The History of Eighth-century Khotan as Seen from Khotanese Documents

Zhan Zhang

ISAW Visiting Research Scholar

Khotan is an oasis on the southern rim of the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, China. Viewed as an entrepôt along the “Silk Road,” Khotan is famed as a source of high-quality jade (in China) and musk (in Iran). Apart from sporadic mentioning in Chinese historical sources, however, we know next to nothing about the history of Khotan in pre-Islamic times. Fortunately, explorations and excavations in Xinjiang in the late 19th and early 20th centuries yielded a large number of manuscripts written in Khotanese, an Eastern Iranian language akin to modern Pashto in Afghanistan. These manuscripts, many of which are administrative documents directly from the offices of Khotanese officials, open up for us a rare window into the everyday life in Khotan during the late eighth century, when Chinese, Arabs, Tibetans, and Turks were all vying for supremacy in Central Asia. This lecture will take you on a journey to the world of Khotanese documents and illuminate this tumultuous time from the perspective of Khotan. In particular, the lecture will focus on a curious Judaeo-Persian (Persian written in Hebrew alphabet) letter discovered in Khotan and its implications.

ZHANG Zhan is a philologist of ancient Iranian languages, with a focus on Khotanese, an eastern-Iranian language spoken in the oasis-state of Khotan (in present-day Xinjiang, China) during the sixth to the eleventh centuries CE. He holds a Ph.D. in Iranian Studies from Harvard University (2016) and a M.A. in Indian languages and literature from Peking University (2006).

During his stay as a Visiting Research Scholar at ISAW, he will work on his first book, Khotanese LifeA Documentary History of Khotan during the sixth to the ninth centuries, in which he produces a comprehensive new edition and translation of secular Khotanese documents from Khotan arranged according to their inner logic. By listening to the voices of the local people in their own language, he elucidates various aspects of life in Khotan, such as the bureaucratic administration system, the taxation procedure, the corvée work distribution, and the convention of contracts. From these documents, Khotan emerges not as a prosperous entrepôt, as the term ‘Silk Road’ would suggest, but as a small state in a strategic location with limited resources constantly adjusting itself between Tang China and Tibet so as to retain a degree of autonomy.

Admission to lecture closes 10 minutes after scheduled start time.  

Reception to follow. 

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