Fragments of the Tocharian

Between 1902 and 1914 the German Ethnological Institute sent repeated expeditions into the great Taklamakan desert of, in search of ancient manuscripts that had survived destruction due to the arid climate of the Tarim Basin.

One expedition brought back fragments of a manuscript written in a hitherto unknown language but employing a familiar North Indian script. Later dubbed Tocharian A, the language was deciphered by two linguists at Germany’s Gottingen University, Emil Siel and Wilhem Siegling. The parchment turned out to be part of the Maitreyasamiti-Nataka, a Sanskrit Buddhist work in the Mahayana canon that foretells the coming of the Buddha.

In the mid-thirties a budding Chinese linguist, Ji Xianlin, arrived in Gottingen to study Sanskrit with Siel. Before receiving his Ph.D. in 1941, he also mastered Tocharian and a handful of other obscure languages. After the conclusion of World War II, he returned to China and began a long career as one of China’s top specialists in ancient Indian languages and culture. In the late ’90s, he published his own analysis and translation of newly discovered fragments of a Tocharian-language Maitreyasamiti-Nataka discovered in 1974 in the city of Yanqi in China’s province. Only a handful of people in the world can read Tocharian; mastering the language is not a path to notoriety. But Ji, the author of numerous books and monographs, has other claims to fame. Perhaps most amazingly, he secretly translated the entire Indian epic, “The Ramayana,” from the original Sanskrit into Chinese, while experiencing the travails that afflicted nearly all Chinese intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution.

Earlier this week, the Indian government bestowed one of its greatest honors, the Padma Bushan award, on the 97-year-old Ji, in honor of his contributions to cross-cultural understanding. In the realpolitik of Chinese-Indian diplomacy, the move was immediately interpreted as as indicating a positive direction in the relationship between the two countries.