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The Black-headed and the Red-faced
in Tangut Indigenous Texts



In a few years it will be already a centenary since Russian traveler and Central Asian explorer colonel P.K. Kozlov discovered in 1909 the Tangut treasure hidden in a suburgan (Mongolian for stupŕ) in Khara Khoto. From this time on, the Tangut material from Khara Khoto (both written and artistic) is being systematically studied by scholars in different countries. But nevertheless, today, as many years ago, the Tanguts and the civilization they created in some aspects remain a mystery. Such situation first of all is due to the fact that Tangut indigenous texts are still beyond scholarly comprehension.

In order to reveal the Tangut mystery and reconstruct Tangut world-view, it is necessary to decode the information given in indigenous writings, particularly, in poetry (ceremonial odes and ritual songs), and to find its reflection in art objects1, since both written and artistic parts from Khara Khoto suburgan represent a single source of information on the Tanguts (for details see Kepping 1999a).

Especially significant in this aspect are Tangut ceremonial odes, which, in my opinion, belong to the most ancient layer in Tangut poetry. They contain Tangut mythological ideas about the provenance of Tangut people, the place the people originated from, their wanderings, their pre-Buddhist beliefs, etc. The content of the odes today is actually impenetrable, since, on the one hand, the odes are partly written in a special language (Tangut ritual language, for details see below), which demands special study; on the other hand, hints and symbols peculiar to the parts of odes written in common language are still not known to the scholars.

It is clear that a laborious preparatory work is to be done, which includes establishing the meaning of some crucial terms constantly used in Tangut poetical works. Without understanding the meaning of these words, it is impossible to penetrate the content of the odes and the translation of the odes will inevitably represent a kind of senseless «threading words on a string». 

There are two terms, namely, «black-headed» and «red-faced», which are often used not only in poetry, but in other Tangut indigenous texts as well. These terms were singled out in the 1930s by the great Russian scholar N.A. Nevskiy and defined by him as terms of Tanguts’ self-designation. Since then, the problem of the black-headed and red-faced was discussed by many scholars, but despite all the efforts, no scientifically grounded interpretation was suggested so far and today these two terms still remain a puzzle.

Below I give my understanding of these two terms, which, I would like to stress, in no way pretends to be ultimate, since not all examples of the usage of these terms in the odes (because of their obscurity) are recorded in this essay. But first of all let us turn to the explanations of these terms given by different scholars in course of past decades...


1 Due to the exhibitions of Tangut art objects from Khara Khoto suburgan throughout the world in the 1990s, not only scholars, but general public as well, had an opportunity to appreciate the fascinating pieces of Tangut art (Piotrovsky 1993). In this essay I have made an attempt to find in Tangut tanka corroboration of my ideas deduced from examining Tangut written sources (see notes 24 and 26).


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The Black-headed and the Red-faced
in Tangut Indigenous Texts

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