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Dating Early Tibetan Manuscripts: A Paleographical Method (Sam van Schaik 2013)

Dating Early Tibetan Manuscripts: A Paleographical Method (Sam van Schaik 2013)

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Published by Naljorpa Chagmed
van Schaik describes a typology of writing styles practiced during the Tibetan empire
van Schaik describes a typology of writing styles practiced during the Tibetan empire

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Published by: Naljorpa Chagmed on May 12, 2013
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Dating Early Tibetan Manuscripts:A Paleographical Method
Sam van Schaik
The study of early Tibetan written sources is bedevilled by problems of dating. Whilethe imperial inscriptions can usually be dated to the reign of a particular monarch, thebulk of the manuscript material – both documentary and literary – contains no explicitdate, and often no clues implicit in the text either. Thus we are limited to placing thesemanuscripts in timespans that may be much wider than we would like. In the case of the manuscripts from imperial Tibetan forts in the Taklamakan desert, the most im-portant of which are the sites excavated at M
n and Maz
r T
gh, the span is tolerablynarrow. These manuscripts may be dated to the second major expansion of the TibetanEmpire, between the mid-eighth and mid-ninth century.However, when we come to the more varied and interesting material found in thesealed cave in Dunhuang, the range of dates is wider, beginning with the Tibetan con-quest of Dunhuang (often dated to 786/7) and continuing to the apparent date whenthe cave was sealed, at the beginning of the eleventh century. Thus we have a span of,more or less, two centuries. What has particularly vexed scholars is the fact that there isoften no clear way to tell whether or not a manuscript was written during the Tibetanoccupation of Dunhuang, and therefore belongs to the imperial period.
Recently, scholars working with this material have begun to look towards paleogra-phy as a means of overcoming this problem. However, simply stating that one has da-ted a manuscript on paleographical grounds is not sufficient to convince others, and asyet no method has been described that might constitute an acceptable basis for dating.My aim here is to lay the groundwork for a method of paleographical dating, based onthe following principles:(i) That the manuscripts which we can date to the imperial period may be classifiedinto a limited number of writing styles. These are strongly correlated with specific gen-res of text. We may call these “imperial-period writing styles.”
1 Sometimes these imperial period documents are referred to as “Old Tibetan.” However, I think thatthis unhelpfully elides the distinction between linguistic aspects of the text and other features of themanuscript, including paleography. It is probably better to retain the term Old Tibetan for linguistics,rather than as a catch-all term for anything dating from the imperial period.2 I have presented a typology of these styles in van Schaik forthcoming a, where I have discussed theprinciple behind the development of a paleographical typology, and discussed in greater detail thesources used. Here the same typology is presented as an aid to dating, with the emphasis on the specificforms of individual letters in each style. In an earlier paper, van Schaik 2012, I presented a slightly diffe-rent typology, containing a “military style” and excluding the “monastic style.” I now believe that the
Sam van Schaik
(ii) That the appearance of a much wider variety of writing styles in the manuscriptswhich have been dated to post-imperial times show that a ‘paradigm shift’ in Tibetanwriting occurred after the fall of the empire.(iii) That, therefore, if a manuscript can be identified with one of the known impe-rial-period writing styles, this serves as an argument for placing it within that period.
A. Typology of Imperial-Period Writing Styles
1. Epigraphic Style
A paleography of the Tibetan script should start with the pillar inscriptions from Cen-tral Tibet.
Not only are these the earliest dated instances of writing, but they are pro-ductions of the Tibetan imperial court, and therefore represent an officially sanctionedwriting style. However, when we look at the inscriptions from the point of view of paleography, we can see that they are by no means stylistically homogenous. As HelgaUebach has recently pointed out, there are significant differences between the stylefound in the Zhol pillar (dating from the 760s) and that of the Bsam yas pillar (datingfrom around the time the temple was established in 779).
I do not think we need tofollow her conclusion that the latter is a post-imperial copy, however. This period wasclearly one in which the Tibetan script was undergoing a rapid process of change. Thetwo pillars on either side of the Temple of Zhwa, which were constructed some tenyears apart (c.800 and 812), show significant differences in orthography.
The writingstyle of the Treaty pillar, erected in 823, takes the developments seen in the Bsam yasand Zhol pillars even further.One aspect of these developments in early Tibetan epigraphic writing may be theinfiltration of manuscript styles into epigraphy. By this I mean that features of writingthat emerge from the technology of pen, paper, and the human hand inform the style
many different writing styles found in the military documents from M
n and Maz
r T
