Visiting Research Scholar Spotlight: Zhan Zhang


Philologists are like mountaineers. We read texts simply because they are there. I chose Khotanese texts (or, rather, they chose me?), especially the secular documents, as my mountain. These documents, dating from the seventh to the ninth centuries, shed a spotlight on the society of Khotan, an oasis city-state located at the southwestern edge of the Taklamakan Desert in present-day Xinjiang, China along the so-called Silk Road, with cultural and/or political links to the Iranian, Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Turkic, Islamic, and even Jewish spheres. They contain remarkable details of life, but also numerous problems.

One of the major problems is that these documents were excavated or purchased in Khotan by expedition teams from various countries, and were late published separately as “collections” of the libraries or museums that hold them. After the publication of all the three major collections, namely, the Swedish, the British, and the Russian Collection, Yutaka Yoshida was the first to break the boundary of collections. He integrated these documents as a whole and regrouped them into five archives (Archive 0-4) according to their dates and provenance. In the past few years, following Yoshida’s steps, I have been reediting these documents by rearranging documents in each archive according to their genres and subjects. I finished re-editing Archive 3 and am now processing Archive 2. The ultimate goal is to produce a comprehensive new edition of all the secular Khotanese documents from Khotan.

Along the way, several previously misunderstood words revealed their true meanings, sometimes providing key information in an unexpected way. For example, jad- and jirma-, rendered “to request” and “excellent” in the dictionary, actually mean “to borrow” and “borrowed” respectively, used in a context in which Sogdians lent money at a high-interest rate (100% per annum!) to the local people to pay their taxes. The Sogdians, rich merchants as they were, apparently made good use of their capital. I presented my discovery at the Annual Conference of the Association of Asian Studies in March and will publish it in the 2018 issue of the Silk Road Journal.

Inspired by works of Marina Rustow, a leading scholar on the Cairo Geniza, I began to pay special attention to the formulaic and diplomatic conventions employed in the documents. With this in mind, I quickly discovered that the official orders in Khotanese closely resemble those in Gandharī, used in the neighboring area of Khotan in the 3-5 centuries, in that they both leave a long blank in the middle of the first line, separating the sender and the recipient(s) of the order. Khotanese slave-purchase contracts, on the other hand, have formulae parallel to those in similar contracts in Sanskrit (on cloth, recently discovered in Khotan!) and Gandharī. All of them can be traced back to the Indian legal tradition, as preserved in arthaśāstra works. I presented on this in the Second Annual Workshop on Documents and Institutions across Eurasia in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages hosted by the Princeton Geniza Lab in May.

Last but not least, I cannot resist the temptation to share with you my accidental finding while preparing for the workshop at Princeton. Achaemenid administrative practices, as reflected in the Aramaic wooden slips from Bactria (late 4th century BCE), seem to have some echoes in faraway Qin China (late 3rd century BCE).