The Khitan scripts were the writing systems for the now-extinct para-Mongolian Khitan language used in the 10th-12th century by the Khitan people who had established the Liao dynasty in Northeast China. There were two scripts, the large script and the small script. These were functionally independent and appear to have been used simultaneously. The Khitan scripts continued to be in use to some extent by the Jurchen people for several decades after the fall of the Liao dynasty until the Jurchens fully switched to a script of their own. Examples of the scripts appeared most often on epitaphs and monuments, although other fragments sometimes surface.
Many scholars recognize that the Khitan scripts have not been fully deciphered and that more research and discoveries would be necessary for a proficient understanding of them. The Khitan scripts are part of the Chinese family of scripts.
Knowledge of the Khitan language, which was written by the Khitan script, is quite limited as well. Although there are several clues to its origins, which might point in different directions, the Khitan language shares an ancestor with the Mongolian languages but is not one.
Abaoji of the Yelü clan, founder of the Khitan, or Liao Dynasty, introduced the original Khitan script in 920 CE. “Large script”, or “big characters" (大字), as it was referred to in some Chinese sources, was established to keep the record of the new Khitan state. The Khitan script was based on the idea of the Chinese script.
The Khitan large script was considered to be relatively simple. The large script characters were written equally spaced, in vertical columns, in the same way as the Chinese has been traditionally written. Although large script mostly uses logograms, it is possible that ideograms and syllabograms are used for grammatical functions. The large script has a few similarities to Chinese, with several words taken directly with or without modifications from the Chinese (e.g. characters 二,三,十,廿,月,日, which appear in dates in the apparently bilingual Xiao Xiaozhong muzhi inscription from Xigushan, Jinxi, Liaoning Province). Most large script characters, however, cannot be directly related to any Chinese characters. The meaning of most of them remains unknown, but that of a few of them (numbers, symbols for some of the five elements and the twelve animals that the Khitans apparently used to designate years of the sexagenary cycle) has been established by analyzing dates in Khitan inscriptions.
While there has long been controversy as to whether a particular monument belong to the large or small script, there are several monuments (steles or fragments of stelae) that the specialists at least tentatively identify as written in the Khitan large script. However, one of the first inscriptions so identified (the Gu taishi mingshi ji epitaph, found in 1935) has been since lost, and the preserved rubbings of it are not very legible; moreover, some believe that this inscription was a forgery in the first place. In any event, the total of about 830 different large-script characters are thought to have been identified, even without the problematic Gu taishi mingshi ji; including it, the character count rises to about 1000. The Memorial for Yelü Yanning (dated 986 CE) is one of the earliest inscriptions in Khitan large script.
The Khitan small script was invented in about 924 or 925 CE by a scholar named Yelü Diela. He drew his inspiration from “the Uyghur language and script,” which he was shown by a visiting Uyghur ambassador at the Khitan court. For this reason, Khitan small script was originally thought to be a daughter script of the Uyghur alphabet.
Using a smaller number of symbols than large script, small script was less complex, yet still “able to record any word.” While small-script inscriptions employed some logograms as well, most words in small script were made using a blocked system reminiscent of the later Hangul writing of Korea, meaning that a word is represented by one group (square block) composed of several glyphs with individual phonetic meanings (somewhat similar to the jamo units of Hangul). Unlike Hangul's jamo, a Khitan phonetic symbol could represent not just a single vowel or consonant, but a CV or VC pair as well. Each block could incorporate two to seven such "phonetic element" characters, written in pairs within the block, with the first half of the pair on the left. If there were an odd number of characters in a block, the unpaired character would be centered below the preceding pair.
Although there is some speculation, it appears there are no characters that both scripts share. Periodically, epitaphs written using small script will be written using the large script method of linearity. Although small script had some similarities to Chinese, Khitan characters were often used to record Chinese words. The appearance of a likeness between a small script and a Chinese character does not aide in the reading of Khitan. For example, the Chinese character for ‘mountain’(山) is the same as the Khitan small script logogram for ‘gold’(and, thus, the name of the Jin Dynasty).
Of the 378 known small script characters, 125 are semantic, 115 are phonetic, and the remainder have not been deciphered. (Usually, it was possible to guess the phonetic value of an element if it has been used to transcribe a Chinese loanword in a Khitan inscription; otherwise, such phonetic values are hard to determine, as very little of the Khitan language is known.) Small script uses a mixture of logograms, syllabograms, and, as some as sources claim, a few single sound phonograms. Sometimes suffixes were written with syllabograms, just as single syllables sometimes were written with three syllabograms (with one each for the initial, medial, and final sounds of the syllable). Sometimes the initial consonants of syllables are indicated to be dental, labial, guttural, or nasal etc., based on the syllabograms involved. Additionally, vowels are sometimes indicated to be labial or non-labial, or pronounced in the front or back of the mouth.
Much of this information came from the "Khitan Script Research Group", led by the Mongolian scholar named Činggeltei, who used monuments, calendar, and similar Chinese texts to decipher sections of small script. A particularly valuable object of their study was the inscription on the Da Jin huangdi dotong jinglüe langjun xingji (大金皇帝都统经略郎君行记) stele, which is the only known bilingual Chinese-Khitan inscription. Produced during the Jurchen Jin Dynasty it, ironically, was originally (before the discovery of other Khitan inscriptions in 1922) thought to be in Jurchen.
Some of the characters of the Jurchen scripts have similarities to Khitan large script. According to some sources, the discoveries of inscriptions on monuments and epitaphs give clues to the connection between Khitan and Jurchen. After the fall of the Liao Dynasty, the Khitan (small-character) script continued to be used by the Jurchen people for a few decades, until fully replaced with Jurchen script and, in 1191, suppressed by imperial order.
There are no surviving examples of printed texts in the Khitan language, and aside from five example Khitan large characters with Chinese glosses in a book on calligraphy written by Tao Zongyi (陶宗儀) during the mid 14th century, there are no Chinese glossaries or dictionaries of Khitan.
The main source of Khitan texts are monumental inscriptions, mostly comprising memorial tablets buried in the tombs of Khitan nobility. There are about 17 known monuments with inscriptions in the Khitan large script, ranging in date from 986 to 1176, and about 33 known monuments with inscriptions in the Khitan small script, ranging in date from 1053 to 1171. The two scripts are mutually exclusive (never occurring together on the same monument), but it is not known why the Khitan people used two different scripts, or what determined the choice of which script to use.
In addition to monumental inscriptions, short inscriptions in both Khitan scripts have also been found on tomb murals and rock paintings, and on various portable artefacts such as mirrors, amulets, paiza (tablets of authority given to officials and envoys), and special non-circulation coins. A number of bronze official seals with the seal face inscribed in a convoluted seal script style of Khitan characters are also known.