gh are betterunderstood as variations on the official style (and occasionally the square style).3 Of course, this remains an argument that must be defended. It must be kept in mind that a style taughtin the imperial period would probably survive the fall of the Tibetan Empire by at least a generation.In the conclusion to the present paper I suggest that other methods of analysis should always be usedto support dating on paleographical grounds.4 On the inscriptions, see Richardson 1985; Li and Coblin 1987; and Iwao, Hill, and Takeuchi 2009.There were no doubt earlier examples of Tibetan writing which are no longer available to us. Early do-cuments seem to have been written on wood, but none of these is extant (see Uebach 2008). The earlystone inscriptions can be divided into three groups. The first, containing the most important sourcesfor the epigraphic style, comprises the pillar inscriptions from Central Tibet; the second comprises reli-gious inscriptions from Northeastern Tibet (Amdo); and the third various examples of graffiti from theLadakh area. In addition, there are a number of inscriptions on bells; the earliest of these is a recentlydiscovered bell from the reign of Khri Lde gtsug brtsan (r. 712–c.754); see Lha mchog rgyal 2011. Forthe purpose of the present typology, “epigraphic style” refers only to the first group of inscriptions.5 See Uebach 2011. Although I am not convinced by Uebach’s conclusions regarding the Bsam yas pillar,this article is a fine example of the application of paleography to early Tibetan sources.6 Some of the differences between the pillars at the west and east of the Zhwa temple entrance were dis-cussed by Hugh Richardson; observing more archaic features in the earlier, western pillar, he suggestedthat “the differences may represent a conscious standardization during the reign of Khri Lde srongbtsan.” See Richardson 1985: 45.
Dating Early Tibetan Manuscripts: A Paleographical Method
of epigraphic inscriptions. This process accounts for what Uebach perceives as “irre-gularities” in the style of the Bsam yas pillar, such as the inclination of certain letters inthe direction of writing. This stylistic feature is more and more apparent in the later in-scriptions. In the East Zhwa pillar (812), for example, we see the descender of 
angledin the direction of writing. In the Treaty Pillar (823), we see the descenders of certainletters including
curving slightly towards the right, even with the trace of atick at the bottom.
 In any case, the inscriptions share enough features that it is useful to talk about an“epigraphic style.” As with other epigraphic scripts, the writing style of the Tibetan pil-lar inscriptions tends to prefer straight lines, and does not extend lines any further thannecessary. In a similar fashion to Roman Capitals, the letters are evenly proportionedso that most would fit within the shape of a square (though the need to vertically stackTibetan letters requires a more flexible model). Descenders of letters like
donot extend far, and likewise the vowel signs are compact. The two ‘wings’ of the
na ro
 are of roughly equal length, unlike in later manuscript styles in which the right wingmay extend much further, in the direction of writing. This “square” character extendsto the four-cornered shape of the letter
, and other letter elements like the left sideof the
. The “heads” of the letters also adhere to this principle, being much longerthan in later styles in letters like
This harks back to the Indic models for theTibetan script.
Other features that are perhaps closer to the script’s Indic elementsthan to later styles are the diagonal line that extends all the way from the top right tobottom left of the
, and the fact that the two downstrokes of the
both descendfrom the letter’s head. These features are carried through into the square style seen inthe manuscripts.
2. Square Style
This and the following styles are found in manuscripts, rather than epigraphic sour-ces. The square style appears in several documents from the library cave at Dunhuangwhich are generally thought to have been copied during the Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang or shortly afterwards (i.e. late eighth to mid-ninth centuries). Perhaps thebest examples of the square style are the manuscripts of the ‘civil version’ of the
Old Tibetan Annals.
Other manuscripts in this style include (i) historical or semi-historicaltexts; (ii) legal texts on theft, hunting and other crimes; (iii) dice divination texts, whichmay be related to the legal texts as dice divination seems to have been used to settle le-gal disputes;
and (iv) texts on royal funerary practices. Though it is clear that most of these manuscripts were copied in or around Dunhuang itself, the texts share the feature
7 On the East Zhwa pillar, see
on ll.38 and 40. On the Treaty pillar, see
on l.54 and
on l.55 of the west face of the pillar. Note that in both cases the angled descender is not a regular feature, whichalso suggests that it was not an accepted formal feature of the epigraphic style, but an occasional andaccidental development. This also suggests an outside influence, e.g. from manuscript writing styles.8 On this matter, see van Schaik 2011. Note that this feature is true of the earlier inscriptions, but less soin later inscriptions such as the Treaty Pillar.9 These are the two manuscripts IOL Tib J 750 and Pelliot tibétain 1288. On the
, see Dotson2009.10 See Dotson 2007.

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