Tangut script

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The Art of War written in Tangut
Script type
CreatorYeli Renrong
Time period
DirectionVertical right-to-left, left-to-right Edit this on Wikidata
LanguagesTangut language
Related scripts
Parent systems
ISO 15924
ISO 15924Tang (520), ​Tangut
Unicode alias

The Tangut script (Tangut: 𗼇𘝞; Chinese: 西夏文; pinyin: Xī Xià Wén; lit. 'Western Xia script') was a logographic writing system, used for writing the extinct Tangut language of the Western Xia dynasty. According to the latest count, 5863 Tangut characters are known, excluding variants.[1] The Tangut characters are similar in appearance to Chinese characters,[2] with the same type of strokes, but the methods of forming characters in the Tangut writing system are significantly different from those of forming Chinese characters. As in Chinese calligraphy, regular, running, cursive and seal scripts were used in Tangut writing.


According to the History of Song (1346), the script was designed by the high-ranking official Yeli Renrong in 1036.[3][4] The script was invented in a short period of time, and was put into use quickly. Government schools were founded to teach the script. Official documents were written in the script (with diplomatic ones written bilingually). A great number of Buddhist scriptures were translated from Tibetan and Chinese, and block printed in the script.[5] Although the dynasty collapsed in 1227, the script continued to be used for another few centuries. The last known example of the script occurs on a pair of Tangut dharani pillars found at Baoding in present-day Hebei province, which were erected in 1502.[6]


Stephen Wootton Bushell's decipherment of 37 Tangut characters
The Tangut character for "man", a relatively simple character

[Tangut] is remarkable for being written in one of the most inconvenient of all scripts, a collection of nearly 5,800 characters of the same kind as Chinese characters but rather more complicated; very few are made up of as few as four strokes and most are made up of a good many more, in some cases nearly twenty... There are few recognizable indications of sound and meaning in the constituent parts of a character, and in some cases characters which differ from one another only in minor details of shape or by one or two strokes have completely different sounds and meanings.[7]

Tangut characters can be divided into two classes: simple and composite. The latter are much more numerous. The simple characters can be either semantic or phonetic. None of the Tangut characters are pictographic, while the Chinese characters were at the time of their creation; this is one of the major differences between Tangut and Chinese characters.

The Tangut character "mud" is made with part of the character "water" (far left) and the whole of the character "soil"

Most composite characters comprise two components. A few comprise three or four. A component can be a simple character, or part of a composite character. The composite characters include semantic-semantic ones and semantic-phonetic ones. A few special composite characters were made for transliterating Chinese and Sanskrit.

The Tangut characters for "toe" (left) and "finger" (right), both characters having the same components

There are a number of pairs of special composite characters worth noting. The members of such a pair have the same components, only the location of the components in them is different (e.g. AB vs. BA, ABC vs. ACB). The members of such a pair have very similar meanings.

The Sea of Characters (Tangut: 𘝞𗗚; Chinese: 文海; pinyin: wén hǎi), a 12th century monolingual Tangut rhyming dictionary, analyzes what other characters each character is derived from. Its analyses illustrate another difference between Tangut and Chinese characters. In Chinese, typically, each semantic component has its own meaning, and each phonetic component its own sound; they contribute this meaning or sound to any complex character they appear in. By contrast, in the Sea of Characters analysis of Tangut, a component contributes the meaning or sound of some other character that contains it, potentially a different one in every appearance. For example, the component 𘤊 can have the meaning of "bird" (𗿼 *dźjwow, of which it is the left side), as in 𗿝 *dze "wild goose" = 𗿼 *dźjwow "bird" + 𗨜 *dze "longevity". But the same component is also used to convey meanings of bone, smoke, food, and time, among others.[8]

Some components take different shape depending on what part of the character they appear in (e.g., left side, right side, middle, bottom).[8]


Blockprinted page from the Pearl in the Palm found at the Northern Mogao Caves


6,125 characters of the Tangut script were included in Unicode version 9.0 in June 2016 in the Tangut block. 755 Radicals and components used in the modern study of Tangut were added to the Tangut Components block. An iteration mark, U+16FE0 𖿠 TANGUT ITERATION MARK, was included in the Ideographic Symbols and Punctuation block.[9] Five additional characters were added in June 2018 with the release of Unicode version 11.0. Six additional characters were added in March 2019 with the release of Unicode version 12.0. A further nine Tangut ideographs were added to the Tangut Supplement block and 13 Tangut components were added to the Tangut Components block in March 2020 with the release of Unicode version 13.0. The Tangut Supplement block size was changed in Unicode version 14.0 to correct the erroneous block end point (version 13: 18D8F → version 14.0: 18D7F).[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 《西夏文字共有5863个正字》 (in Simplified Chinese). Ningxia News. Archived from the original on 2007-03-02. Retrieved 2006-11-21.
  2. ^ Frederick W. Mote (2003). Imperial China 900–1800. Harvard University Press. pp. 395–. ISBN 978-0-674-01212-7.
  3. ^ 《宋史‧卷四百八十五‧列传第二百四十四‧外国一‧夏国上》 (in Simplified Chinese).
  4. ^ Heming Yong; Jing Peng (14 August 2008). Chinese Lexicography : A History from 1046 BC to AD 1911. OUP Oxford. pp. 377–. ISBN 978-0-19-156167-2.
  5. ^ Xu Zhuang (徐庄. 《略谈西夏雕版印刷在中国出版史中的地位》 (in Simplified Chinese). 出版学术网. Archived from the original on 2007-03-16. Retrieved 2007-03-05.
  6. ^ Nishida, Tatsuo (2010). "Xixia Language Studies and the Lotus Sutra (II)" (PDF). The Journal of Oriental Studies. 20. translated by Noriyoshi Mizujulle, Anthony George and Hamaki Kotsuki: 222–251.
  7. ^ Clauson, Gerard (1964). "The Future of Tangut (Hsi Hsia) Studies" (PDF). Asia Major. (New Series). 11 (1): 54–77.
  8. ^ a b West, Andrew (May 21, 2009). "Untangling the Web of Characters". www.babelstone.co.uk. Retrieved 2020-08-13.
  9. ^ "Unicode 9.0.0". The Unicode Standard. Retrieved 30 September 2021.
  10. ^ "Errata fixed in version 14.0.0". Retrieved 1 October 2021.


  • Grinstead, Eric (1972). Analysis of the Tangut Script. Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies Monograph Series. Lund: Studentlitteratur.
  • Kychanov, Evgenij Ivanovich Kychanov (1996). "Tangut". In Daniels, Peter T.; Bright, William (eds.). The World's Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 228–9. ISBN 0-19-507993-0.
  • Tatsuo, Nishida 西田龍雄 (1994). Seika moji: sono kaidoku no purosesu 西夏文字: その解讀のプロセス [Xixia script: the process of its decipherment] (in Japanese). Tokyo: Kinokuniya shoten. ISBN 4-314-00632-3.
  • Shi, Jinbo 史金波 (1981). "Lüelun Xixia wenzi de gouzao" 略论西夏文字的构造 [A sketch of the structure of the Tangut script]. Minzu yuwen lunji 民族语文论集 [A collection of essays concerning the languages of the ethnic minorities] (in Chinese). Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe. pp. 192–226.

External links[edit]