Shi Jinbo, male, born in March 1940, is a native of Gaobeidian City, Hebei Province. He graduated from the department of languages and literature of the Minzu College of China (currently Minzu University of China) and was admitted to the Institute of Ethnology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences as a postgraduate student who majors in the Tangut script. He graduated in 1966. He was director of the history lab of IEL in 1982, vice researcher in 1983 and researcher in 1988. He became a member of the Academic committee of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2002 and was elected as a one of the 1st group of Members of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2006. He is currently a researcher of the Institute of Ethnic Literature, professor and PhD student advisor of the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a member of the National Committee of Cultural Relics, and vice director of the Protection of Ancient Books Expert Committee. He is also a member of the Chinese History Association, the vice director of the Institute of China’s Southwestern Nationalities, and an honorary member of the Religious Society of China. He is a part-time professor of Ningxia University. In 1990, he won the “Young and Mid-aged Expert with Outstanding Contribution” Award. He has been engaged in nationality research for nearly 50 years; his academic fields are the history of the Tangut language, Chinese nationality history and Chinese national ancient scripts.
Major Academic Works
The Culture of Western Xia Regime. Jilin Education Publishing House, 1986.
A Brief History of the Buddhism in Western Xia Regime. Ningxia People’s Publishing House, 1988.
The Publishing Studies of Western Xia Regime. Ningxia People’s Publishing House, 2004.
Shi Jinbo Anthology. Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House, 2007.
The Society of Western Xia Regime. Shanghai People's Publishing House, 2007.
Studies on Wenhai Chinese dictionary. China Social Sciences Press,1983
The Relics of Western Xia Regime. Cultural Relics Publishing House, 1988
The Study on Lei Lin. Ningxia People’s Publishing House, 1993
The Tiansheng Statue of Western Xia Regime. Beijing Science Publishing House, 1994
The Military History of Western Xia Regime. Sichuan Nationalities Publishing House,1997
The Russian Literature Unearthed in KharaKhoto. Shanghai Chinese Classics Publishing House, 1996-2006.
The Current Situation and Future of Chinese Ethnical Minorities-Li Nationality in Zhaojue County，Liangshan Prefecture. Ethnic Publishing House, 1999
Studies on the Tibetan Human Rights. China Tibetology Press & China Social Sciences Press, 1999
The Invention and Dissemination of Chinese movable-type printing-Studies on that of Tangut and Uighur Scripts. Social Sciences Academic Press, 2000
Studies on the Computerized Wenhai Chinese Dictionary. Japanese National Institute of Afro-asian Language and Culture, 2000
Chinese Literature about the Western Xia Regime. Gansu People’s Publishing House & Dunhuang culture press, 2005-2007.
In total, he has published up to 202 academic papers and 23 academic books (joint works included).
Take Root in the Perilous Peak, Stand in the Green Mountains Steadily like a Pine Tree
Su Hang (Su for short below)：We can always find clues behind a person success from their personal growing experience, would you please first briefly outline your growing journey during your adolescent period? I think many young scholars like me are bound to learn some valuable life and academic experiences from it.
Shi Jinbo (Shi for short below): I was born into an ordinary peasant family in Gaobeidian city in the south of Zhuozhou, and my parents are from Zhuozhou city, Hebei. They are quite hard-working and sincere and had no hesitation in supporting us five children to go to school when the local people were too poor to pay much attention to education, at the time of liberation, thus I fortunately got the opportunity to take the path of academic research in the future.
After graduating from senior high school, I was enrolled by the Department of Philology of the Minzu Academy of China, learning the Yi language. Under the patient oral and written instruction of the teachers of both the Han and Li nationality, I began to read and recite words, sentences and texts of the Yi language almost everyday. In the beginning, I felt curious but it was difficult because many sounds of the Yi language have no equivalents in Mandarin. But in order to learn it well, I would spend several hours in reviewing and reading after class, in addition to the great efforts of listening, reading and memorizing in class, so that I often got a husky voice and dry mouth.
In the unforgettable internship experience I went to Liangshan Prefecture, Sichuan province in 1960 and 1961. Slavery was not abolished in that place until 1957 so that its productivity was extremely low at that time. Although the cruel slavery was finally abolished and slaves gained freedom and became their own masters after the democratic revolution, their living conditions were so poor that I was deeply shocked despite the fact that I came from countryside, surviving all sorts of hardships. What’s worse, the national financial problems inevitably affected their living situation. Due to the relatively low temperature and short period for growing crops in the Liangshan hinterland, the local people took potatoes as their staple food. They had boiled potatoes with pepper soup twice a day, except for festivals or marriage and funeral ceremonies. At that time everybody was so hungry that all interns got edema, but we still tried to make full use of every opportunity to acquire the Yi language from the host’s living room, their fields, and meetings of all kinds, such as their marriage and funeral ceremonies. At the end of the internship, I could speak the Yi language fluently and act as an interpreter for the county deputy conference held by the local government.
