Not All Khans Are Equal

Not All Khans Are Equal

Greg Afinogenov, Ph.D. Candidate, Harvard University

In the fourth chapter of Sungyun’s famous Emu tanggu orin sakda-i sarkiyan—the Stories of 120 Old Men–which deals with “outer territory” affairs and Russia in particular, we find something odd:

Han 1

han 2

What is that strange dot doing to the left of the word han? Sure, an “n” in the initial position, and sometimes in the middle, will have a dot to the left—but this is clearly not the case here. The dot seems to have no discernible grammatical purpose. What’s going on?

For an explanation, we need to consult an odd and unfamiliar text: a Russian manuscript from 1750 wordily entitled Great Insults and Objectionable Words Pertaining to the Dishonoring of the Most August Majesty of All-Russian Monarchs and to the Despising of the Whole Slavo-Russian People, Copied from a Printed History Composed in the Manchu Language in the Reign of the Chinese Khan Kangxi Entitled ‘On His Conquest of the Khalkha and Eleuth People that Nomadize in Greater Tartary.’  Translated from the Manchu by Larion Rossokhin (or Rassokhin, or Razsokhin, as he is variously known), this text—surprisingly enough—is one of the first documents of Russian Sinology. Although it was never published, its lengthy commentaries in the footnotes suggest a deep knowledge of Manchu as a language as well as Qing culture more broadly. Rassokhin clearly benefited from his years as a student at the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission, where he lived between 1728 and 1739.

Footnote 11, on the reverse side of the manuscript’s fourth page, gives us our explanation:

We say han [хан], while in Mongol and Kalmyk [i.e., Oirat], as well as in the Manchu language, the word is pronounced han’ [хань – the Russian here roughly corresponds to Ch. hang, while the Manchu is closer to han]; this name is the title of His Majesty, which can also mean the same as “king” or “tsar.” The Manchus, to separate their Khan from the subordinate Mongol khans, in all affairs and in all messages they send to them, write this word han’ thusly:

han 3

While those Mongol khans are written with the addition of a dot on the left thusly:

han 4

Because the word han’ written with a dot no longer denotes an autocratic khan but rather a subordinate one or one who is under the control of another; and following this model the Manchus are not afraid to use the word also for neighboring autocratic lords—including Most August All-Russian Monarchs, who hold autocratic right from ancient times—in the letters of friendship they send them. Yet it is most likely that the Manchus are hoping that none of their neighbors knows their language or the power of their writing [sily ikh pis’ma], while the Jesuits who reside in China have long known about this, but fearing that they will incur the Chinese khan’s wrath, they do not announce this to anybody.[1] 

In other words—as the Russians were keenly aware—this peculiar method of writing the word han was deeply bound up with tribute-system assumptions about the emperor’s priority above all other rulers.

Yet, even assuming that it is true, something is incomplete in Rassokhin’s explanation. Rarely is the word han actually applied to the emperor in Manchu texts; it is far more common to see him referred to as ejen, “lord.”  So why did the Manchus invent this particular distinction, introducing an apparently inexplicable dot in the middle of a normal word? It’s hard to arrive at a definite answer. Perhaps the Qing used the word han strategically when they sought to negotiate their sovereignty over the Mongols.  Or perhaps they thought the Russian tsar—who, they believed, styled himself the cagan han (“White khan”)—would understand no other language. If we can discover more instances of the use of han in Qing documents, we may be able to get more answers.

[1] Archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg Branch, razriad II, o. 1, d. 118, l. 4v-5.


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