahito", which was the top of the hierarchy in Tenmu's time, appears only 311 times.

    Don't believe everything you read on Wikipedia.

    You can read about much of his remarkable career in my 4-volume translation from Shoku Nihongi, Nara Japan 349-770.

  3. Ross Bender said,

    December 30, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

    That should of course be Nara Japan, 749-770. All four volumes available on Amazon for 15 dollars a pop. Plus my translations of the imperial edicts in Shoku Nihongi.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    December 31, 2019 @ 2:09 am

    1. Not so easily dismissed:

    2. Wikipedia mentioned katakana in a responsible manner. (a suggestion, not a statement of fact).

  5. Ross Bender said,

    December 31, 2019 @ 5:19 pm

    I was taught that Kobo Daishi invented the syllabaries. That was first year grad school. Second year we learned that "maybe" he invented them, being inspired by Sanskrit.

    But Makibi inventing katakana? That's a stretch. Famous people are credited with inventing many fabulous things that were likely the products of long development and experimentation.

    Below is from the first of my SN volumes:

    "Intercourse with Japan’s neighbors in Northeast Asia was very frequent in the years 749-757. The court’s largest partner was of course Tang China, but Japan also received large embassies from both Silla and Parhae. Late in 750 Fujiwara no Kiyokawa was appointed Ambassador for the twelfth mission to Tang, along with Ōtomo no Komaro as Vice-Envoy and a staff of secretaries and clerks. Preparation for the embassy was a length process, extending until the spring of 752 when the Empress awarded the Ambassadorial Sword to Kiyokawa. During this period Kibi no Makibi was appointed as a second Vice-Envoy. Four ships made the journey to Tang, where the embassy was received at court during New Year celebrations for 753. By early 754 three of the ships had returned successfully to Japan, one of them bearing the eminent Chinese monk Ganjin. But a fourth ship transporting Kiyokawa and the seasoned diplomat Abe no Nakamaro was blown off course and the two had to return to Changan, where they spent the remainder of their careers."

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