Su: Since you got used to studying hard in spite of extreme hardship in the early years, you laid a solid foundation for your academic career. You only spent several years studying at school and half a year on the internship before working as an interpreter for the deputy conference, so undoubtedly you have great language talent and study very hard. Since the start was good, why did you turn to learning the Tangut (Xixia) language instead of going on with the Yi language major?
Shi: Actually, this change had something to do with my experience of learning Yi, because Professor Wang Jingru, my master’s supervisor, thought that these two languages are closely related to each other, and selected postgraduates learning Yi. As I was about to graduate from college, Professor Ma Xueliang, a well-known linguist and the director of Language Department, and Yi Xianpei, the secretary of our department, encouraged our class to register for the postgraduate entrance examination of the Tangut Language of the Institute of Ethnology in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, enrolling only one student. At that time I was very young and wanted to further my study, so I got full support from my family regardless of any pains and difficulty. In the end, I fortunately achieved my goal and became a postgraduate in the Tangut language major. Since then I have been engaged in Western Xia research for my whole lifetime.
Su: Currently I have just began my Tangut language research, and have found it especially difficult, because it is written in characters like Chinese instead of alphabetic words, with a large numbers of words in a more complicated form than that of Chinese. Speaking of our mother tongue - Chinese, although we learn it since childhood and have the basic language foundation, we still have to spend many years practicing it to learn it well. As for learning the Tangut language, an obsolete and complicated language, without having any linguistic foundation, you must have undergone a lot of hardship, didn’t you？
Shi: Absolutely, I began learning the Tangut language during my postgraduate year. At that time, the experts in this field, both domestic and international, knew the meaning of no more than the half of the 6000 Western Xia words. Besides, there were many key problems with its grammar, and nobody had ever translated any long works written in this language throughout the world. Under the instruction of my supervisor, I tried to learn its form, pronunciation and meaning by means of coping the works in the language. My supervisor asked me to copy a book with a Chinese translation, which was found in the relics of the KharaKhoto. This book is the best reference book for learning the Tangut language because it corresponds to a Western Xia-Chinese dictionary. Although these two languages both use semantic characters, their words and grammars are totally different, especially the usage of functional words. Thus, I had to memorize many obscure words and master its grammar before having a correct understanding of the language. In the beginning, I didn't know how to deal with those strange words. So I learned and memorized the words one by one, as if I were starting to learn Chinese at primary school, and spent most of the time on the language by taking notes while reading and writing. As a result, the more I knew about it, the more interesting it became. At the end of the first semester, I could proficiently master over 1000 words and completed a paper about its grammar even though I had limited material. Later I gradually became so familiar with the language that I could translate some simple source texts into Chinese, and I found some underlying rules. I felt quite accomplished, because the obsolete language which was only accessible to a few experts could finally be interpreted.
In 1996, I was fortunate to join the study group of the Western Xia caves in Dunhuang, organized by Chang Shuhong, the director of the Dunhuang cultural relics institute, and by Professor Wang Jingru, to work on an on-the-spot investigation. It was generally thought that there were only seven to eight Western Xia caves among the Dunhuang and Anxi caves, but Mr. Chang and Mr. Wang didn’t agree, because the Western Xia regime had ruled Dunhuang for almost two centuries. Therefore, they organized the study group. At that time, the living and working condition at the institute were rather poor. It was very inconvenient to climb up and down, because the guardrails around the caves were still under construction. What’s worse, the water from the Danghe River was not soft water, and it tasted bitter and could lead to diarrhea. During the three years working there, I often got diarrhea. However, all these sufferings seemed like nothing compared with the sense of excitement and fortune of working at Dunhuang, an important world cultural heritage site.
My job was to copy and translate the inscriptions in the Tangut language in the caves. So I carefully looked for them in every cave and wrote them down. After translating hundreds of inscriptions, I found that there was some hard evidence for confirming the age of the caves. After making an analysis of those inscriptions and comparing a variety of cave paintings in terms of their artistic styles and features, the study group came to the new conclusion that there should be over eighty Western Xia caves among the two groups of caverns. This surprising conclusion presented to the world a large number of Western Xia caverns, paintings and statues and radically changed academic circle’s view about the layout of the Dunhuang caverns. All these achievements not only made a great contribution to the research on Dunhuang, but also enriched the study of Western Xia . It was the first time that I had translated the Tangut language, so I came to realize the significance of translation in Western Xia research, and strengthened my confidence and motivation in further studying the language. Since we worked closely with the Dunhuang relics institute, we had the keys to the door of every cavern. Looking back on those days when I was steeped in the Dunhuang art all day long, I think that every day was fairly full and meaningful.
