Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Khitan Seals

The Liao dynasty (907–1125) was the first Chinese dynasty to be ruled by a non-Chinese people (the Khitans) who used their own writing system to represent their own language (in the case of the Khitans, two separate writing systems). The Khitan language and scripts were used in parallel with the Chinese language and script for governmental purposes during the time of the Liao dynasty, and bronze seals of office were carved in either Chinese characters or Khitan large script characters (presumably depending upon the native language of the recipient).

This post discusses those seals that have been identified as having a seal face inscription in either the Khitan large script or the Khitan small script which I have been able to find images of. There may be as many as twenty Khitan large script seals held in collections in China, but I have only been able to find images of the seal face of a few of these seals. Much of the analysis presented here is preliminary, and I hope to expand and improve this post as and when I find more information on Khitan seals.


Liao dynasty official seals on display at the Liaoning Provincial Museum in Shenyang

© Matthew Felix Sun

{ Seal 1 = A5 | Seal 2 = A4 | Seal 3 = Chinese | Seal 4 = B4 }



A. Ninefold Seal Script Official Seals

During the Song dynasty (960–1279) Chinese characters on official seals were engraved using a highly stylized style of calligraphy known as "ninefold seal script" 九疊篆 that was based on archaic Small Seal Script character forms, but with tightly convoluted strokes. This complex style of calligraphy was applied to both Chinese script and Khitan script official seals during the Liao dynasty. This set a precedent that was followed by the Western Xia, Yuan and Qing dynasties, which developed mock archaic ninefold seal script forms of Tangut, Phags-pa and Manchu respectively, for use on official seals. Of the non-Chinese dynasties, only the Jurchen Jin dynasty that succeded the Liao seems to have only used Chinese script on seals.

As there is no surviving key to Khitan seal script characters it is often very difficult to determine what standard form Khitan large character a seal script character corresponds to, especially as the meaning of most Khitan large script characters is unknown or uncertain. A table of Khitan ninefold seal script characters is appended at the bottom of this post.


Seal A1

Wen Wu 文物 1983.08 p.82.



Found at : Chifeng, Inner Mongolia (内蒙古自治區赤峰市翁牛特旗) in 1965.

Present Location : Chifeng Museum (赤峰市博物館).


The seal inscription comprises five Khitan large characters in two columns, two characters in the first (righthand) column, and three in the second (lefthand) column. Uniquely amongst surviving Khitan seals, the inscription text is repreated on the side of the seal as a single column of standard Khitan characters engraved in outline:


The first character is one of the many variant forms of the Khitan large character meaning "six" (reading unknown). The next character appears to be a variant form of a Khitan large character normally written or (*u). In memorial inscriptions this character most commonly occurs before the character (*ur/ru) to form the word *uru meaning "group" or "division" in reference to the tribal groupings or divisions under the Liao regime (confusingly translated into Chinese as 院 yuàn "court"):

  • "Six Divisions" (六院) [Epitaph for Dorlipun (多蘿里本郎君墓誌) line 2]
  • "Six Divisions" (六院) [Epitaph for the Grand Prince of the North (北大王墓誌) line 15]
  • "Northern Division" (北院) [Epitaph for Yelü Qi (耶律褀墓誌) line 12]
  • "Southern Division" (南院) [Epitaph for Yelü Qi line 13]

On this seal the character is not followed by the character , but I think it is certain that is intended to refer to the Six Divisions, one of the main tribal groupings during the Liao dynasty. Marc Miyake notes one instance on a memorial inscription where there is the same omission of when refering to the Six Divisions, which suggests that the word uru "division" could on occasion be represented by the single character //.

The character which follows "Six Divisions" in the seal inscription is relatively uncommon in memorial inscriptions, and of unknown meaning or pronunciation, but in the two places in the Epitaph for Yelü Qi where this character occurs it is also preceded by the word uru "division":

  • "affairs of the [...] Southern Division" [line 13]
  • "Northern Division [...]" [lines 23–24]

The fact that the character occurs after the word "division" on both instances where it used on memorial inscriptions confirms the identification of the character on the seal inscription as a variant form of .

