Commentary RESEARCH

The rise of Western Xia Studies in China


2024-05-20 12:00

Chinese Social Sciences Today

Language is the most crucial component of a nation’s identity. When a nation loses its language and script, it essentially loses its “spiritual strength.” Unfortunately, throughout Chinese history, numerous ancient ethnic groups with rich cultural legacies have failed to preserve their languages and scripts, resulting in the erasure of their history, mythology, religions, and cultural traits. Today, rescuing and revitalizing these “esoteric disciplines” holds particular academic significance. Western Xia Studies is one such “esoteric discipline” that has experienced rapid revitalization over the past three decades.

Early development of Western Xia Studies

The Western Xia (1038–1227) was a kingdom in Chinese history primarily populated by the Tangut ethnic group, along with other ethnic groups such as the Han, Hui, and Tibetan communities. This kingdom thrived along the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River in northwest China contemporaneously with the Song, Liao, and Jin dynasties. It is commonly believed that the Western Xia script was created by Yeli Renrong under the order of Li Yuanhao [founder of Western Xia] in 1036. Comprising over 6,000 characters, the Western Xia script is said to have taken Yeli three years to develop, and was widely adopted for various documents, decrees, and translations of Buddhist scriptures. 

The script continued to be used after the demise of the Western Xia, as evidenced by the Dharani pillars from the mid-Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) inscribed with Buddhist sutras in the Western Xia script. However, it gradually fell into disuse after the mid-Ming period, and the civilization of the Western Xia was subsequently forgotten. By the end of the Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China period, although remnants of Western Xia documents and artifacts had been unearthed across China, their linguistic content remained a mystery. The earliest interpreters of the Western Xia script were amateur Orientalists including Alexander Wylie and S. W. Bushell from Britain, and Gabriel Devéria and M. G. Morisse from France.

Almost simultaneously with the discovery of the Dunhuang documents, in 1908, Russian explorer P. K. Kozlov and Hungarian-born British archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein successively discovered and looted a large number of Western Xia, Han, Tibetan, and Mongolian documents from the ruins of Khara-Khoto [meaning “black city” in Mongolian] in present-day Ejin Banner of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The looted archives came to be known as the “Khara-Khoto Documents.” 

The discovery of the “Khara-Khoto Documents” gave rise to a new discipline in Oriental studies in the West—Western Xia Studies. These precious documents brought to and preserved in the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, particularly the Western Xia documents among them, were initially deciphered and studied by Orientalists such as I. Ivanov and N. A. Nevsky from Russia, as well as B. Laufer and A. Bernhardti from Germany.

China’s first expert of the field

The formal study of Western Xia in China is often attributed to Wang Jingru (1903–1990), a seminal figure who began his academic journey at the Institute of Chinese Studies at Tsinghua University in 1927, where he studied Comparative Philology under the guidance of two masters, Zhao Yuanren and Chen Yinque. Wang followed the academic tradition of European comparative philologists who were constructing the Indo-European language family at the time. In the spring of 1929, the “Beiping Library” acquired over ninety volumes of Western Xia scriptures from Ningxia. Tasked with the responsibility of organizing and studying these precious documents, Wang worked under the guidance of Chen Yinque, publishing his three-volume treatise Western Xia Research between 1932 and 1933. In this work, Wang presented his scholarly achievements in translating, annotating, and interpreting Buddhist scriptures written in Western Xia script. Western Xia Research was a pioneering work in the international academic circle of Western Xia studies, marking a significant achievement in Sinology and Chinese studies worldwide. In 1936, Western Xia Research was awarded the highest prize in international Sinology—Prix Stanislas-Julien, making Wang the first Chinese scholar to receive this award.

Sadly, Western Xia Research remained the sole academic masterpiece in the field of Western Xia studies within China for several decades. In the interim, international Western Xia studies were mainly dominated by Russian and Japanese scholars, while contemporary Chinese scholars rarely had direct access to the majority of Khara-Khoto documents stored in St. Petersburg, making it difficult for them to engage directly in Western Xia studies focusing on language and literature.

Revitalization of Western Xia Studies 

Since the mid-1990s, Western Xia Studies in China have experienced a transformative shift. With an increasing number of Khara-Khoto documents preserved in Russia being copied and published in China, Chinese scholars finally gained direct access to primary sources from the Western Xia era. Archaeological efforts in regions such as Ningxia, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia have unearthed a wealth of Western Xia documents, substantially enriching the resource pool available for scholarly study. Over the three decades since the mid-1990s, Western Xia studies in China have boomed, establishing the country as the center of international Western Xia Studies. With the rapid emergence of a new generation of young scholars, well trained in Western Xia language and literature, China’s research into this once-forgotten civilization has seen marked improvements, as its complex history is gradually and painstakingly being pieced together.

Of particular note is the notable influx of young scholars into the field of Western Xia Studies. Proficient not only in the Western Xia and Han Chinese languages, they are also skilled at Tibetan languages, opening up an extremely broad academic path for Western Xia Studies in China. Existing Western Xia documents, which are primarily Buddhist scriptures, are either translations from Han Chinese or from Tibetan. Therefore, correctly interpretating Western Xia documents and the study of Western Xia language, script, and grammar greatly depend on the original text written in Han Chinese or Tibetan. 

Over the past twenty years, among the Buddhist scriptures written in Western Xia and Han Chinese scripts, most of which coming from Khara-Khoto documents in Russia, we have discovered an increasing number of Tibetan Buddhist scriptures translated from Tibetan. Conducting comparative studies of these scriptures in multiple languages such as Western Xia, Tibetan, and Han Chinese has become an important branch of Chinese Western Xia Studies, which has seen remarkable achievements. Research into these Tibetan Buddhist texts reveals that during the Western Xia era, Tibetan Buddhism was an important part of the religion’s “Second Dissemination” [the late 10th and 11th centuries saw a revival of Buddhism in Tibet]. Nearly all the teachings transmitted by the masters of various schools of Tibetan Buddhism in the early period of the “Second Dissemination” had been introduced to the Western Xia Dynasty. Therefore, to delve into the history of Tibetan Buddhism, it is necessary to study the Buddhist scriptures in Western Xia and Han Chinese scripts, which were widely circulated during the Western Xia era. Furthermore, the comparative study of these Western Xia and Chinese Buddhist scriptures outlines the historical integration of Han-Tibetan Buddhism, as well as the exoteric-esoteric Buddhist traditions that existed during their simultaneous dissemination in the Western Xia Dynasty. These integrations led to the development of a unique Han-Tibetan Buddhist tradition, which stands out as the most distinctive feature of Western Xia Buddhism.

The ongoing rapid development of Western Xia studies in China is closely related to Tibetan studies and Buddhist philology. Without a solid foundation in Tibetan and Buddhist philology, it would be impossible to continue the professional and in-depth study of Western Xia Buddhist texts. We are pleased to see many outstanding young scholars of Tibetan studies devoting themselves to Western Xia Studies, focusing on the interpretation and research of Tibetan Buddhist texts from the Western Xia Dynasty. Furthermore, the correct interpretation of these Western Xia documents ensures the accurate understanding of the history, religious culture, and ethnic characteristics of the Western Xia civilization.

Shen Weirong is a professor from the School of Humanities at Tsinghua University.




2024-05-21 04:47
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