Su: You studied the Tangut language in a manner just as hard-working and tough as you had done for the Yi language, thus you soon made a new breakthrough in your study and laid a solid language foundation. Soon after that, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) broke out and had a large impact on academic research. Were your academic studies held up because of it?
Shi: The Cultural Revolution greatly affected the academic researchers throughout the nation, including me. When I was preparing for my thesis in 1965, I was assigned to join the Socialist Education Movement. Before the movement was ended, the Cultural Revolution broke out and my study was cut off. In 1970, I was delegated to work as a mason in a cadre school in Henan province. After Lin Biao (the person who conspired to start of the Cultural Revolution) was dead, I speculated that China ought to recover from the chaos, and academic research would improve sooner or later. Therefore I took the opportunity of visiting my relatives to bring two books on the Tangut language to the school, and ventured to read them in my bed within a mosquito net every night.
After returning to Beijing in 1972, I began collecting materials and doing research on the Tangut language in my spare time. On the one hand, I tried to look for studies by experts from the Soviet Union and Japan to get a feel for the research abroad. On the other hand, I wrote down the material on thousands of small cards and compiled my own Tangut language dictionary.
The Beijing Library boasted the richest Western Xia documents in China, but any readers were required to have a letter of recommendation proving that they had taken part in the “Anti-Lin Biao and anti-Confucius” campaign to have access to its resources. I got the letter from the propaganda team and then spent about three months in reading and sorting out over one hundred pieces of documents. At last, I wrote down all the material on my cards and took pictures of some documents so that I broaden my horizon and achieve a better comprehension of Tangut grammar. Besides, I also went to many other places, like the China History Museum and the library of Science Academy, to search for materials about the Western Xia Empire. In 1974, I published my first paper on the Archeology Journal after making textual criticisms and an explanation about the Tangut literature. The “underground study” during those days paved the way for subsequent research. It is a pity that the Cultural Revolution wasted my valuable time, but I am still very fortunate to have been able to spare four to five years for my academic research.
In 1975, our institute resumed operation after suffering from the Cultural Revolution. While I was assisting the former director in organizing research about ethnic minority history, I officially engaged myself in Western Xia research undertakings together with my colleague——Bai Bin. We heard of the news that a Western Xia stone inscription was found in Baoding city, Hebei province, so Bai Bin and I went there to conduct an on-the-spot investigation. We made a survey of the temple relics, visited the local people and took pictures of the stone inscription at the Lotus Pool Park before returning to Beijing to do translation and textual research. It turned out to have been built by the offspring of the Western Xia living there about two hundred years after the Western Xia regime perished. The fruits of the investigation and research extended the history of the descendants of the Western Xia nationality to the middle age of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
After premier Zhou Enlai passed away in 1976, the “Fighting against the Right Deviation” movement was soon launched by the Gang of Four (the four people who plotted the Cultural Revolution in 1966, i.e. Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen.). Bai Bin and I took the opportunity to conduct field research about the Western Xia Empire. We started in Beijing, went across Taiyuan city, Xi’an city, Yan’an city and finally arrived at the ancient site of the Western Xia nationality and Blackwater city ruins. Along the way, we discovered a large number of rare antiques, such as coins, the horse command brands for the use of emperor and the emperors’ illuminated manuscripts as well as a monument engraved by the descendants of the Western Xia nationality among the stepping stones of Jiuquan city, Gansu. Besides, we also visited a lot of historical relics, such as the Li Ji stockade village in Mizhi County, the Xiazhou relics in Jingbian County, the Chengtian temple and pagoda and the Western Xia cemetery in Yinchuan City, the Baishigou twin tower at the foot of Helan mountain, the pagoda group of 108 off the coast of the Bronze valley of the Yellow river, the Shengguicheng relics with a lot of antiques, the magnificent Xiashan cavern in Xiaxigou village, the Budhha temple in Zhangye City and so on.
We not only investigated these cultural relics and read material found amongst the Western Xia ruins, museums, relics management center and libraries, but also went to the local salvage stations to rummage through the bags of waste for relevant relics. Under the circumstance of “Breaking the Old Fours” (i.e. the old beliefs, culture, customs and life styles), we could always find dedicated cultural relics. For example, we once found an exquisite bronze mirror of the Tang dynasty at a salvage station in Ningxia before sending it to the museum. Occasionally we found some coins in piles of waste metal, at the cost of injured fingers. In conclusion, we felt extremely excited to find so much first-hand material, and gratified with colleting a lot of historic material and coming into close contact with Western Xia culture.
