China Babel

« previous post | next post »

My basement is full of unpublished manuscripts.  I call it the "Dungeon", because it is dark, dank, and crowded with books and papers — much worse than my office, which has achieved a fabled reputation for its crampedness — and very cold in the winter, though it does have a wonderful bay window on the eastern side where I can look out at the flora, fauna, and foliage to rest my eyes and mind from time to time.

Three of the most significant manuscripts in the Dungeon that remained unpublished for decades are:

1. West Eurasian and North African Influences on the Origins of Chinese Writing (tentative title) has been alluded to on Language Log several times during the last couple of decades, but I began to think about its main themes already in the 70s.  The bulk of the research was done during the 80s, after which I locked it away in a strongbox that I've not touched since them, nor do I have any intention of doing so during the foreseeable future.  Why?  Because the intellectual infrastructure for serious consideration of such a paradigm-shifting work simply does not exist.  Too many, I would even say most, scholars simply cannot accept the possibility of long distance cultural interaction.  Back in the 70s and 80s when I laid out my positions, colleagues would say, "You make an interesting case for convincing parallels at the two ends of Eurasia, but how are they connected in the middle?"

When, in the 90s, I brought the Tarim Basin mummies to the attention of the world and undertook deep, broad research on a wide variety of aspects concerning them, I thought that I had discovered the smoking gun in the center of Eurasia.  Our (including J. P. Mallory, Elizabeth J. W. Barber, Han Kangxin, et al.) archeological investigations were complemented by the remarkable, long-running series of studies on east-west exchanges by Yu Taishan that were carried out primarily with the use of Chinese historical sources, which he plumbed in a thoroughgoing way that had never been done before (many are available in English translations in Sino-Platonic Papers, including book-length volumes).  But that was insufficient for the obdurate skeptics who also demanded that the dots connecting the two ends to the middle be filled in more decisively (though, in truth, we thought we had already gone a long way toward meeting that challenge).

Then, during the 00s, the situation improved markedly.  Andrew Sherratt wrote his seminal "The Trans-Eurasian Exchange: The Prehistory of Chinese Relations with the West", which was published posthumously in Victor H. Mair, ed., Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World (Honolulu:  University of Hawaii Press, 2006), pp. 30-61, that is especially important for the study of the spread of bronze technology from west to east.  A few years later, with a Eurasian-wide purview, the pathbreaking article by Joyce C. White and Elizabeth G. Hamilton,The transmission of early bronze technology to Thailand: new perspectives”, Journal of World Prehistory 22 (2009), 357–97 (Google Scholar) appeared.

Then came the 10s, which commenced the penetrating studies by Lucas Christopoulos linking up Greek, Central Asian, and East Asian cultural attributes through minute visual and textual comparisons, and the massive treatises of Brian Pellar on the astronomical derivation of the zodiac and writing systems based thereupon.  These researches are bringing us ever closer to the fundamental premises upon which Origins was predicated.

Just this March (2024), while I was preparing this note, two scintillating new works burst upon the scene that tie east and west together more tightly than ever before:

a. Petya Andreeva, Fantastic Fauna from China to Crimea:  Image-Making in Eurasian Nomadic Societies, 700 BCE-500 CE (Edinburgh:  University Press, 2024).

b. Hajni Elias, "The Southwest Silk Road: artistic exchange and transmission in early China", published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 March 2024; Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, First View, pp. 1 – 26.  This article has impressed me to such a degree that I have rechristened the road she wrote about as "The Southwest Bronze Road".

Still under excavation and investigation by Chinese archeologists is the enormous new site of Shimao (coordinates are 38.5657°N 110.3252°E on the eastern edge of the Ordos), which stands at the cusp of the Bronze Age, has unmistakable affinities with Sanxingdui (coordinates 30.9916°N 104.2021°E) near Chengdu in the Southwest, and displays startling similarities to cultures that are thousands of miles away.  Once Shimao is studied more fully, it will transform our understanding of the rise of East Asia civilization and its ties to the rest of Eurasia.

