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Sino-Indo-Iranica rediviva - Early Eurasian migratory terms in Chinese and their cultural implications

English title Sino-Indo-Iranica rediviva - Early Eurasian migratory terms in Chinese and their cultural implications
Applicant Behr Wolfgang
Number 189362
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Sinologie Asien-Orient-Institut Universität Zürich
Institution of higher education University of Zurich - ZH
Main discipline Other languages and literature
Start/End 01.12.2019 - 30.11.2023
Approved amount 934'264.00
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All Disciplines (5)

Other languages and literature
Ancient history and Classical studies

Keywords (6)

Sino-Iranian and Sino-Indian; silk road archaeology; loanwords and cultural contacts; paleobotany; food globalization; Central Asia

Lay Summary (German)

Im Zusammenhang mit Chinas „Belt and Road Initiative“ (BRI) hat die wirtschaftliche Dynamik in Zentralasien in jüngster Zeit die Aufmerksamkeit der Welt auf sich gezogen. Die Ursprünge dieser Beziehungen reichen jedoch Jahrtausende zurück. Dieses Projekt untersucht den frühesten Austausch von Pflanzen, Handelsgütern und Artefakten entlang der alten eurasischen Transitrouten anhand sprachlicher, historischer und archäologischer Daten.
Lay summary
Vor ziemlich genau einem Jahrhundert demonstrierte Berthold Laufer (1874-1934) erstmals die intensiven kulturellen Kontakte zwischen der frühen iranischen und chinesischen Zivilisationen anhand von Lehnwortdaten. In seinem bahnbrechenden Werk "Sino-Iranica" (Chicago 1919) kombinierte er nicht nur Informationen zu hunderten von chinesischen Pflanzennamen mit ihren entsprechenden mitteliranischen Entsprechungen, sondern auch Namen von Gewürzen und Duftstoffen, Produkten aus dem malayischen Archipel, persischen Textilien, Mineralien, Metallen, Edelsteinen und dergleichen. Die Bedeutung von Laufers Werk zeigt sich in dessen zahlreichen Neuauflagen, den Übersetzungen ins Chinesische und Japanische sowie anhand zahlreicher Artikel über den frühen Austausch von Pflanzen und Produkten zwischen China, Innerasien und dem alten Nahen Osten, die nach seiner Veröffentlichung entstanden sind. Dieses Projekt tritt in Laufers Fußstapfen, und versucht, auf der Grundlage moderner sprachlicher, archäologischer und paläobotanischer Methoden, Laufers Ergebnisse zu überprüfen und erweitern.

Das Projekt wird eine umfassende Analyse der vorhandenen sprachlichen und archäologischen Beweise durchführen, um ein plausibles Modell der frühen Beziehungen zwischen China und Zentralasien mit Schwerpunkt auf dem alten Indien und dem Iran zu erstellen. Die frühesten iranischen und indischen Lehnwörter aus und ins Chinesische, wie sie in überlieferten und ausgegrabenen Texten zu finden sind, werden gesammelt, sorgfältig untersucht und mit den verfügbaren archäologischen und paläobotanischen Daten verglichen.

Übergeordnetes Ziel des Projekts ist es, die frühesten Beziehungen zwischen Innerasien, dem alten Nahen Osten und China zu beleuchten, wie sie sich in Lehnwörtern und archäologischen Daten widerspiegeln. Eine Open-Access-Datenbank mit den untersuchten Begriffen, die im Laufe des Projekts erstellt wird, kann zudem als Grundlage für zukünftige Projekte in einem ähnlichen geotemporalen Rahmen dienen. Die Ergebnisse des Projekts werden nützlich sein, um linguistische Rekonstruktionen zentralasiatischer Sprachen zu verbessern und ihre sprachlichen Genealogien zu kalibrieren. Historisch gesehen wird das Projekt neue Einsichten in die Beziehungen zwischen China und Zentralasien und die Geschichte der Migration einzelner ethnischer Gruppen bieten. Angesichts der gegenwärtigen Wiederbelebung der wirtschaftlichen und strategischen Interessen in diesem Kulturraum, ist davon auszugehen, dass die Ergebnisse überdies von grundlegender Bedeutung für ein genaueres Verständnis der historischen Voraussetzungen für die aktuelle geopolitische Situation in Zentralasien und angrenzenden Bereichen sind.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 01.07.2020

Lay Summary (English)

Due to the “Belt and road initiative” the economic dynamics between China and Central Asia have recently caught the world's attention. However, the origins of these relationships go back millenia. This project examines the earliest exchanges of plants, goods and artefacts along the ancient Eurasian transit routes using linguistic, historical and archaeological data.
Lay summary
Roughly a century ago, Berthold Laufer (1874-1934) masterfully demonstrated the intensive cultural contacts between the early Iranian and Chinese civilizations using loanword data. In his groundbreaking "Sino-Iranica" (Chicago 1919), he not only combined information about hundreds of Chinese plant names with their corresponding Middle Iranian equivalents, but also names of spices and fragrances, products from the Malaysian archipelago, Persian textiles, minerals, metals, gemstones and the like. The importance of Laufer's work can be seen in its many re-editions, its translations into Chinese and Japanese, and in the numerous articles on the early exchanges of products between China, Inner Asia and the Ancient Near East that emerged after its publication. This project follows in Laufer's footsteps, reviewing and expanding his results on the basis of modern linguistic, archaeological and paleobotanical methods.

The project will carry out a comprehensive analysis of the existing linguistic and archaeological evidence to create a plausible model of the early relations between China and Central Asia, with a focus on Ancient India and Iran. The earliest Iranian and Indian loanwords from and into Chinese, as they are found in transmitted and excavated texts, will be collected, carefully examined and compared with the available archaeological and paleobotanical data.