Su: The Cultural Revolution had indeed resulted in a great loss to both scholars and the whole academic field, but you did not halt your research, instead you made a series of achievements which enabled studies on Western Xia to keep growing, which is really inspiring and makes it worthwhile for the following generation to learn from you. Through decades of hard work, you have achieved a lot, so could you give a brief introduction to your academic achievements?
Shi: Speaking of my research, I was mainly involved in the study of the Tangut words and grammar in the early years. Over the past years, the Tangut word-formation has been a hot topic for scholars home and abroad. Since the “Radical Theory” was initiated in early twentieth century, many scholars tried to approach the Tangut word-formation from the radicals constituting the words, but this theory was still not comprehensive and even rather far-fetched. During the late period of the Cultural Revolution, I read the Wenhai Chinese dictionary published by the Soviet Union, with all the photocopies of the inscribed version in Tangut included. The Wenhai Chinese dictionary, also called the Language Treasure, was written in the middle of the twelfth century. It is a book of phonology with the features of two dictionaries, namely, Analytical Dictionary of Characters and Rhymes. It was reputed as the most systematic and comprehensive Tangut dictionary, for it contained specific explanations for the form, pronunciation and meaning of every term classified by its pronunciation and rhyme. Besides, it is also considered to be an encyclopedia of Western Xia society to some extent, and provided the essential and basic material for various subjects related to the Western Xia nationality, since it involves almost every aspect of the society. Having realized the importance of the book, I set about translating it into Chinese and completed the first manuscript several years later. My colleagues, Bai Bin and Huang Zhenhua, later joined this translation project. We used an advanced electronic scanner to scan the ten translation treaties on wax paper, and then made thirty copies by means of a stencil duplicating machine. Afterwards, we cut every entry into thousands of small cards corresponding to a single term each and made an index. In this way, we could retrieve any word no mater how frequently it appeared, and it was helpful to modify its form and confirm its meaning, therefore increasing our level of understanding.
After five years of effort, Studies on Wenhai finally got published in 1983 after being modified several times. With reference to the large quantity of materials and Wenhai, I made an analysis and generalization of thousands of Western Xia characters to propose a character formation system. Based on over sixty formation methods, I arrived at a conclusion that the word formation was carried out mainly through semantic and alphabetic compounds, and partly through semantic with alphabetic compounds, indirect alphabetic compounds, resection compounds and long syllables compounds. Apart from that, there were still a small number of interchangeable characters, Ambigram, pictographic character and pointer characters. This new character formation system made a great impact on this field of study and has been adopted in many subsequent works and important exhibitions related to the Tangut language.
Though you may understand the characters, it is still very hard to translate the documents written in the Tangut language without a good knowledge of its grammar. The Tangut language and Chinese both belong to the Tibetan language family, but they belong to different branches with different grammars. Some grammatical phenomena in the Tangut language are quite complicated, for instance, there is more than one verb to be, and you cannot distinguish them until you completely know their styles and usage. After pondering over thousands of sentences and referring to other ethnic minority languages with a variety of verbs for the concept “to be” like the Yi language, I made a summary of the various categories of verbs to be and proposed their differences and usage in a paper entitled The Verbs of Being in the Tangut language, and thus I gave a reasonable explanation for the seemingly confusing grammatical phenomena.
Through research on the Tangut vocabulary and grammar, my understanding of it constantly grew, so I began translating, examining and interpreting some literature written in the West Xia language without Chinese translations, such as the translation of the rare six-page prayer manuscript related to the history of Buddhist scripture, and Lei Lin, the encyclopedia of the Tang Dynasty, etc.. My colleagues Huang Zhenhua and Nie Hongyin and I translated the Lei Lin, which was unearthed at KharaKhoto, into Chinese, and the Chinese version was finally published in 1993.
During the process of literature translation, the Tiansheng Statute, the first set of laws written in an ethnic minority language, issued during the period between 1149 and 1169, was the most difficult piece to translate. It includes twenty volumes, 150 chapters, 1461 provisions and up to 200000 characters, so it was regarded as the most elaborate law of the ancient times. It involves laws related to every aspect of contemporary life, such as criminal law, prosecution law, administrative law, civil law, economic law and military law. Therefore, it has played an important role not only in research into law history, but also in many other academic fields, such as Western Xia society, economy, military, etc. Its great academic value inspired us to brave all kinds of difficulty in order to crack it.
The translation of the statute called for competence in translating the Tangut language as well as a good knowledge of laws. I began learning Chinese legal history while reading some traditional Chinese statute classics like the statutes of the Tang Dynasty, the Song Dynasty and the Yuan Dynasty. When I translated the original statute together with my colleagues and made annotations, I also consulted the experts of the law institute and took some related courses. At last the Chinese version of the Tiansheng Statue was published in 1994, and later a revised edition was republished.
