Kitan-Language Crash Course, to be held at Yale University in May 11-19, 2016

Valerie Hansen Discussion

The Council of East Asian Studies, Yale University, will host a nine-day workshop on the Kitan language to be held in New Haven, May 11-19, 2016. Depending on the number of those attending, the Council will provide some financial support to cover travel to the conference or room and board in New Haven. Preference will be given first to advanced PhD students planning to write about the Liao in their dissertations, then to recent PhDs whose dissertations concerned the Liao or who have already published on the Liao dynasty, and finally to more senior scholars.

Kitan was the language of the Liao dynasty (907-1125), who ruled northern China and much of the grasslands extending across Asia. Most of the scholarship about the Liao, including the Yale-Bard conference volume published as volume 43 of the Journal of Song Yuan Studies, depends on Chinese-language sources and archeological findings. A growing corpus of Kitan-language materials survives, comprising some thirty different epitaphs and mourning songs for deceased emperors (aici 哀辭). The materials are difficult but crucial to understanding the Kitan view of themselves.

Professor Daniel Kane, one of the few Western scholars who has a specialist knowledge of the current state of Kitan philological studies, has recently retired from Macquarie University in Sydney (see his biography on the web: He will teach a nine-day workshop for beginners. The workshop will begin on a Wednesday morning, run for four days, take Sunday May 15th off, and have a second four days of class.


Prof Kane suggests:


The way people run summer schools in Ancient languages in Australia is to have one unit (lasting a week) on basic information about the language as such, as another unit based on reading (deciphering) one or two ancient texts. I would suggest some variant of this, squeezing the two units into the time allocated. It would also add one or preferably two more fully annotated texts to the series started by Juha Janhunen, New Materials on the Khitan Small Script (2010). 


As for reading what is in them, well, they have to be "deciphered" first, and we are still quite some way from that. Getting the gist of what they are about is more possible, because there are usually Chinese glosses on the published versions, but many of these are sketchy and often not correct (the characters are sometimes misread or mistranscribed, especially if the stele are eroded or damaged). (email dated 12/12/14).


            The workshop should give scholars with strong linguistic foundations the tools to read inscriptions on their own; those with weaker language backgrounds will benefit from the chance to learn what is in the epitaphs. Contact Valerie Hansen ( and François Louis ( if you would like to attend this workshop.