2. China Babel faced similar difficulties.  It was based on ideas that I had first entertained in the 70s, indeed already in a nebulous way in the 60s.  Namely, I envisaged that, through heightened intensity and increased speed of language contact, there would be more and more borrowing, especially from English into other languages, but also from other languages into each other and into English.  I completed the first draft in the summer of 1986, when I seemed to have boundless energy, revised it in October 1986, did a second revision in March 1987, and a third revision in May 1990.  I planned to submit it for publication in January 1994, but by that time I had become so enmired in mummies research that it ceased to occupy any active space in my mind.  I started to think about it again around 2020 when the pandemic struck, but didn't push the idea of publication very hard because my closest friends advised me that, for reasons of political incorrectness, it would not be welcomed by academic arbiters.  The primary grounds on which they predicted that it was too early for a book like China Babel is that it predicted the recognition of the major Sinitic topolects as full-fledged languages, not mere dialects of Mandarin, and that it foresaw the gradual Englishization of Mandarin until it gradually merged with the world language.  China Babel still rests in a box in my basement, nearly four decades after I wrote it.

3. The Archeology of Lost Affection, a novel that is based on some photographic "shards" that I found in the desert near Qumul / Hami in Eastern Central Asia on May 25, 1998.  It took me another year or two to write the book, including making a special trip back to China to check some details, particularly in the environs of Rizhao 日照, Shandong.  The ms then moldered untouched in my basement until late 2020 when, under lockdown, having relatively more free time, I decided to go forward with its publication, which took place on May 25, 2021 from Camphor Press (apparently it's available on Amazon).  Unlike the previous two items, Archeology was not politically or culturally sensitive, so I saw no harm in putting it before the public — two decades after it was written

As I said to a friend of mine when he asked about the eventual fate of my remaining unpublished manuscripts,

I don't mind waiting another 40 years when the times are more propitious — many of my Chinese students say they hope I will live to be 120!  After all, my old friend, Zhou Youguang (1906-2017), main deviser of Hanyu Pinyin, lived to the age of 111, and I'm certain that he could have lived even longer had it not been for his deep disappointment over the failure of democracy to develop in China.

Meanwhile, willy-nilly, bits and pieces are leaking out, and colleagues are publishing their own hypotheses linking east and west.

Selected readings


  1. John from Cincinnati said,

    March 26, 2024 @ 8:38 am

    it is dark, dank, and crowded with books and papers

    Oh my goodness, I hope you were not being literal, but were simply carried away by alliteration. My understanding of dank is unpleasantly moist or wet. Hardly a suitable environment to store books and papers for another 40 years.

  2. Peter B. Golden said,

    March 26, 2024 @ 9:33 am

    Victor, publish both books! We need them.

  3. Haun Saussy said,

    March 26, 2024 @ 12:08 pm

    Better yet, Victor, publish all three!

  4. katarina said,

    March 26, 2024 @ 2:44 pm

    Writing is a form of speech.
    Nobelist economist Milton Friedman would often debunk commonly held myths. For instance, he said:
    "The United States is already half socialist." (Free public education, social welfare, etc.)
    "You only have free speech after you retire, and often not even then."

    I am in sympathy with Prof. Mair's prudence and caution. Hopefully, his manuscripts will not molder the dank, dark Dungeon.

  5. Duonwang said,

    March 26, 2024 @ 4:09 pm

    Instead of “Dungeon”, it is more appropriate to be known as “Dunhuang” of North America.

  6. Chris Button said,

    March 26, 2024 @ 4:33 pm

    I like the use of the word "influences" in "West Eurasian and North African Influences on the Origins of Chinese Writing".

    If a convincing connection is ultimately found for the 22 ganzhi, it may well not be a simple one-to-one match up, but rather a question of influence that affected certain choices.

RSS feed for comments on this post