The Chinese version of the Tiansheng Statute still has some limitations and needs more modifications, but our translation work has solved most basic problems. The Yuan Dynasty compiled the history of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Liao Dynasty (907-1125) and the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), but they didn’t record Western Xia history, thus there is little historical material about the Western Xia Regime. Now the Tiansheng Statute has filled in the blank. The readers can at least achieve a comprehensive and basic understanding of this important historical data through our Chinese version. At present many experts can refer to this book and undertake some research that could not be done in the past because of lack of material. As far as Tangutology is concerned, our work is bound to promote its rapid development.
Based on translation and research on literature, I have finished a comprehensive study on a large scale. For example, in an attempt to fully use the material recorded by the Western Xia people themselves and present a clear and true picture of Western Xia culture to the readers, I wrote a book called The Culture of the Western Xia Regime with reference to some new information from the literature, Chinese historical material and the unearthed relics. This book proposes some fresh views and makes a summary of the culture’s features by exploring these problems in specific classifications such as its language, religious belief, political system, literature and art, science and technology and social customs.
I also wrote a book about the culture’s religion, called The Brief History of Buddhism in the Western Xia Regime. For the first time, it gave a whole picture of Buddhism, the dominant religion in the Western Xia Dynasty, and made a specific study of various aspects, such as its administrative system, the rules and processes for Buddhist translation, its dissemination, etc. As I based myself on other scholars’ statements, I mistakenly took the administrative organization of Daoism for that of Buddhism, but I made corrections in the revised version republished by the Taiwan Commercial Press. As a result, scholars in academic circles came to realize the fact that there was a Daoist administrative institution in the Western Xia Dynasty.
Based on materials from the KharaKhoto, I also made a relatively deep research into the history of Chinese printing. We found much literature in the form of various movable types when collecting material in Russia, and more were successively found domestically. These are the earliest movable-type printings found anywhere in the world. Since realizing the extraordinary significance of these documents, I set about studying them carefully and published several papers successively. Afterwards, Yasen Wushou’er (Uygur), my colleague and I carried out an important project for our institute and worked together to published a book, The Invention and Early Dissemination of Chinese Movable-type Printing in 2000. Based on the real printings and the records of Chinese documents, this book revealed the fact that Han people and ethnic minorities had made a great contribution to the development and spread of printing technology and objectively defended the inventiveness of our nation.
In 2000, I found several pages of Chinese remains in table form. After repeated investigation, I found they were printed in movable type, but could not figure out the exact time. In order to find out the truth, I referred to many documents, learned a complex calendar system and went out of my way to consult the experts in this field——Professor Deng Wenkuang and Professor Chen Jiujin. At last, I tried to identify the exact time with my limited material and wrote a paper about it after over half a year’s efforts. The remains turned out to be the earliest movable-type printing in the Western Xia Dynasty, and they represent a crucial physical evidence of Chinese printing history.
When we set out to Saint Petersburg to collect the data about KharaKhoto for the fourth time, we collected and made photographs of the unearthed Tibetan documents before surprisingly discovering many ancient inscriptions. After making analyses and consulting Huang Mingxin, a Tibetologist, I wrote a paper, Study of the Earliest Tibetan Xylographic Books, illustrating that these books were printed around the time of the Western Xia Dynasty, two centuries earlier than the Tibetan Buddhist canon of the Ming Dynasty Yongle period (1403 ~ 1425), therefore they proved to be the most valuable Tibetan documents and the earliest ones discovered at present.
Due to the shortage of historical material, the study on the Western Xia dynasty depends much on related cultural relics and on-the-spot investigations. In 1988, the pictures we had collected through many investigations were brought into full play in the publication of the book named The Cultural Relics of the Western Xia Regime, including eight subjects, i.e. architecture, painting, inscriptions on ancient bronzes and stone tablets, cast, bamboo and wooden wares, ceramics, secular literature and Buddhist literature, together with more than four hundred illustration plates of cultural relics and detailed annotations. Thus it equipped the scholars with more visual data.
One controversy in this study field attracting the interest of scholars throughout the world is whether the offspring of the Western Xia Empire survived, since the ethnic majority Dangxiang nationality has been distinct for such a long time. In order to figure it out, I searched for information and finally found that Yu Que, a successful candidate in the highest imperial examinations of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), is a typical representative of the Western Xia descendants. I first read the biography of Yu Que in The History of Yuan Dynasty, and then made a reference to his anthology, the local chronicles and other materials, and as a result clues were found to prove that his descendants still lived in Hefei City, Anhui Province during the Emperor Guangxu Years (1875-1908). Afterwards, Wu Feng, my colleague and I went there to carry out an investigation. After many setbacks, we finally found thousands of Western Xia descendants and two volumes of the Yu family’s genealogy in Hefei city and Anqing city. It is the first time that the offspring of the Western Xia people have been located with precision.