The penultimate character in the seal inscription is the genitive particle *-un. Several different genitive particles are used in the Khitan large script (, , being among the most common), and probably corresponds to the Khitan small script genitive particle *un which occurs after words ending in u or w. It is noteworthy that even though Khitan Large Script memorial inscriptions use a variety of different genitive particles in different contexts, only this one particular genitive particle is used on any of the seal inscriptions that I have seen, and it even occurs after characters that take a different genitive particle in memorial inscriptions (see Seal A2). This may suggest that seal inscriptions use a fixed genitive particle that does not obey the normal grammatical rules of the Khitan large script.

The final character in the seal inscription is the the word (normally written in memorial inscriptions) *doro which means both "ceremony, ritual, rite" (Chinese 禮) and "seal" (Chinese yìn 印). The Khitan word for "ceremony" and "seal" was borrowed into Jurchen, with a very similar glyph (), the same two meanings and the same pronunication *doro (Manchu doro ᡩᠣᡵᠣ preserves the meaning "ceremony", although the word temgetu ᡨᡝᠮᡤᡝᡨᡠ is used for "seal").

The seal inscription thus means "Seal of the [...] of the Six Divisions" *[?] uru [?]-un doro (六院□之印). The undeciphered character between "Six Divisions" and "Seal of" is presumably the title of an office or officer of the Six Divisions for whom the seal was made.



Seal A2

Kao Gu 考古 1990.12 p.1143.


Found at : Kezuo, Liaoning (遼寧省喀左縣) in 1973.

Present Location : Kezuo Museum (喀左縣博物館).


The seal inscription comprises six Khitan large characters in two columns, three characters in the first (righthand) column, and three in the second (lefthand) column.

The first character may be a Khitan version of the Chinese character 都 , which occurs in the Epitaph for the Grand Prince of the North:

  • "Director-in-chief of the south west" (西南都監) [line 13]

The next two characters are not clear, and I do not know what standard form Khitan characters they correspond to.

The fourth character *fu is commonly used to transliterate Chinese characters pronounced fu, including 府 "prefecture", 夫 "man", 父 "father", 副 "vice, deputy", 傅 "tutor". In this context it could be the final element in the name of a prefecture (XX 府) or the second element of a title such as "Grand Tutor" (太傅).

The last two characters of the seal inscription are *-un doro "seal of ..." (之印). It is interesting to note that on this and other seal inscriptions the genitive particle is used after the character *fu (cf. Seal A6), whereas in memorial inscriptions *fu is always (in the incomplete corpus of inscriptions I have studied) followed by the genitive particle :

  • "of the Northern Prefecture" [Epitaph for Dorlipun lines 13–14]
  • "of the Grand Tutor" [Epitaph for Xiao Paolu (蕭袍魯墓誌) line 10]
  • "of the Upper? Northern Prefecture" [Epitaph for Xiao Paolu line 11]
  • "of the Northern Prefecture" [Epitaph for Yelü Qi line 15]


Seal A3

Kao Gu 考古 1990.12 p.1143.


Found at : Panshan, Liaoning (遼寧省盤山縣) in 1986.


The seal inscription comprises four or five Khitan large characters in two columns, two or three characters in the first (righthand) column, and two in the second (lefthand) column.

The first character is the same as the first character in Seal A2, possibly the Khitan version of the Chinese character 都 "metropolitan". The remaining character (or characters) on the first column are too unclear to be identified, but it is a very similar inscription to that of Seal A2.

The last two characters of the seal inscription are *-un doro "seal of ...".



Seal A4

Wen Wu 文物 1984.09 p.83.


Found at : Fengcheng, Liaoning (遼寧省鳳城縣) in 1964.

Present Location : Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang


The seal inscription comprises six Khitan large characters in two columns, four characters in the first (righthand) column, and two in the second (lefthand) column.

The second character elsewhere only occurs as the first element in the collocation , of uncertain reading and meaning, that may be an unknown Khitan word for Liao or an epithet specifically refering to the Khitan state (see Kane 2009 pp.162–165 for discussion of the corresponding term in the Khitan Small script). The word occurs in monumental inscriptions as well as in the recently identified Khitan codex (see Viacheslav P. Zaytsev, Рукописная книга большого киданьского письма из коллекции Института восточных рукописей РАН [A Manuscript Codex in the Khitan Large Script from the Collection of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, Russian Academy of Sciences] (2011) pp. 143–146).

