Professor Imre Galambos is a Hungarian Sinologist and Tangutologist who specialises in the study of medieval Chinese and Tangut manuscripts from Dunhuang. He is a professor of Chinese Studies at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge.

Interviewd by Professor Kung Pengcheng 

Prof. Kung: What are your main research findings on the influence of non-Chinese written traditions on Chinese manuscript culture, for example, in Dunhuang Manuscripts?

Prof. Galambos: Although we often think of East Asia in terms of the countries that make it up today, each with their own language, in reality languages (including written ones) have always been in contact with each other. Although manuscript traditions developed along with written languages, there has been a continuous interaction between different manuscript cultures. Some of these contacts were the result of religion interaction, such as the spread of Buddhism to China, and later to other countries in East Asia. But trade, diplomacy and warfare were just as important in creating exchanges between languages and cultures. Because of such contacts, manuscripts written in Chinese and other languages inevitably influenced each other. Along the Silk Road, in the region that forms the territory of China today, there was a variety of written languages, including Tibetan, Old Uyghur, Sogdian, Khotanese, Tangut, Mongolian, Sanskrit and Tocharian. Manuscripts surviving from the pre-modern period attest to the impact of manuscripts written in these languages on Chinese manuscripts. One of the most visible effects is the appearance of new bookbinding forms in Dunhuang during the ninth century, which at that point was no longer part of the Tang empire. The new bookbinding forms included the codex (cezi 冊子), the pothi (fanjiazhuang 梵夾裝) and the concertina (jingzhezhuang 經摺裝), which have not been in use before for Chinese manuscripts. Another highly visible phenomenon was writing Chinese from left to right, which was, once again, something that we see in Dunhuang during the ninth and tenth centuries. Writing this way horizontally was clearly a Tibetan influence, whereas writing in vertical columns from left to right was probably the result of interaction with Old Uyghur or Sogdian manuscript culture. Finally, when the Tibetans took control over Dunhuang in the late 8th century, people started using a pen (yingbi 硬筆) to write Chinese characters instead of a brush, borrowing this from Tibetan culture.

Prof. Kung: You studied in Hungary, which reminds me of Aurel Stein. The reason why he went to Dunhuang for discovery was influenced by his teacher Lajos De Loczy. Lajos De Loczy had visited Dunhuang as early as 1879 and he was seen as the first person who introduced Dunhuang to Europe. Many Chinese may not know this story. Could you talk about the origin of research on Chinese manuscripts in Budapest, and the current situation?

Prof. Galambos: Aurel Stein was indeed born in Hungary, although later he went on to study in Austria and then Germany and England. After graduation, he was not able to get a job in Hungary, which is why he took up a post in Lahore, in British India. And it is from there that he led his 4 expeditions to Western China. Since at least the beginning of the 19th century, Hungarians have been extremely interested in their roots, which they imagined in various parts of Asia. This generated a steady interest in Asia, although this was more in the direction of Central Asia than China. Chinese language teaching only began before World War II. Interestingly, Louis Ligeti, one of the founding figures of Hungarian sinology, had been studying in Paris with Paul Pelliot, who had also acquired an important collection of manuscripts at Dunhuang. But before that time, the Hungarians seemed to be more interested in other regions of Asia, even though there had been travelers and missionaries who visited China. It is no coincidence, for example, that Aurel Stein led his expeditions exclusively to the western parts of China, as his own interests primarily lay in the influences of Indic and Iranian civilizations. He did travel to Nanjing in 1930, for example, but only to get permission from the Chinese government for his 4th expedition to Xinjiang. In a way, it is ironic that he, a scholar of Iranian and Sanskrit languages, was the one who acquired one of the most important collections of Chinese manuscripts. Of course, as these finds generated quite a bit of fame for him, he grew very much aware of their significance. This was also the reason why before he embarked on his 4th expedition, at the age of 68, he was actively learning Chinese.

Prof. Kung:
You are the president of the European Association for the Study of Chinese Manuscripts. Could you please talk about the current research in Europe on Tangut Script (黑水城西夏写本) and the Turpan Uyghur Fragments (吐鲁番维吾尔残卷)

Prof. Galambos:
Actually, I am no longer president of the association, I handed over the title to my colleague Prof. Attilio Andreini of Ca' Foscari University in Venice. I had been the president for several years before that, which also means that I had a chance to host a conference in Cambridge welcoming scholars working on Chinese manuscripts from around the world. Such conferences are always very inspiring, as they bring together people working on different periods and very different types of manuscripts.

