A study on Chinese phonetic loan characters in Dunhuang manuscripts dating from 700-1000 CE

Begin - Einde 
2016 - 2020 (lopend)
Vakgroep Talen en Culturen
phonetic loan characters
Chinese writing



The project deals with an important mechanism in Chinese writing, the use of “phonetic loan characters”, as exemplified in the Dunhuang manuscript corpus and with an emphasis of non-canonical material dating from ca. 700 to 1000 CE. The use of loan characters in this material will be systematically analyzed and its function concerning “orality” in Chinese writing investigated.

Searches in relevant databases and a survey concerning the publications on phonetic loan characters in China and the West reveal that the emphasis of systematic research has been rather on the early manuscripts of Ancient China (see for example Botéro 1996, Galambos 2006, Meyer 2012, Galambos 2013), whereas relatively little attention has been paid to the medieval Dunhuang manuscript material. Editions and linguistic studies of individual Dunhuang texts include important information on phonetic loans (e.g. Huang & Wu 1995, Huang & Zhang 1997, Zhou 1998, Sha 1998, Xiang 2006) and several articles focus on phonetic loans in particular texts (e.g. Shao 1963, Anderl & Dippner & Krogh Visted 2012). However, so far there are no systematic comparative studies on a larger corpus of Dunhuang texts, and the features found in individual texts have not been related to each other as yet. As such, the PhD project aims at filling this gap in scholarship on the complex use of phonetic loan characters in a representative selection of texts from the corpus of Dunhuang manuscripts, providing us – among many other aspects – with important insights concerning the practice of writing in medieval China. Insuring its feasibility, the study will be carried out on the basis of important reference materials and studies produced during the past years. The recent production of large dictionaries listing phonetic loans used in Chinese texts during different periods will be of great help for contextualizing the research on phonetic loan characters in the manuscripts (e.g., Feng & Zheng 2006, Wang 2008, Zheng 2008). In addition, the phonology of Early (EMC, ca. 200-600 CE) and Late Middle Chinese (LMC, ca. 600-1100 CE; see for example Pulleyblank 1984 and 1991, Baxter 1992, Coblin 1983) has been reconstructed convincingly, and will serve as the basis for determining the phonetic value of loan characters. Of special importance are also the results of the intense research on the Northwestern Medieval Dialect (the area of Dūnhuáng where the manuscripts were found), providing a good basis for identifying phonetic dialect loans (for a survey, see Anderl & Osterkamp 2015; for a comprehensive bibliography of these studies, including bilingual manuscript material, see Bibliography of Publications on Northwestern Medieval Chinese).

The thesis will focus on three main research questions:

  1. The system and mechanisms of phonetic loaning in the texts selected from the Dūnhuáng corpus.
  2. What is the range and extent of phonetic loaning in the corpus, what are the differences encountered based on different genres and time periods? How do successive copies of the same text change in terms of the phonetic loans used?  To what extent are dialect loans used in the manuscripts (as a clear indication of orality)?
  3. The previous research questions will be the basis for investigating the question to what extent the writing in manuscripts had developed into a phonetic writing system, and what were the limitations and restrictions for this development.



Externe medewerkers

Sven Osterkamp

Fakultät für Ostasienwissenschaften - Ruhr Universität Bochum