Came across this tweet today:

Puzzles of the final round of 2020 China National Linguistics Olympiad. It’s Tangut! (The question is: please match the Tangut words on the left with the meanings on the right.)

enter image description here

Any ideas how to solve this?

  • I don’t think I quite understood why the question was split into two parts? – dROOOze Aug 8 at 17:17
  • 4
    I’m voting to close this question because it is not about the Chinese language. This is an interesting question though. – fefe Aug 8 at 17:45
  • @fefe I believe Tangut fits under the umbrella of Chinese language, the name of our site. – Mo. Aug 8 at 17:50
  • If we want to establish something as on/off-topic, we need to move to meta. – Becky 李蓓 Aug 9 at 0:07

(This is a work in progress)

This question is a test of the ability to apply linguistics and Chinese character principles to solve the matching puzzle. I will assume the following, in order of most to least certain:

  • Four-character phrase patterns are religiously adhered to, due to a desire to keep textual rhythm;
  • The principles of Tangut character structure is roughly the same as Chinese character structure (mainly semantic and phonetic components);
  • "Simple concepts" are represented by "Basic characters". This is the character/writing system equivalent of the idea of a Swadesh List.

Now, I'll present how I would solve the puzzle.

(7) and (12)

As four-character rhythms are the most important factor, I'll start off by matching the four-character correspondences between Tangut and Chinese.

enter image description here

Each one of these corresponds to one of

  • 其徐如林
  • 不動如山

The matching character in the Tangut fragment is the second character, which therefore corresponds to 「如」. If the second Tangut character corresponds to 「如」 while Chinese 「如」 is the third character, this implies that the Tangut's equivalent of 「如」 works in the opposite direction to the Chinese 「如」.

As an analogy, Chinese 「的」 or 「之」 works in the opposite direction of English of.

There is a reduplicated character in (7), while there is no such reduplication in either of the Chinese equivalents. This means that the Tangut reduplication corresponds to the use of a filler character in the Chinese to keep the four-character rhythm, and the only filler character in use in the Chinese phrases is 「其」. (7) therefore corresponds to 「其徐如林」, with the reduplication meaning something like 「徐」 - consider the Tangut reduplication to be something like 「慢慢」.


- (7) means 其徐如林

- (12) means 不動如山


- The first character in (7) has a semantic field of (many) plants, trees;

- The first character in (12) has a semantic field of mountain.


If the first character in (12) has a semantic field of mountain and the only other phrase containing a character with a semantic field of mountain is 「峰」 (mountain peak) in 「峰雲」, then

(22) matches to 「峰雲」.


The second character in (22) is the Tangut equivalent of 「雲」.

Determination of the Tangut equivalent of 「氵」 (semantic component meaning water)

This is the character for cloud, and we can see that the left hand side component occurs in the following phrases:

「雲」 roughly has the following semantic fields:

  • Sky, weather, sun
  • Water

The Chinese phrases which may correspond to sky, weather, sun are:

  • 白露
  • (maybe) 龍神
  • 峰雲

The Chinese phrases which may correspond to water are:

  • 唾液
  • 白露
  • 峰雲
  • 泥土
  • 水門

so we can deduce that

probably means water rather than sky, sun, weather.

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Here are a few tools that might be of help:

If you're looking for a font that supports Tangut you can try:

1 𗵃𗼈 = 龍神

2 𗱈𗴂 = 白虎

3 𗢨 = 人

4 𗤻𗑗 = 蓮花*

5 𗋾 = 魚

6 𗦾 = 看

7 𘊳𗍊𘙥𘙥 = 其徐如林

8 𗛝𘊳 = 叢林

9 𗚐 = 擺動

10 𗠨𗉿 = 唾液

11 𗇛𗅣 = 螢火蟲

12 𘑗𗍊𗅋𗚛 = 不動如山

13 𘊏 = 蟲

14 𗋋𗼱 = 泥土

15 𗋽𗐺 = 水門

16 𗎄𗴂 = 白露

17 𗛝𗝠 = 林木

18 𗠉 = 嘴唇

19 𗑉 = 眼睛

20 𗑗 = 乾淨的

21 𗬼𗬍 = 絹絲

22 𘑗𗋑 = 峰雲

23 𘂰 = 雙

24 𘂳 = 中間的

*𗤻𗑗 literally means “clean flower.”