In recent years, the publication of Western Xia literature has greatly promoted the development of its study. In 1909, the tsarist Russian expedition carried away most of the remaining literature and cultural relics from the KharaKhoto ruins in China. I once paid a short visit to the Soviet Union in 1987 for the major purpose of consulting the Western Xia literature at the Orientalism Institute of Leningrad (St.Petersburg). The ancient books and records of the Western Xia Dynasty were stored in twelve big and high bookcases with over eight thousand numbers, and rare collections of a fairly high academic value. In spite of some published documents, most of the valuable ones were still unknown to the world. Therefore I was caught up with a strong desire to make the scholars all over the world have accesses to those documents stored up in Russia. In 1992, our department entrusted me with this task and I received an officially positive reply from director Peteroseyong and deputy director Kekanov of the St.Petersburg Orientalism Institute, who agreed to work together with me to compile and publish all the documents stored within their institute. By the spring of 1993, I signed the cooperation agreement with the St.Petersburg Orientalism Institute and the Shanghai Chinese Classics Publishing House on behalf of our institute.
According to the agreement, I would lead a delegation to Russia with the aim of arranging, recording and photographing the documents for a total of four times from 1993 to 2000, staying two or three months each time. We carefully read them, investigated them and then recorded and made photographs of them. With great efforts of arrangement and editing, we have published twelve volumes out of the total thirty volumes of Russian Literature from Peteroseyon. The publication of these ancient books not only brought back ancient books and records lost overseas, but also provided our study with large quantities of material to realize the dreams of several generations.
Su: Apart from your many academic achievements, you are also concerned with the development of ethnic regions and have published lots of related reports and papers after careful investigations. Could you talk about this?
Shi: When I went to work as an intern in Liangshan Prefecture in the 1960s, I was deeply moved by the plain and hardworking people of the Yi nationality and for the first time I realized that there were such poor and backward places in China. But the local people were so tenacious and confident that I felt a heavy responsibility as an ethnic worker.
The investigation on the conditions and development of Chinese ethnical minorities was launched in 1993. At that time, I was responsible for the organization of the investigation and appointed as the group leader of this region. The investigation was carried out in Zhaojue County, adjacent to Liangshan Prefecture. Since I had not spoken the Yi language for a long time, I could only remember some daily expression. I talked with the local people and made questionnaires in the Li language, so they felt surprised and friendly. Great changes had taken place in the Yi region during the past thirty years, with increased productivity and life quality. However, the Liangshan area was seriously limited by its past and made little progress. Most counties of Liangshan Prefecture were still listed as national or provisional poverty-stricken ones, and especially some mountain areas were so poor that they ate potatoes twice a day. We paid a visit to every household of the county, and tried to find out their actual condition and the reasons behind their poverty. With some complementary investigations, we finally published a book about the study on the condition and development of the Li nationality in Zhaojue County. In order to reflect the reality of the Li area and find ways to get rid of poverty, I also wrote some investigative reports. Frankly speaking, these reports mainly pointed out the existing problems and expressed my sincere affection towards my fellow Li people. Having been to Tibet to do investigation for two times with my colleagues, we wrote two books, i.e. Studies on Tibetan Human Rights and the Selected Reference of the Study on Tibetan Human Rights.
We often talk about building a well-off society and a harmonious society, but can the society become really harmonious without well-off ethnic minority regions? Currently, some people only care about the developed regions because their investments will get big rewards. But few pay attention to the remote and border areas because they would probably sustain losses in business. Therefore as an ethnic worker, I should be concerned about them more and help our government to think out measures through investigation and study. This is another kind of knowledge!
Su: Since you have made great contributions in many fields, what are you working on now?
Shi: At present, I’m working on the arrangement, translation and research of social documents written in cursive Tangut characters. When arranging those documents in Russia during 1997 and 2000, I discovered more new materials for our study by disclosing 110 boxes of literature with over 1500 documents involving census registers, account registers, army copies, contracts, lawsuit papers, accusation papers and correspondences, etc. But most of the documents were written in cursive script, so it was difficult to recognize them, let alone conduct translation and research about them. I tried my best to understand those characters and came to a summary of its regular patterns, and as a result I developed a better understanding of them. The research of social documents opened a new field for me, because it meant that I had to study materials related to Chinese economy and history including the census register, rent and tax, business, etc. and I needed a better knowledge of the unearthed documents and their study circumstance. Having made interpretations of the documents for about ten years, I have compiled a directory draft of the social documents and written several papers to explore the economy of the Western Xia society.
