Asian and African studies blog

15 March 2021

An early Tai-Chinese glossary in the Hua yi yi yu

The 14th century brought about remarkable changes in the northern part of Southeast Asia. Chinese records indicate that the reign of the first Ming emperor saw the encouragement of tributary relations with emerging states of Tai-speaking peoples with the aim of obtaining their symbolic acknowledgement of China’s cosmological centrality. By the end of the 14th century, the Ming court had established pacification offices in Yunnan and in Tai polities sharing a border with Yunnan, through which the emperor claimed to govern those states. Activities relating to the pacification offices, including the exchange of messages, reception of envoys, and military actions, were recorded in the “Veritable Records of the Ming” (Ming Shilu) from 1368 to 1644 CE. According to the Ming Shilu, the pacification offices involving Tai peoples were Che Li (Xishuangbanna), Babai-Dadian (Lan Na / Northern Thailand), Laowo (Laos), and Luchuan / Pingmian (both referring to Tai Mao / Shan polities).

Front cover of one rebound volume (160 x 252 mm) and title page of the Hua yi yi yu
Front cover of one rebound volume (160 x 252 mm) and title page of the Hua yi yi yu, British Library, 15344.d.10  noc

To make communication with the pacification offices possible, the Hua yi yi yu 華夷譯語, a multilingual dictionary, was compiled from 1407 onwards by the Bureau of Translators, which was the first office to occupy itself with the translation of documents from tributary polities. In 1511 the Babai Bureau officially started as the ninth office studying foreign languages, following offices for Mongol, Jurchen, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Persian, Dehong Dai, Uighur, and Burmese. The Xian Luo (Thai or Siamese) office started its work in 1579.

Six volumes of the Hua yi yi yu were acquired by the British Museum on 7 August 1885 from Joseph Edkins, a British protestant missionary and sinologist who had spent over fifty years in China. Each volume was originally bound in a traditional Chinese stitched binding which was replaced by a European hardcover binding for conservational reasons at the British Museum. With the other collections in the British Museum Library, the work was transferred to the British Library in 1973 (British Library 15344.d.10).

Volume six contains a Tai-Chinese glossary on 109 folios compiled by the Babai Bureau, which was initially catalogued as a “Pa Po-Chinese vocabulary” at the British Museum. The largest part of the original text was produced using woodblock printing technique on thin cream-coloured paper. This extremely thin paper adheres to a stronger sheet of white “recycled” paper, which has on its back a legal code from the Qing dynasty (1644 -1912). These sheets of paper are interleaved with additional sheets of “recycled” paper with text in the Manchu language. This method was used mainly when Chinese books were repaired during the 18th and 19th centuries to reinforce very thin printing paper.

Example of a page in the glossary with Tai words at the top, followed by the Chinese translation (second line) and Tai pronunciation in Chinese characters (third line)
Example of a page in the glossary with Tai words at the top, followed by the Chinese translation (second line) and Tai pronunciation in Chinese characters (third line). British Library, 15344.d.10  noc

The Chinese text is vertical and reads from right to the left. To read the Tai text, one must turn the book 90 degrees to the left as shown above so that the text is horizontal and reads from left to right. Yu wei along the vertical folds of the sheets give the titles of sections in the book.

“Pa Po” is an alternative romanisation mode for Babai referring to the language spoken in Babai-Dadian. The term was coined by the sinologists Friedrich Hirth and F. W. K. Müller towards the end of the 19th century. It is mostly associated with the former kingdom of Lan Na, which is thought to have been geographically relatively equal with northern Thailand. However, according to the Ming Shilu Babai-Dadian was a larger polity. The Chinese records give several hints that Babai-Dadian extended east to Che Li (Jinghong in Xishuangbanna), south to Bo Le (possibly Phrae, bordering Sukhothai), west to Da Gu-la (possibly a pre-Ahom/Shan polity), and north to Meng-gen (Kengtung).

Contents of the glossary

On the first folio, only Hua yi yi yu is mentioned as the title for the whole work, literally meaning “Glossary of the pronunciation of foreign words”. The book title is followed by the title of the first section, and the first two entries in this chapter. There are usually four entries per page.