  • "[...]" [Epitaph for the Grand Prince of the North line 19]
  • "Great [...] State" (大□□國) [Epitaph for Yelü Qi line 1]
  • "Great Central [...] Khitan State" (大中央□□契丹國) [Nova N 176]

The character following is definitely not . However, the preceding character (i.e. the first character of the seal inscription) could conceivably be a seal script form of , but that would give a reversed form of the unknown word, which seems a little implausible. I am unsure of what standard Khitan characters the two characters which actually follow correspond to.

The last two characters of the seal inscription are *-un doro "seal of ...", as expected.



Seal A5


Present Location : Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang


The seal inscription comprises five Khitan large characters in two columns, three characters in the first (righthand) column, and two in the second (lefthand) column.

The first character *fu is commonly used to transliterate Chinese characters pronounced fu (see Seal A2). The second character is read *u (cf. Seal A1 second character), and the two characters together (*fu.u) can be used to transliterate the Chinese word 副 "vice, deputy":

  • "Vice Marshal" (副元師) [Epitaph for Yelü Qi lines 4 and 5]

I cannot identify the standard Khitan large character form of the third character, but presumably it is a title that is preceded by "vice". The last two characters of the seal inscription are the standard *-un doro "seal of ...".



Seal A6

Wen Wu 文物 1961.09 p.64.


Found at : Zhelimumeng Naimanqi, Inner Mongolia (内蒙古自治區哲里木盟奈曼旗) in 1957.

Present Location : Museum of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot (内蒙古自治區博物館).


The seal inscription comprises five or six Khitan large characters in two columns, three characters in the first (righthand) column, and two or three in the second (lefthand) column.

The standard form of the first character in the seal inscription is uncertain.

The standard Khitan form of the second character looks like the simplifed form of the Chinese character 來 (来) lái "come", but is probably unrelated. It is a commonly occuring character in memorial inscriptions, but its meaning and reading are uncertain. It is possibly used to transliterate the Chinese character 都 , as in the collocation which Liu Fengzhu 劉鳳翥 equates with the official title 都尉 dōu wèi "Commandant" (Epitaph for Yelü Qi line 6). Sun Bojun 孫伯君 equates the collocation that occurs in several inscriptions as the official titles 御史 yù shǐ "Commissioner" and 都統 dū tǒng "Commander-in-Chief" ("蒙古國肯特省契丹大字刻石考釋"; Shije Minzu 世界民族 2006.4: 44–52), which seems unlikely to me as single Khitan large characters are not normally used to transliterate polysyllabic Chinese words.

The third character is *fu is commonly used to transliterate Chinese characters pronounced fu (see Seals A2 and A5). In this context it probably corresponds to the Chinese character 府 "prefecture", and if the preceding character does correspond to the Chinese character 都 then the only possible reading for the first three characters of the seal is Yōudū fǔ 幽都府 "Youdu Prefecture", which was the name of the prefecture for the Southern Capital (modern Beijing) between 938 and 1012.

The final two characters are *-un doro "seal of ..." (之印). The genitive particle is written oddly, with the two dot-strokes joined together, and an anomalous extra horizontal line at the top. This may just be an unusual way of writing the character, with an extra couple of lines to fill up space, but given that Seal A7 has the same strokes before the genitive particle as well, but at the bottom of the preceding column, it seems more likely that that in this case the top part of the second column is a ligature of an unidentified Khitan character and .



Seal A7


The seal inscription comprises five Khitan large characters in two columns, three characters in the first (righthand) column, and two in the second (lefthand) column.

The first character of the inscription is probably the same as the first character of Seal A6, although they are not identical. The second character, , is the same as the second character of Seal A6. The third character is not *fu, as in Seal A6, but it is very similar to the anomalous strokes at the top of the second column of Seal A6. This character might be the title of an official, and could be written as in the standard style of Khitan large script, although no such character is known.

The final two characters are *-un doro "seal of ..." (之印), so the inscription on this seal is nearly identical to that on Seal A6, just missing the character *fu.



B. Other Seals

The seals below are a mixed bunch whose defining feature is just that they are not typical ninefold seal script official seals, although most of them still have the appearance of being official seals. The inscriptions on theses seals are not easy to read, and it is not certain that they are all written in the Khitan large script.


