A post from Shady Characters

A reader asks: what does this say?

Image courtesy of Paul H. Tanimura.
Image courtesy of Paul H. Tanimura.

A few weeks back, reader Paul Tanimura left a comment asking for help in identifying the symbols shown in this image. It’s a piece of embroidered brocade fabric that has been used to wrap a document describing a Japanese family tree, and though it bears (to my eyes at least) some distinctly manga-esque animal figures the family claims that it hasn’t been touched since the last entry was made in 1782. Paul writes:

This is […] an inquiry to solicit the wisdom of [Shady Characters] readers for deciphering the ‘shady characters’ woven into a golden brocade, believed to be produced in the 17th century China by a Christian missionary and subsequently exported to Japan before Christianity was forbidden. […] There are two character strings, each composed of four characters, possibly in reference to Jesus and Mary.

There’s much more detail at Paul’s website, including his own speculations on the two rows of text:

The top row starts with the letter M and followed by a mirror-image B. The third letter looks like Greek lambda or A without the horizontal bar. The fourth letter appears to be an ampersand made of a lower-case e and t, current letter &. If the third letter is A, the letters A and M combined could mean Auspice Maria, a familiar combination in the Catholic Church for the Virgin Mary. The mirror-image B may be another ampersand with upper-case E and T. Then the first line could be deciphered as M ET A et [and so on], perhaps meaning ‘as well as Virgin Mary’.

The second line looks very strange, but the first letter which looks like a spring might be a deformed ω(omega) scribed by somebody unfamiliar with Greek script. Then the third letter which looks like a mirror-image C could be α(alpha), implying a reference to the Book of Revelation. The second letter is enigmatic but appears to be a letter I with a banner with two dots, maybe symbolic of the sun and the moon. The fourth letter looks a straight forward E. Then the middle line could be deciphered as Iα(alpha) Eω(omega) [and so on]. IE are the first two letters of the Latin spelling IESUS for Jesus. Thus the whole line could mean the Holy Name of Jesus.

It isn’t punctuation-related, I grant you, but it is an interesting problem. The letter-like characters are unfamiliar to me, but have any Shady Characters readers come across anything like this before? Leave your thoughts and insights in the comments below!

20 comments on “A reader asks: what does this say?

  1. Comment posted by Przemysław Sakrajda on

    To me it looks like the whole text is mirrored and it’s more in Cyrillic than Greek. It goes: VMEL – YeSG. In old texts written in Cyrillic some letters are deformed or mirrored especially in other languages than Russian.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Interesting! Thanks for taking a look at this. Assuming it is Cyrillic, do the letters suggest anything to you?

    2. Comment posted by AB on

      No, Cyrillic does not explain anything here, sorry.

      The weird lower case “e” is not a Cyrillic shape (not more than it is Latin, anyhow), and the turned “L” could be actually “Г”, except that the double dots there do not make any sense.

      The Greek Lambda is the same in Cyrillic, but the “omega” or whatever it is is absolutely out of place.

  2. Comment posted by chibimagic on

    I don’t think it means anything. This is probably their equivalent of modern day non-sensical Engrish T shirts, or Asian character tattoos. Most likely, someone found some characters from another script that they thought looked cool and just repeated them.

    1. Comment posted by AB on

      Nice idea, except what could that found script be?

    2. Comment posted by chibimagic on

      I meant script in the sense of “Roman script”, “Russian script”, etc., not in the sense of a single book. As isolated as Japan was back then, they still would have had access to text written in other languages. Whoever designed this probably gathered the coolest looking letters from various sources and mashed them all together.

  3. Comment posted by AB on

    1) The 3rd shape in the first line does not like “et” to me, unless it’s a very bad copy. In all the shapes I’ve seen of the ampersand where “e” is still clearly visible, the cross stroke of the “t” is very prominent. This one actually looks very close to a cursive lower-case “a”.
    2) Suppose someone just copied unfamiliar shapes from a book. He was careful enough to put serifs on most of the shapes in their proper places. He also made two curious mistakes: in no font I can think of does the M have these sharp spikes on top, they are just plain wrong. Also, the Greek Lambda’s stems have different thickness, as they should have, but all the other forms (except for that squiggle) are uniform thickness.
    What 18th century book could have all this?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi AB — thanks for all your comments! With all this in mind, do you have any ideas as to where the script could have come from?

  4. Comment posted by Ally Gillon on

    If it was embroidered by a Christian missionary, you could try an organisation like OMF, a missionary organisation that has been active in Asia since the 19th century. I just mention them because I knew some OMF missionaries and I’m sure there will be records and knowledge within the organisation on the work of individuals from that time.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Ally — a great suggestion! I’ll pass it on to Paul.

    2. Comment posted by Ray Porter on

      OMF is unlikely to be of very much help. We only entered Japan in 1952 after expulsion from China and this looks to be much older.
      Grosshans comment is interesting re. scripts. A much earlier creation of scripts was practised by the Great Church of the East (other referred to as the Nestorians) who were in China in at the latest the seventh century and may have also gone to Japan – Nara and Kyoto having some artefacts which have been identified as Christian. Their scripts were usually related to their native Syriac which these don’t relate to. The bottom line looks like the word zoe which is Greek for life and would be appropriate of a record of dead ancestors.