Su: When you once wrote cursive Tangut characters on the blackboard, I found that the cursive characters really looked different from those of the regular script. How could you indentify the cursive script?
Shi: The cursive script indeed differs greatly from regular script, so it takes far more time to interpret a character. However, the Classics of Filial Piety, written in cursive Tangut characters and regulated by English scholar Frid Lyngstad, can serve as a good reference to my work. The book provides the basic information for the interpretation of cursive Tangut characters with a Chinese version. But I need much more than that. That is because on the one hand, its content is different from that of social documents; and on the other hand, its regular patterns are harder to find than in the latter for its various authors. Therefore I had to make a great deal of exploration by myself.
The research on the cursive Tangut characters is an extremely hard but important task. Now I’m already an elderly man, so I feel it urgent to make some fundamentally significant research. I would rather deal with hard subjects to lay a solid foundation for the youth than work on easy and productive tasks. Beside, as a scholar, I ought to take the challenge of hard tasks like this and make some breakthroughs. And I always stick to the principle of original and innovative research.
Su: Absolutely, in spite of the emerging “achievements” in the academic field, there is only a small proportion of really innovative research. We should learn from your principle of “cracking the hard nut” and “never deceiving others”. So which field of Tangutology do you think is promising and productive in the near future?
Shi: Multilingual cooperation will promote research on Buddhism in the Western Xia regime. Recently more and more scholars have been comparing the Buddhist literature in the Tangut script with that found in the Tibetan, Chinese and Uighur scripts, and this promising method will strengthen research. Tangutology is involved in many subjects; Tangut Buddhism for example is closely related to Tibetan Buddhism because some of the Buddhist Scriptures are translations of Tibetan versions, and many Tibetan Scriptures were unearthed in KharaKhoto. As I mentioned in the Brief History of Buddhism in Western Xia Dynasty Tibetan Buddhism played a crucial role in the historical Western Xia Regime, and in turn the latter also contributed to the prosperity of Tibetan Buddhism. For instance, Tibetan Buddhism gained much cultural improvement during the process of its dissemination to the Western Xia Regime, so that it laid a solid foundation for its spreading to the eastern region during the Yuan Dynasty (1271~1368). That’s why I always put my emphasis on the significance of combining Tibetology with Tangutology, and promoting the mutual infiltration of the two research fields. I’m convinced that research on Buddhism in the Western Xia regime is bound to scale new heights.
Another promising field is the interpretation of the social documents of the Western Xia regime. For example, I have got a different view from the past about the grass roots of the society. Looking at the past, it is hard to tell how the lower class communities operated with only a few materials available. Though we may refer to the detailed provisions in the statute book, we still lack specific materials because these provisions did not reflect the social reality. Nowadays we can compare the available social documents with the statute book only to find richer content in the documents For example, the social documents can uniquely reflect the structure of the country and the way farmers paid taxes or handed in grains. There are in total over 1500 social documents including partial and complete ones, with a date on some of them. With about 100 census registers and 200 to 300 military documents, we can almost get a comprehensive picture of Western Xia society and reconstruct its history.
The amount of literature is too big for me to complete its research alone. I have declared many times that the number of young scholars involved cannot meet the needs of the massive Western Xia research undertaking. In fact, the literature of the Western Xia regime, especially the part related to the lower classes, is more abundant than the literature of other periods like the Liao Jin and Song Dynasties, thus its research is easier. However, I often work alone in this research field, so I hope more scholars can join us. And in fact few people can translate the literature without making a reference to the Chinese version.
Su: From my personal experience, the Tangut language is indeed difficult to learn, and this may be the main reason for the shortage of translators.
Shi: Difficulty is only part of the reason, but the cause deserves our devotion. In fact, many scholars are self taught. As far as I’m concerned, I learned the language by myself because my supervisor Wang Jingru only taught me the rudiments but never offered us formal courses. This is also true of many renowned scholars both domestic and abroad. The key of learning is to persevere to the end. Some take three or four years to master the language, while some spend even more time without much success, so it is only a matter of effort.
Su: Anyway, learning the Tangut language is really not an easy thing. “Perseverance” depends much on personal willpower. If we rely on personal willpower to enter this relatively difficult field, few can succeed in the end. Is there any specific and effective way to promote the cultivation of young scholars?
Shi: Developing talents is nearly as difficult as language learning. In the past, each supervisor would only enroll one postgraduate, while each supervisor can efficiently recruit more at present. Besides, the Tangut language courses are offered in the Academy of Sinology, Renmin University of China, and this must contribute to the spread of the Tangut language and the cultivation of new talent. In the beginning, I was reluctant to offer the course because it meant great efforts without any assurance, but for the sake of young people I accepted the task in the end. Comfortingly, about twenty students insisted on learning the language, and they all studied very hard.
