IT may look deceptively similar to Chinese. But, for more than a century, the strange script used by the former Tangut empire of Tibetan Buddhists has baffled scholars the world over.
Now a mainland professor, Li Fanwen, who only escaped death during the Cultural Revolution because he is one of the few who understands this dead language, has unlocked its secrets by producing the first complete dictionary to translate it.
The first traces of Tangut appear to have been found in the late 19th century, when Russian explorer Colonel Pyotr Kozlov stumbled across a ruined city forgotten in the Mongolian desert, the abandoned outpost of an unknown empire.
Kozlov returned several times to explore the ruins of the abandoned city of Khara Khoto, the Black City. Not far from the city walls in the ruins of a temple stupa, he found a cache of manuscripts written in a strange language with characters that resembled Chinese and which he took back to St Petersburg.
Khara Khoto was mentioned by Marco Polo in the 13th century and while its walls still exist, they are now being engulfed by desert sands. The Edzin-Gol River (known as the Ruo Shui River in China) and the lakes which nourished its population have dried up.
The turn-of-the-century scramble by European and Japanese explorers to dig up the treasures of the Silk Road and unravel the mysteries of its civilisations has been followed by a competition to unlock the secrets of the documents found at Khara Khoto and elsewhere.
Kozlov gave his treasures - about 3,500 items, including 400 books and 300 paintings - to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, but the Russian communists stored them in Kazan Cathedral which they renamed the Museum of Religion and Atheism. There they remained, mostly undisturbed until the Glasnost era. In 1990 a major exhibition was mounted.
In the Soviet Union, Russian scholars set about trying to 'decode' the language and the clues to its civilisation. Meanwhile other manuscripts turned up in China, Japan and Britain where Sir Auriel Stein placed them in the British Museum. A small international band of scholars competed to be first to translate the manuscripts, mostly printed by wooden blocks.
Meanwhile, Japanese forces occupied much of Inner Mongolia where Khara Khoto is now found. In Japan in the 1920s, Chinese historian Luo Zhenyu found a copy of a dictionary showing the script side-by-side with Chinese characters and in 1932 Luo's son announced he had deciphered 146 characters. Later, Japanese scholars reported they had succeeded in 'decoding' another 1,000.
Then, in 1997, a Chinese scholar, Professor Li Fanwen, announced he had published the first complete dictionary with all 5,800 characters and even the correct phonetics, a labour which took him on an often horrifying personal odyssey.
Professor Li, a tall and mild-mannered man, was born in Xi'an in 1932 and now lives in Yinchuan, the capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region on the banks of the Yellow River, close to the former capital of what the Chinese call the Western Xia Dynasty, generally known in English as the Tangut empire or kingdom.
The Tangut emperors left behind vast pyramid-like tombs scattered over a stony plain which are like nothing else found in China or Central Asia. The Tanguts were Tibetans and Buddhists. Their kingdom was believed to have flourished from 928 to 1227 until it was finally destroyed by Genghis Khan in his last military campaign.
His Mongol warriors had attacked the Tanguts several times before besieging the capital and destroying it by damning a river. The Tanguts were so utterly wiped out by Genghis Khan that the region has since been known as Ning Xia or The Extermination of the Xia. Soon after his victory, Genghis Khan died at Eijin Horo, a few hundred kilometres to the north. After that the Tanguts and their civilisation disappeared from view and the last trace of them dates to 1378.
The dynasty built 209 tombs and mausoleums across 38 square kilometres of stony plain, including nine pyramid-shaped tombs for its emperors and a vast palace covering 10 hectares. The site became an official relic only in 1987 and much of it was destroyed by the Mongols leaving only shapeless but huge mounds of beaten earth.
Tangut relics and history barely survived the Cultural Revolution. Professor Li was one of its victims. He started his career studying Tibetan at the Central Academy of Minority Studies in Beijing in the 1950s but, before he even graduated, he fell foul of its party secretary.
'I was close to Fei Xiaotong, the prominent sociologist, and went to his home often where I mentioned that there should be preparatory classes for university,' Professor Li said. 'The party secretary, who was angry that I was not sucking up to him, used this as an excuse to label me as a rightist. He accused me of belonging to an anti-party organisation. This went into my file.' In 1957 he was expelled from the Communist Party and sent to a labour reform camp outside Beijing. He was working outdoors when he saw several workers surveying the water in a river channel near Yongdingmen. One of them was drowning and crying for help.
'No one did anything. I took off my clothes, jumped into the water and saved his life. No one thanked me because I was a rightist.' A report was sent to the college but the party secretary refused to remove his rightist 'hat'. 'I had no rights at all then, not even to my own bed,' he said.
Despairing at the lack of prospects of fulfilling his dreams of researching Tibetan history, he decided to apply to go to Ningxia's Normal University in 1960. His wife, a Russian expert from Sichuan, refused to go with him saying the life there would be too savage. She divorced him.