The overall aim of the project is to shed light on the earliest relationships between Inner Asia and the Ancient Near East with China, as reflected in loanwords and archaeological data. An open access database of the terms examined, which will be created in the course of the project, may also serve as the basis for future projects within a similar geotemporal framework. Thus, results from this project will be useful to enhance linguistic reconstructions of Central Asian languages and to calibrate their linguistic genealogies. Historically, the project will provide new perspectives on the relations between China and Central Asia and the history of the migration of individual ethnic groups. Given the current revival of economic and strategic interests in thi area, the results may also be fundamental to a more fine-grained understanding of the historical preconditions for the current geopolitical situation in Central Asia and adjacent areas.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 01.07.2020

Responsible applicant and co-applicants


Project partner


Exactly one hundred years have passed since Berthold Laufer (1874-1934) published his monumental “Sino-Iranica” (Chicago 1919), studying aspects of the civilization of Ancient Iran as reflected in early Chinese loan words. On six hundred information packed pages and with a superb mastery of the sources available at the beginning of the 20th century, Laufer meticulously linked hundreds of Chinese translations of plant names to their Middle Iranian equivalents for the first time, including chapters on aromatics, products from the Malayan region, Persian textiles, Iranian minerals, metals and precious stones. More often than not, he also managed to trace the pathways of migratory goods and words across intermediary Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman and Southeast Asian languages, and he included a section on Chinese loan words in (Middle) Persian. The enormous success of the book is reflected in half a dozen of reprints (Peking 1940; Taipei 1967, 1978; New York 1967; London 2015, 2016, 2018). The interest in its subject matter in East Asia resulted in one partial translation into Chinese as early as 1925, two complete Chinese renderings being published in Beijing (1964) and Taipei (1975), and Japanese versions of 2007 and 2009. Its format of a linguistically informed cultural history of “exotics” in Medieval China was emulated by such sinological classics as E.H. Schafer’s "Golden Peaches of Samarkand" (1963), which was in turn translated into Chinese recently as well (2016). Arguably, outside the realm of research on Buddhist translations from Middle Indian and Central Asian languages into Chinese and Tibetan, the towering influence of Laufer’s book led the investigation of Early Imperial and Medieval Chinese “secular” lexical contacts with Iran and India into the “doldrums”. To be sure, proposals on, e.g., travelling materia medica, identifications of early “tribute” goods presented to the Chinese courts since the Western Han, remarks on lexical contacts in the context of silk road excavation reports or commentaries on Medieval Chinese texts, have been published in a great number of scattered articles (useful recent monographic overviews include Chén Míng 2005, 2013; Selbitschka 2010; Lieu et al. eds. 2016, Shí Yúntao 2017, Yoeli-Tlalim 2017), and some leading scholars of Han and Middle Chinese (e.g. Pulleyblank 1990) or Middle Iranian (e.g. Yoshida 1994, 1998, 2017) have reviewed Laufer’s equations from their respective linguistic vantage points. However, no synthetic and critical reassessment of Laufer’s identifications, let alone an overview of new ones proposed in the literature or possible on the strength of new evidence, has been presented so far. The proposed project aims at carrying on where Laufer left off. During the last century, there has been tremendous progress in the fields of Chinese, Central Asian and Southern Siberian archaeology, prehistory and art history, the history of cultivated (including medical) plants and animal domestications, as well as in our understanding of Sinitic and Central Asian languages. Entirely new methodologies, such as the study of ancient DNA, radiocarbon dating of archaeological remains or isotope analysis of foodstuff distributions have been developed; the theory of linguistic contact, borrowability scales and lexical diffusion increasingly provides “typological filters” for lexical comparisons. Sophisticated models of cultural acculturation, early food globalization or the role of exotics in early economies have emerged. Most importantly for the proposed research, new reconstructions of Hàn ? Chinese (Coblin 1993, Liú Guàncái 2007, 2012; Schuessler 2009; Miyake 2013), Early Middle (Pulleyblank 1984, 1991), and Old Northwest Chinese (Takata 1988; Coblin 1994, 1999, 2016; Li Fànwén 1994, Anderl & Osterkamp 2016), will allow an “anchoring” of early Sino-Xenic lexical comparanda with much more confidence and precision than in the “pre-Karlgrenian” times of Laufer and other pioneers such as Édouard Chavannes (1865-1918) or Paul Pelliot (1878-1945). To know whether an item is likely to represent an early loan from a non-Sinitic language, it is also important to monitor the morphological makeup (Sagart 1999, Jin Lixin 2006, Schüssler 2007 etc.) of the word in Old Chinese (Starostin 1989, Baxter & Sagart 2014, Zhèng-Zhang 2013), and the distribution of cognates in Tibeto-Burman/Trans-Himalayan, since both provide important signals to differentiate borrowing from inheritance.We therefore aim to investigate the earliest layers of Iranian and Indian cultural loan words in Chinese edited and excavated texts and their counterparts in the original languages and to compare the lexical data with current archaeological, paleobotanical, art and food historical knowledge. Needless to say, that even to systematically “update” Laufer’s equations is a daunting task, which clearly necessitates a team effort of project participants in very diverse fields, including Old/Middle Chinese phonology and lexical history, Old and Middle Iranian, Sanskrit and Middle Indic Prakrits, silk road archaeology, cultural history etc. In the present “minimal” setup, the project thus intends to bring together two Ph.D. students, familiar with Sino-Indian and Sino-Iranian philology and linguistics, one postdoc specializing in silk road archaeology and/or paleobotany and material culture, and the PI. But it will also regularly need to solicit input from a number of specialists, especially in Old and Middle Iranian in Lausanne, Paris, Philadelphia, Vienna and Zurich, who have kindly confirmed their participation.