The book contains sixteen sections, which reflect the Chinese world view during the Ming dynasty. All volumes of the Hua yi yi yu in different languages follow this same structure, although some volumes contain a different number of entries, or sometimes the order of the sections is different, which may be due to binding and rebinding. The sections cover the following subjects:

1) Astronomy & astrology (fols. 1-8)
2) Geography (fols. 9-17)
3) Seasons and time (fols. 18-23)
4) World of plants (fols. 24-31)
5) World of animals (fols. 32-39)
6) World of men (fols. 40-47)
7) Human body (fols. 48-54)
8) Dwellings (fols. 55-57)
9) Implements & tools (fols. 58-63)
10) Garments (fols. 64-68)
11) Valuables (fols. 69-72)
12) Food (fols. 73-76)
13) Words of orientation (fols. 77-79)
14) Sounds and colours (fols. 80-82)
15) Numbers and trade (fols. 83-84)
16) Affairs of man (verbs and adjectives) (fols. 85-96)
17) Phrases of general use (97-109)

Example of Fak Kham script on a rubbing from an undated stone inscription found fifty km north of Kengtung, rubbing made in c. 2000
Example of Fak Kham script on a rubbing from an undated stone inscription found fifty km north of Kengtung, rubbing made in ca. 2000. British Library, Or. 16784  noc

The Tai script in the glossary has similarities with examples of the Fak Kham script (above) dating from between 1411-1827. The earliest known evidence of Fak Kham script is from a stone inscription at the Lamphun Museum (Ho Phiphitthaphan Lamphun) dated 1411 (Kannika Wimonkasem 1983). Fak Kham script was not only used in northern Thailand, but also in the areas of Kengtung and Laos. Similarities can also be found with the alphabet used in stone inscriptions that were discovered c. 50 km north of Kengtung and in Northern Laos in the areas of Luang Prabang and Muang Sing.

The glossary contains 800 words in the native language, with translations into Chinese language, and Chinese characters for pronunciation. The Chinese translation provides a word that would be understood by the Chinese user of the glossary, and therefore the original meaning of the corresponding word in the native language sometimes gets lost in translation. Misinterpretations occur with regard to titles and names. For example, the name “Maenam Khong” (Tai for Mekong River) was translated with the Chinese character for “lake”. Words of Pali and Sanskrit origin appear occasionally, as for example thevada (from Pali: devata). Paraphrases are very rare, which means that for each Chinese term there is mostly a plain Tai word without further explanation.

Particularly interesting is section two of the book which deals with geography. On folios 15/16 the following place names are mentioned: Pekking (Tai for Beijing, also used for China), Muang Chae (for Yunnan), Muang Phiang Siang Mai (Chiang Mai, also for Lan Na), Muang Swa (Luang Prabang, also for Laos), Muang Lue, Muang Khoen, the latter two referring to polities of the Tai Lue and Tai Khoen ethnic groups.

Folio 15 showing the names Pekking (Beijing), Muang Chae (Che Li), Muang Phiang Siang Mai (Chiang Mai), Muang Swa (Luang Prabang)
Folio 15 showing the names Pekking (Beijing), Muang Chae (for Yunnan), Muang Phiang Siang Mai (Chiang Mai), Muang Swa (Luang Prabang). British Library, 15344.d.10  noc

Because the pronunciation of each word in the native language is represented by Chinese characters in the glossary, it is possible to get an idea of how the spoken language would have sounded. However, it is not always possible to render the correct pronunciation of foreign words with Chinese characters. For example, the pronunciation of the letter r (ຣ) is usually given as l in the glossary, but there is no certainty as to whether the letter was indeed pronounced as l, or indeed as r, or left silent.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian  ccownwork

This post is a revised summary of an article “The 'Pa-Po'-Chinese glossary in the Hua Yi Yi Yu” published in the SEALG Newsletter, vol. 42 (December 2010), pp. 9-21.  I would like to thank my colleague Sara Chiesura, Lead Curator for Chinese, for her invaluable advice with this blog post.

Further reading

Douglas, Robert Kennaway, Supplementary catalogue of Chinese books and manuscripts in the British Museum. London: The British Museum, 1903
Franke, Wolfgang, Annotated sources of Ming history: including Southern Ming and works on neighbouring lands, 1368-1661. Revised and enlarged by Foon Ming Liew-Herres. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 2011
Hirth, Friedrich, 'The Chinese Oriental College'. Journal of the China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol. XXII, London: 1887
Liew-Herres, Foon Ming and Volker Grabowsky (with Aroonrut Wichienkeeo), Lan Na in Chinese historiography: Sino-Tai relations as reflected in the Yuan and Ming sources (13th to 17th centuries). Bangkok: 2008
Müller, F.W.K., Vocabularien der Pa-Yi- und Pah-Poh-Sprachen, aus dem "hua-i-yi-yü"T’oung Pao Vol. 3 No. 1, 1892, pp. 1-38
Ross, Denison, New Light on the History of the Chinese Oriental College, and a 16th Century Vocabulary of the Luchuan Language. T’oung Pao Second Series, Vol. 9, No. 5 (1908), pp. 689-695
Wade, Geoffrey (ed.), Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu, an open access resource.  (accessed on 12.1.2011)
Wild, Norman, Materials for the Study of the Ssŭ i Kuan 四 夷 譯 館 (Bureau of Translators). Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies , University of London Vol. 11, No. 3 (1945), pp. 617-640
Wimonkasem, Kannika, ‘Akson Fak Kham thi phop nai silacharuk phak nua. Bangkok: 1983