By Rachel Lung
TTR : traduction, terminologie, rédaction, Vol. 21:2 (2008)
Introduction: The unification of China under the Sui dynasty ended three centuries of disunion in China and started the prime era of Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) in Chinese history. It was a time when most neighboring states in Central and East Asia were keen to establish diplomatic and trading ties with China. In line with the Chinese political ideology of its emperor’s mandate, as the son of Heaven, to rule all people under Heaven, China considered country states, such as Paekche, Silla, Koguryo, Türk, and Vietnam, its vassal states, and expected them to pay tribute regularly, as part of their obligations, to symbolize their subordination to and respect for the Chinese Emperor. Countries not bestowed the vassal status in the Chinese political framework, such as Yamato and Sri Lanka, were considered “remote barbarians” in “remote territories”. Nevertheless, these countries also came to China to pay tribute, sometimes, with either the agenda of gaining recognition for newly established sovereigns, or a pure desire to learn the language, literature, culture, and institutions of law and politics of China.
Besides sending tribute, vassal states often performed the proper etiquette of presenting diplomatic letters regularly to China to sustain their reciprocal ties. As documented in specific memoirs of barbarians in standard histories, which sometimes incorporate the complete letters from certain foreign states, this diplomatic correspondence to China seemed to be mostly in Chinese, despite the fact that these countries did not usually speak or write Chinese in their home countries at all. Were these state letters actually composed in Chinese, or were they translated into Chinese? To undertake such analyses for all Asian states who presented letters to medieval China would be a task far beyond the scope of the present article. I shall, in fact, confine myself to the state letters presented by two Türkish qaqhans around the sixth and early seventh centuries.
The focus of our inquiry is whether the two state letters presented to Sui China in 584 and 607 were translated into Chinese, or composed in Chinese. We will begin with a brief description of the concept of the East Asian cultural sphere in medieval China, followed by a discussion of the way in which Asian historians dealt with diplomatic correspondence, to or from China, in the literature. This will be followed by a consideration of the Türkish relation with China in medieval times and a general view of the Türkic language of the time. The two Türkish letters will be analyzed, before linguistic and historical arguments are presented in support of my suggestion that they might well have been Chinese translations.