With regard to Tangut manuscripts and printed books, the Kozlov collection in St. Petersburg is the largest in the world, and Russian scholars have been at the frontline of research since the discovery of the ruins of Khara-khoto in 1908. The Stein collection in the British Library in London is considerably smaller but still quite important. Nevertheless, Tangut language and texts are much less studied in the West than in China. Or to be more exact, there are much fewer scholars who do research on Tangut. In Europe, the main countries where research happens are France, Britain, Russia and Germany, and the main areas are linguistics, Buddhist studies, art history and textual studies. Typically, scholars involved with Tangut studies also work on other languages, such as Chinese or Tibetan, I don’t think there is anyone who only works on Tangut. Despite the relatively small number of individuals actively contributing to this type of research, I do think that the results are excellent. Every year or every other year there is a conference in one of the European cities, and it is at these meetings that we have a chance to see what each of us is working on at the moment and what the most exciting new directions are. Of course, we are all in touch with scholars in China and Japan, and so we are aware of their results – we never have to work in isolation. It is undeniable that the future of the field lies in collaboration, and researchers in different countries can benefit immensely from working closer together.

Prof. Kung:
Could you please talk about the course that you teach at Cambridge - Early and imperial China: Dunhuang and the Silk Road?  What are the main purposes of this course?

Prof. Galambos:
My course on Dunhuang and the Silk Road is one of the optional courses 4th year undergraduate students can choose. It is a series of 16 lectures that provide an overview of the oasis city of Dunhuang along the Silk Road between the 5th and 10th centuries, with a particular emphasis on it being a meeting point between East and West. It examines the ways in which “Dunhuang studies,” an academic field that emerged from the study of Dunhuang manuscripts, contributed to our understanding of medieval Chinese history, society and culture. The course explores various aspects of contemporary life, including religion, literature, science and education. It also explains why the Silk Road holds such a fascination for the modern imagination both in East Asia and the West.

Originally, I had planned the course as a way to introduce my own research to undergraduate students, to present my publications in a more digestible form for a less specialized audience. I also wanted to talk about Dunhuang manuscripts, which was my own area of research, but soon realized that I had to pair it with the idea of the Silk Road, which is a name much more recognizable in Britain than Dunhuang. However, as I was trying to create a rounded structure for the course, it became clear that I had to talk about so much more than what I have published or was writing on. Accordingly, to achieve a more or less comprehensive coverage of the Silk Road and its pre-modern history, I had to mostly rely on research done by others. Of course, this also meant that I had to gather a considerable amount of material I was less familiar with, and the course has been extremely educational for me, too. I am, of course, also glad to see when an undergraduate student who takes this course, continues with his or her studies and goes on to an MA or PhD degree in this field.

Prof. Kung:
There are many Chinese manuscripts from ethnic groups, such as, Tangut people and Uyghurs. How have Chinese-written traditions influenced the manuscript culture of these ethnic groups?

Prof. Galambos:
The area we know as China today has been the core region of East Asian civilization for the past two millennia. The states and dynasties in this region have used the Chinese script, which is why we see them today as “Chinese”, even though during the medieval period the concept of China had not yet developed. So the language and the script unifies this region as we look back at it. It is no surprise that over the centuries there were also many other groups who lived in close proximity with the cultures that used Chinese texts. This was particularly so along the so-called Silk Road, during the period I study, i.e. the 7th through the 12th centuries. In this period, we see a number of non-Chinese cultures that existed along or beyond the borders of the Chinese states. The most important ones (at least from my perspective) were the Uyghurs, Tibetans and Tangut, all of which were influenced by Chinese texts and the Chinese script. This influence is very visible in the Tangut script, which was clearly inspired by Chinese characters, and this is reason scholars sometimes call it a ”sinoform” script. It was not directly based on the Chinese script, and so there are no matching characters or even parts of characters. But the strokes are clearly Chinese, and so are the principles used for creating characters from components. Then, if we turn to the Uyghurs, we can see that they not only translated Chinese Buddhist texts into Uyghur but sometimes also transcribed them using the Uyghur script. In other words, the language stayed Chinese but it was now written phonetically with the Uyghur script. At times, the Uyghurs would also use texts written in Chinese and read them in their own language, similar to how the Japanese can read texts written in classical Chinese. The Tibetans also transcribed some Chinese texts using the Tibetan alphabet. Just as importantly, they also borrowed the Chinese scroll form to write Tibetan texts. There are actually quite a few similar examples of contact between Chinese and non-Chinese manuscript cultures. It was almost never a one-way influence, but an interaction that led to changes on both sides.