Seal B1

Wen Wu 文物 1983.08 p.82.


Found at : Balin Youqi, Inner Mongolia (内蒙古自治區巴林右旗) in 1973.

Present Location : Chifeng Museum (赤峰市博物館).


The seal inscription appears to consist of eight characters in two columns (four characters in each column). The characters are written in seal script calligraphy, but not the convoluted ninefold seal script form. The inscription can be identified as being in the Khitan large script as the 3rd and 7th characters are the Khitan large script genitive particle *-un. However, the other characters are not easily identifiable, and the last character (following the second genitive particle) is not the standard Khitan large character for "seal", so the inscription does not read "Seal of ...".



Seal B2

Wen Wu 文物 1983.09 p.70.


Found at : Jianchang, Liaoning (遼寧省建昌縣) in 1980.


The seal inscription appears to consist of six characters in two columns (three characters in each column). The characters are written in a rather loose ninefold seal script calligraphy, not typical of the formal ninefold seal script calligraphy of the A seals. Moreover, none of the characters are the same as those used in the A seals.



Seal B3

Liaoling Shike Jilu 遼陵石刻集錄 vol.5.


The seal inscription appears to consist of six characters in two columns (three characters in each column). The characters are written in a seal script calligraphy, although not the ninefold seal script calligraphy of the A seals.



Seal B4

Wen Wu 文物 1984.09 p.83.


Found at : Gaixian, Liaoning (遼寧省蓋縣) in 1972.

Present Location : Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang


The inscription on this seal is in a seal script calligraphy. It has been identified as a Khitan small script seal, but I am not convinced of this.



Seal B5

Zeno Oriental Coins Database #36834


Found at : Site of the Liao Upper Capital (上京) at Balin Zuoqi, Inner Mongolia (内蒙古自治區巴林左旗) in 1975.

Present Location : Toqto Museum (托克托市博物館)


This is a pottery seal, which is very unusual as official seals are normally made of bronze. The inscription on the seal is in ninefold seal script calligraphy, but it is very hard to identify any characters or even determine how many characters there are meant to be. It does not look at all like any other Khitan large script seal inscription I have seen, and if it were not for its provenience I would doubt that it was a Khitan seal at all.



Seal B6

Mirror image of the seal face

Artxun: 契丹 铜制官印



There are a huge number and variety of fake Khitan-inscribed coins and artefacts for sale on the internet and through Chinese auction houses, so I am naturally reluctant to include in this post random seals that I have found on the internet. However Seals B6 and B7 are very different from the typical fake Khitan objects that can be found on the internet, and I think it is possible that they are genuine. They are very similar in appearance, and if they are genuine I suspect they must have been found together (as is normal with Chinese auctions, no provenance is provided, and we are left to guess that they are either modern forgeries or were robbed from a tomb).

The seal inscription comprises six Khitan large script characters in two columns (three characters per column), in a rather uncouth seal script calligraphy. The third character is (also written ) "big". The fifth and sixth characters are *-un doro "seal of ...".



Seal B7

Mirror image of the seal face

Artxun: 契丹 铜制官印



The seal inscription comprises six Khitan large script characters in two columns (three characters per column), in a similar seal script calligraphy as Seal B6. The third character is *fu, the fourth character is "big". The last character could be a badly written form of the character *doro "seal", although it is not preceded by a genitive particle as is normally the case.



Table of Khitan Ninefold Seal Script Characters

Seal Character Glyphs Standard Form Meaning
"Seal" *doro (Chinese 印). This character has also been normalized as in academic studies, but that character form does not occur in memorial inscriptions.
Genitive particle *-un (Chinese 之) for stems ending in -u or -w.
Used to transcribe Chinese characters pronounced fu, including 府, 夫, 父, 副, 傅.
  Possibly used to transcribe the Chinese character 都 .
    "Six" (Chinese 六).
    Variant form of (see below).
    "Division" or "group" (Chinese 院), as in the collocation 六院 "six divisions" or "six groups".
   
  Possibly corresponds to the Chinese character 都 in official titles.
    Second element in a collocation that may be an unknown Khitan word for Liao or an epithet specifically refering to the Khitan state.
  Possibly transliterates Chinese 幽 yōu.