Kunlun: Roman letter phonophores for Chinese characters

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Lucas Klein writes from Hong Kong:

I just read Don Wyatt’s Blacks of Premodern China (which I believe you published?), and I found that someone who had previously borrowed the book from the library had left a sticky note in it… and evidently whoever it was forgot how to write 崑崙, so wrote it out in pinyin with the mountain radical!

Remarkably clever, I would say.  The whole purpose of the phonetic components of Sinographs is to convey the sounds of the morphosyllables in question.  If you can't remember how to write the relevant phonophores with Chinese components, why not write them in Pinyin or some other phonetic script?

Kūnlún 昆侖 ("Kunlun") is one of those evocative, disyllabic Sinitic terms that has all the look of a transcription from a foreign tongue.  Even more curious is its broad signification for many different places and peoples:

1. a large mountain range between the Tibetan Plateau and the Tarim Basin; when I travelled a lot in this region (80s-10s), I knew these mountains as the Qurum Tagh

2. a mountain situated far to the west in Chinese mythology

3. a country that vaguely referred to a general swath of southerly island Southeast Asia circa the Moluccas, equivalent to period Sanskrit Dvipatala or Pali Dipattala (also JipattalaNipattala)

4. Côn Sơn, also known as Côn Lôn, the largest island of the Côn Đảo archipelago, off the coast of southern Vietnam.

5. Kunlun slave (Kūnlún nú 昆侖奴) "dark-skinned and wavy-haired" slaves in ancient China who were from island Southeast Asia — they featured prominently in Tang period (618-907) classical language short fiction (chuánqí 傳奇) and were described as having near supernatural powers


Additionally, I recall that there was a "Kunlun" located in the far northwest of India, roughly in the area of northern Pakistan or Afghanistan.

In more recent times, the name "Kunlun" has also been applied to a major energy company, various types of martial arts (probably inspired by no. 5 above), a sect that is prominent in wǔxiá 武俠 ("martial hero") fiction, a ship, an asteroid belt, an ice hockey club, a critical server of the beleaguered Huawei technology corporation, etc.


  • Middle Sinitic: /kuən  luən/
(Zhengzhang): /*kuːn  ruːn/


Selected readings

Dozens more posts in this vein could be listed.


  1. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 17, 2021 @ 1:36 pm

    Presumably senses 1, 2, and the NW Indian mountain are "the same" in some sense, as all being western mountains?

  2. Alyssa said,

    February 18, 2021 @ 6:11 pm

    Are 昆侖 and 崑崙 the same word?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    February 18, 2021 @ 8:41 pm


    Yes. This disyllabic word is also written as 崐崘,崑崘, etc.

    You've raised such a significant question that I will probably write a separate post about the origins of this word in Sinitic within a week or so.

  4. Joshua K. said,

    February 19, 2021 @ 5:45 pm

    I don't understand the point of this post. Much of the surrounding text is in English, too ("source of … Africa & SE Asia … transformative nature of …"). Given the context of this being a sticky note (and thus likely a private writing for oneself, rather than for other people to read), it seems possible that the writer knew English better than Chinese. If the writer had been more comfortable writing in Chinese, wouldn't the rest of the text have been in Chinese too, except for the pinyin "kun lun"?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2021 @ 8:35 pm

    As someone who has taught hundreds of Chinese students at the University of Hong Kong, where Lucas Klein teaches, and has taught many hundreds more Chinese college and graduate students in the PRC and in America, and who was married to a Chinese wife who was first a graduate student and then a lecturer and professor for 41 years, I can vouch for the fact that this is a typical sticky note or marginalia of a native speaker of Chinese who also knows English well enough to read scholarly books in that language. This is evident from the style of the English and Chinese writing, as well as from the very nature of the note itself.

  6. alex said,

    February 19, 2021 @ 10:49 pm

    I was curious if non natives quickly learn that quick 'cursive' Chinese character writing or does that take years of taking notes. Moreover is that slowly disappearing like cursive is in English due to electronics?

  7. Hang Zhao said,

    February 20, 2021 @ 1:35 am

    I think this is commonly happens in China, e.g. the word 蓬萊 and 扶桑, all of these three words originated in mythology and can be found in 山海經. When finding a new place, probably people will name the new place according to myth, or they think they have found the exact place. 昆侖 has benn named to 3 places in the western China and finally be named to the mountain we called now. 蓬萊 is used call Taiwan in Ming/Qing dynasty, there is also a 蓬萊 district in nowaday Shandong Province(which is also located on the sea shore). 扶桑 now is refered to Japan, and probably used to call Japan (扶桑國,在昔未聞也 梁書).

    All of these places located either outside mainland or to the very west of central China. I don't know how many research has been done but I think it would be a good topic discussing the influence of mythology on place naming.

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