Su: Absolutely, these students studied so hard that some are supposed to work on research related to Tangutology. Suppose there were no such universities courses, few of the twenty students would come in to contact with Tangutology and take up the research. Thus it can be seen that personal effort is essential, but academic training and a research atmosphere is also beneficial to the cultivation of talents. In this aspect, we should learn from the academic circles of Japan. There the most important places to develop young people are various reading classes and seminars, instead of classrooms or a supervisor’s office. In these occasions, many scholars and students get together to carry out a mutual exchange on the most interesting literature or topics through discussion and reports. This kind of academic seminar held regularly not only promotes collective education, cutting the cost and uncertainty of a private one, but also improves the efficiency of education by means of collectivization, institutionalization and openness. Owing to the collective education and atmosphere, young scholars come out in succession.
Shi: I have organized such kind of seminars and it is really beneficial to the cultivation of young people. If some students want to study the Western Xia literature after the course, I will think about holding a seminar to discuss some literature and even do some research. We always emphasize personal willpower in the past, but collective education is also very useful. However personal effort is the essential thing. My research experience lies in two points: one is to devote myself to learning and research and performing real deeds. Since I chose the cause of academic research, I should always keep learning and studying so that I have to spare little time on other things. The reason why others make more achievements is because they have made more efforts. If I waste one day, that means I lost 365/1 time for research. Young people should always make full use of their time. Another thing is to learn to be thoughtful. Some outstanding people like the master of Chinese culture Wang Guowei (1877-1927) and renowned linguist and historian Chen Yinque (1890-1969), could find things out from commonly known materials because they were knowledgeable and thoughtful. Only new thought can lead to innovation.
Su: The two short expressions - “perseverance” and “delight in learning and thought” represent a summary of your past decades, and we young scholars should apply it in the practice. Since academic study is a long and painstaking journey, could you talk about the pleasure and sorrow encountered in this journey?
Shi: In the beginning, I was required to learn the Tangut language by the academy and gradually I found out that Tangutology could bring me endless daydreams because of its numerous unknown mysteries. And it is the desire to solve these mysteries that inspired me to do further research on Tangutology. When a problem is solved, I can not help feeling exciting. I still get such feelings today and they are sometimes so strong that I can not fall asleep at night. As a researcher, this may be the biggest pleasure.
I think my main sorrow originates from the problematic style of study rather than the difficulty encountered in the research process. As scholars, we are supposed to seek the truth and be indifferent to fame and wealth, however the current style of study is affected by the negative factors of society and the institutionx and leads to emerging cases of falsification and academic corruption. Thus I hope that those devoting themselves to Tangutology should be indifferent to fame and wealth and pay more attention to the significance of their research and academic foundation. On the contrary, some young scholars focus on fame and wealth instead of the language foundation. Why does the research gap between China and abroad exist? The answer lies in the abominable style of study rather than the number of talents. Young people should believe that the corrupt or abominable trends are only a fleeting phenomenon, and the down-to-earth direction is bound to be the lasting trend. Nowadays some care about nothing but how to seek money and fame. It doesn't matter if it involves only some individuals, but it can seriously affect the academic development if it involves a whole generation or the so-called experts.
Su: Since you have worked as the deputy director of the ethnicity institute, do you have any suggestions about its development in the future?
Shi: The previous advantages of our institute lay in having many experts with a good command of both ethnical languages and historical literature. But this advantage tends to be reduced because the number of talents in ethnic languages is decreasing. Western countries and Japan are superior to us in this aspect and will leave us behind if we don’t take any action. Besides, the command of ethnic languages is not only a matter of research but also a matter of passion. How can one communicates with ethnic minority people without command of their language? The lack of mutual understanding will lead to obstacles in our undertakings.
Su: I benefit a lot from this two-hour interview. Finally please talk about your expectations for young scholars.
Shi: Surely, What’s the significance of our living in this society? It lies in the beneficial things we have done, in “serving the people”. As a party member I stick to the belief in -“serving the people”. And I hope that young scholars can work hard and realize their value while making contributions to our society.
Su Hang, Han nationality, was born in Beijing in 1974. He graduated from the History Department of Beijing University in 2006 with a doctoral degree. Now he is working as an assistant researcher in the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and works concurrently as the secretary of the Chinese National History Association. His academic expertise lies in the northern ethnic history during the period of the Tang and Song dynasties, and in ethnic language literature.
(Translated by Xu Xiujun)
Editor: Wang Daohang