  • Apologise for any mistakes - I think this is pretty accurate though – dROOOze Aug 8 at 17:11
  • 1
    @dROOOze I think you should just write up your own answer. You did most of the work! – Mo. Aug 8 at 17:12
  • 4
    The most important part of the answer should not be the matching, as it might be trivial to get with the dictionaries listed. It should be how can one deduce these matching without the help of dictionaries, as in the competition environment. – fefe Aug 8 at 17:47
  • @dROOOze I switched the meanings for 4 and 9. You can take a look at the corresponding links I put up. I'm pretty sure 4 is "蓮花" and 9 is "擺動," although 9 could also seemingly mean 楊柳 so I can see where you got the idea that it might work for lotus. – Mo. Aug 9 at 8:41
  • Yeah, I'll check the list again. I'm sure I've made a couple of mistakes – dROOOze Aug 9 at 8:49

For a quick overview of Tangut characters and their structure we can look at a few excerpts from Tangut Language and Manuscripts: An Introduction by Jinbo Shi. The book contains a section entitled: Structure and Features of the Tangut Script. On page 150 we can see the following introduction:

Tangut Radicals

For a long time, Tangutologists informed by their experiences with the Chinese script tried to identify in Tangut certain shapes as radicals, supposedly matched by particular, integral meanings. 𘠣 is the radical of water, 𘤆 earth, 𘢌 human, 𘠐 not, 𘦞 grain, 𘢚 foot, 𘡩 wood, 𘥄 rock, 𘤻 slant, 𘥇 horse, 𘧘 heart, 𘨝 gold (metal), 𘨲 ghost (spirit), 𘩢 herb.

Some of the strongly representative ‘radicals’ are extracted from a series of characters which share a common shape and a similar meaning. For example, characters such as 𗅒 (short), 𗅐 (truthful), 𗅴 (covetous) all contain an element identical in shape, as well as a sense of 𗅋 (not): 𗅋 and 𘙲 (long) makes 𗅒 (short); 𗅋 and 𘗪 (deceptive) makes 𗅐 (truthful); 𗅋 and 𗣷 (sufficient, satisfied) make 𗅴 (covetous). Likewise, 𗚃 (peach), 𗝹 (elm), 𗛁 (chestnut), 𗚍 (rafter), 𗚋 (twig, branch), 𗟇 (tea), 𗛚 (boat), 𗟔 (carriage) all feature a common shape and a shared sense of 𗝠 (wood, tree). In yet another example, 𘟞 (knife), 𘖟 (spear), 𘖧 (needle), 𘖜 (lock), 𘖯 (pot), 𘟪 (iron), 𘗁 (steel), 𘗍 (copper) and many other characters share the common shape of 𘨝, which have to do with metals. So, it is anything but surprising that the forms of 𘠐, 𘡪 and 𘨝 should come to be recognized as radicals representing the ideas of “not” “wood” and “metal,” and thus used to analyze and infer the meanings of characters in which they are featured.

This method is effective under certain conditions, but it is only one aspect, and not even the most critical aspect of the formation of Tangut characters. A thorough study of the Tangut script reveals the following two noteworthy phenomena.

On page 147 there is a chart showing the composition of Tangut characters:

enter image description here

Page 142 begins a section about composite characters:

1.2.1 Compounds

Compounds are composed of two, three and even four constituent characters. But usually, only one radical or major part (left, right, top, bottom, middle, etc.) is taken from each character to form a new one. According to the Tangut book of rimes, the Precious Rimes of the Sea of Characters, there are more than sixty ways of forming compounds, which can be further divided into compound ideograms, phonetic-ideographic compounds, phono-semantic compounds, sino-phono-ideograms, fanqie compounds and diphthong compounds.

  1. A compound ideogram combines the meanings of its two constituent characters.

Since the form of its composition resembles that of a multi-character phrase, a compound ideogram may also be categorized as either parallel, modifier-modified, object-verb, complementary, or subject-predicate. For example:
– 𗋽 (water) and 𗼱 (earth, dirt) make 𗋋 (mud), in a parallel structure.
– 𗤶 (heart) and 𘊄 (evil) form 𗧟 (harm), in a modifier-modified structure.
– 𗝠 (wood) and 𗍶 (carve) make 𗛥 (chiseling), in an object-verb structure.
– 𘟍 (heat with water) and 𗱵 (seethe) make 𘟎 (boil), in complementation.
– 𗤶 (heart) and 𗊢 (heavy, thick) make 𘓑 (stubborn), subject-predicate.
Compound ideograms are also formed by three distinct constituent characters. They look almost as if they are phrases or short sentences:
– 𘅋 (knee), 𗁅 (hand) and 𗄖 (go) make 𘅌 (crawl);
– 𗅋 (not), 𗉅 (hot) and 𗎒 (cold) make 𗆙 (warm);
– 𗵒 (gold), 𘊟 (silver) and 𗣒 (round) make 𗵧 (ingot);
– 𗁮 (flesh, meat), 𗊉 (liquid) and 𗤋 (nothing) make 𗯅 (corroded);
– 𗤶 (heart), 𗅋 (not) and 𗬁 (cease) make 𗃢 (worry,concern);
– 𗔥 (struggle), 𗅋 (not) 𗊫𗑣 (harmony) make 𗑸 (contend);
– 𗅋 (not), 𗣫 (small) and 𗿒 (large) make 𗬴 (medium, moderate).
This is obviously an interesting way to merge the meanings of up to three ideograms into one. And the resulting compound character conveys its sense in virtue of its composition.

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