  5. Comment posted by Frédéric Grosshans on

    In the 19th and early 20th century, missionaries in East asia have invented several writing systems ; some have superficial similarity with the character shown here ( http://www.omniglot.com/writing/fraser.htm and http://www.omniglot.com/writing/pollardmiao.htm ) and some with a more Chinese look ( http://oldchinesebooks.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/new-phonetic-character/ ). These are much to late to be the character portrayed. But I’m almost certain that many other writing systems have been invented by missionaries in the area since the 17th century and have been forgotten since. This may be one of them.

  6. Comment posted by Mackenzie Kelly on

    For dates starting 17.., we are talking 18th century. We are currently in the 21st Century. Since I know dates but am woefully ignorant of internet lingo, my Tumblr web site maybe grandpa27kelly2.

  7. Comment posted by Paul H. Tanimura on

    Hi, Keith Houston, Przemyslaw Sakraida, AB, chibimagic, Ally Gillon, Frederic Grosshans and Mackenzie Kelly, I am grateful to you all for taking moments to have a look at the enigmatic symbols in the brocade. The piece of embroidery is made of gold and silk and appears to be too expensive to place non-sensical characters to wrap a scroll as precious as a family tree. A suggestion that the character strings may be of some kind of phonetic alphabets invented by Christian missionaries is intriguing indeed. I would like to follow the line of thought. The drawings which Keith describes manga-esque animal figures are most likely the official headgear of Ming mandarins. The hats worn by Candida Xu and Xu Guangqi in the illustration at http://ricci.bc.edu/people/ferdinand-verbiest/ closely resemble the illustration of the brocade. There is also a possibility that this brocade is a covert clandestine Christian artifact to evade prosecution. In this case, some unrecognizable characters may have been added intentionally to confuse inspectors……. Many thanks for your valuable comments.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      So that’s what they are. I saw manga frogs!

      I’m glad to have been of help. Please let us know how your investigations go! I’m sure all of the commenters here would be very interested to hear what your conclusions are.

    2. Comment posted by Mackenzie Kelly on

      I was not helpful. My knowledge of Chinese ideograms is nil. The fact that the piece of brocade has been preserved is probably the most important fact even though the reason for saving is lost. We don’t keep scraps around unless we think that they are important.
      Mack Kelly

  8. Comment posted by A. Peon on

    I stared at this for a while a few weeks ago also noticing the apparent similarity to Greek or Cyrillic scripts. Obviously if it were intricately hand-woven someone would have put some time into planning symbols…

    The unlikely theory that I could come up with (but not test for lack of familiarity with Japanese in any form) is that it miiight be a stylization of a Japanese script into [Roman|Greek|Cyrillic]-‘looking’ forms. Or in other words, a headache-inducing choice of ‘font.’ For instance the ‘umlauts’ as placed don’t look like anything that belongs to well-known forms of Cyrillic, but ‘double marks next to an angle’ are common in both katakana and hiragana, and the ‘loop-de-loop’ miiight even ‘just’ be stylization/embellishment of a line used to mark a long vowel, say?

    I’m also trying to consider it from the perspective of perhaps a Westerner trying to describe any form of Japanese script to either another Westerner or someone in a neighboring country without personal familiarity. But the other symbols would strongly suggest a domestically Japanese origin, right?

    Relying a bit on the following, thanks to the other poster for the link:



    1. Comment posted by Paul Tanimura on

      Hi, A. Peon,
      Thank you for your remark on the characters of the brocade. You suggested that the two dots and the loop-de-loop in the charater strings might be related to the Japanese diacritical symbols such as ‘dakuten’ and ‘handakuten’. However, Japanese diacritical marks such as ‘dakuten’ or two dots and ‘handakuten’ or a cirlce are only used for Japanese kana scripts and not in Romanized scripts. It is because ‘dakuten’ and ‘handakuten’ indicate different consonants, while each Roman consonant charater is assigned a specfic sound when used in Romanized Japanese. The only diacritial mark used in Romanized writing is the macron or a flat line over one of the vowel charaters, that is, a, e, i, o and u, indicating the vowel is pronounced long. It is highly unlikely that dots and loops in the brocade are linked to Japanese diacritical symbols in any way.
      I do appreciate your interesting remark. But for now it still remains enigmatic.

  9. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

    Maybe it was just a left-over fragment of expensive cloth used for a decorative curtain or tapestry or robe. This unused remnant was repurposed as a “book cover” for the family history, a book equally precious to its owners.

    Perhaps the European-style characters were an illiterate attempt to pretend to knowledge of the Christian books. There are quite a few other examples of people attempting to use scripts they did not really know.

    Or they could be the arcane symbols of a sect which developed secretly after the prohibition of Christianity in Japan. If so, the solution is to found by searching for underground, hidden Christians in Japan. Even if they are still there, they will most likely maintain their secrecy, knowing you are looking for them.

Leave a comment

Required fields are marked *. Your email address will not be published. If you prefer to contact me privately, please see the Contact page.

Leave a blank line for a new paragraph. You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>. Learn how your com­ment data is pro­cessed.