In Ningxia, he had to continue his research in secret and was not allowed access to any secondary sources or materials printed abroad. He published his university's first textbook but life became harder with each new wave of political campaigning. As an anti-party element he was singled out in each campaign. In the Cultural Revolution, Professor Li was repeatedly beaten at rallies and paraded through the streets wearing a dunce's hat and a huge placard around his neck.
'They knocked out all my teeth,' he said, demonstrating this by removing his dentures. 'The more backward a place, the more leftist it was.' Professor Li's life may have been saved by a chance remark uttered by former premier Zhou Enlai in 1972 when he toured the Chinese Museum of History and passed an exhibit about the Western Xia. Zhou said it would be a pity if no one ever understood what was written in this dead language. At that time there were only two other elderly scholars who understood Tangut, both of whom were in labour reform camps. Soon after Zhou's remark, Ningxia Provincial Cultural Department were asked by Beijing to find someone to carry out research.
'I was then assigned to do the research,' he said. Within four years, he had finished a preliminary version of the dictionary, but for years he refused to have it published.
'There was a lot of intrigue around this work. A number of people who had no contribution insisted on adding their names to the work. I refused,' Professor Li said.
Instead of publishing, he decided to continue working on identifying the phonetics of this dead language with its 5,800 characters.
When I first met him in 1987, he said that he had begun by studying the speech of the people who now live where the Dangxian people, the Tibetan Tangut tribe, had come from. He wanted to see what their language would be like if Han influences were removed. Then he looked at the Xia texts to find similarities.
It took Professor Li 10 years to create a phonetic system and he admits that even now he cannot really attempt to speak the dead language.
'He has done a lot of work - I think his dictionary is the best one up to now,' Professor Gong Hwang-cheng, of the Academia Sinica in Taiwan, said.
'There are hundreds of languages in the Tibet-Burmese group, but only a few scripts exist so the Tangut language is an important record.' Professor Gong, who has been studying the Tangut literature for 20 years, said that deciphering the meaning and sound of the literature was fantastically difficult. 'There are records of many Tangut songs, but it is difficult to find their meaning,' he said.
The search to translate Tangut has taken nearly a century, even though researchers have found dictionaries, bilingual texts and Tangut translations of Chinese Buddhist classics.
'Very few people agree on how to properly reconstruct Tangut and its phonetics. We must applaud his efforts,' said Dr Frances Wood, head of the Chinese collection in the British Library. Her London collection contains some of the Tangut manuscripts found by Sir Auriel Stein.
'We have fragments of literature like the epic story Dragon King of the Sea - which is funny, given how far from the sea they were - and bits of the Tangut legal code,' she said.
Under a 1989 agreement, China paid the Russians 10 million yuan (about HK$9.2 million) to publish the manuscripts recovered by Kozlov. 'We didn't have enough money so we could only publish half the volumes,' Professor Li said.
Despite the international effort, little about the Tangut culture has been uncovered. Nearly 95 per cent of the recovered manuscripts are Buddhist sutras. From these it emerges that it was a deeply religious society which followed the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The rest of the literature has disappeared leaving experts like Professor Li puzzling about its music, dress, architecture and society.
'They are one of the most fascinating civilisations of the Silk Road and the least known,' Dr Wood said. 'It must have been quite an extraordinary culture. It obviously had a high level of cultural achievement. The wood blocks are stunning.' The Tanguts, who referred to themselves as 'the land between Tibet and China' appear to have been a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society. They translated the writings of Confucianism and Daoism as well as the Buddhist Tripitaka and were familiar with both cultures.
Professor Li has discovered that it flourished far longer than had been previously believed. 'In fact it lasted more than 300 years, not 180, and it started in 881AD. Mongol Yuan dynasty historians deliberately shortened its record,' he said.
Understanding the script enabled him to read grave inscriptions and draw up a chronicle of the reigns of the Tangut rulers.
'This made me realise the kingdom lasted far longer than anyone knew,' he said.
The British Library's Dr Wood said: 'What is fascinating about these Central Asian [civilisations] is that they can rise and fall and not impinge on the outside world.' The Alashan region in Inner Mongolia where Khara Khoto is located has now become a desert. In the late 1950s, the Ruo Shui River was damned and the water which flows from the Qilan mountains in Gansu was diverted into the Hexi corridor. Consequently, two nearby lakes dried up. Only last month sand from the area arrived in a sandstorm and blanketed Beijing.
'Last year I went back to the place where Kozlov found the manuscripts, but everything has disappeared under the sand,' Professor Li said. He is pessimistic about any prospect that his knowledge of the Tangut language will be passed on.
'Only 10 people in the world can read it now,' he said. 'But there are no new students so I can't see what the future of Tangut scholarship can be.' The Ningxia Government has spent heavily on building a new museum devoted to the Xia dynasty which encloses one of the tombs. Premier Zhu Rongji toured Ningxia last year and ordered that 100 million yuan be invested to restore some of the tombs to their former glory, and recreate what must have been a dazzling sight of magnificent green and blue tiled pagodas.
The dynasty may then survive as a major tourist attraction.
Jasper Becker is the Post's Beijing bureau chief.