Arthur Sze On Ancient Inca and Chinese Narratives

A poet is above all else passionate about language. And quipus have been my recent vehicle to explore what language can do.

The eleventh edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a quipu as “a device made of a main cord with smaller varicolored cords attached and knotted and used by the ancient Peruvians (as for calculating).” The word quipu is from Quechua and means knot. Arthur_sze_2 

I became interested in quipus many years ago when I discovered that quipus might encode language. In my last book, Quipu (Copper Canyon Press, 2005), I was interested in harnessing dyed strings of language along with forms of knotting. One form of knotting, it seemed to me, could be simple anaphoric repetition. In the next-to-last section of “Didyma,” I used the word “because” fifteen times to initiate a series of causes, then I used a section divider to create a gap before presenting fifteen different effects. Because no cause leads clearly to a subsequent effect, no one is able to see the universal nexus of causes and effects.

In the title poem, “Quipu,” I employed a different form of knotting where the word “as” is used again and again, with varying meanings. The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary lists three meanings of “as” as an adverb and eight meanings of “as” as a conjunction. I utilized the word “as” in each of its possible meanings and then revealed them in section seven. My wife, the poet Carol Moldaw, studied with Robert Fitzgerald at Harvard and has often mentioned how he talked about “elegant variation” as a means to create rich layers in poetry. I thought of repetition with a twist and consciously worked with this polysemous form of knotting when I kept repeating the word “as.”

return to Inca quipus, I began investigating them and discovered there
were numerical and non-numerical quipus. The numerical quipus had knots
that employed a base ten system. Different kinds of knots encoded
different numbers, and their position on a cord could mark ones, tens,
and hundreds, for instance. With this system, the Incas could record
such information as census data, taxes, potatoes in storage, sandals,
and outputs of gold mines. If there were a famine, a quipu could record
where food was: potatoes could be moved out of mountainside storage to
feed people, and knots could be untied and retied to keep the
information current.

quipus, however, are where the most interesting research currently
lies. There is an historical account of how an Inca runner came up the
mountainside (the quipus, spun, dyed, and knotted out of alpaca wool,
or occasionally cotton, were portable and lightweight) and pulled out a
quipu. Someone read it, and indigenous people ran to a neighboring
village to join a revolt against the Spanish. Here, of course, is one
among many accounts that quipus carry narrative information.

Gary Urton and Jeffrey Quilter at Harvard University are two leading
quipu researchers, and Gary Urton is currently investigating twenty-one
quipus recently discovered in Peru. He believes he has decoded the
place Puruchuco in several of them. Jeffrey Quilter contacted me about
the possibility of Asian quipus. At first I was dubious. I always
assumed that the first writing in China came from divination, from
oracle bones.

I visited Taiwan in 2002, I met Tien-tai Wu, Director of the Institute
of Ethnic Relations and Culture at National Dong Hwa University. The
next year she visited me in Santa Fe and did a presentation at the
Institute of American Indian Arts. Over lunch, I described how I was
interested in quipus, and she astonished me by writing out four
characters used to describe the earliest Chinese writing: chieh sheng chi shih.
The four characters can be translated as “the record of knotted cords.”
Although there is no book with this title—the phrase refers to how
Chinese writing existed before characters–the first two characters
contain the silk radical. I assume that ancient Chinese quipus were
composed of spun, dyed, and knotted silk.

then began to look for references to quipus in ancient Chinese
literature, and David Hinton shared two references. The oldest is in
chapter eighty of the Tao Te Ching:

“Bring it about that the people will return to the use of the knotted rope” (Tao Te Ching,
translated by D.C. Lau) and the second reference is in “Thoughts,” a
poem by Tu Fu: “Someone started knotting ropes, and now we’re/mired in
the glue and varnish of government.”(The Selected Poems of Tu Fu, translated by David Hinton).

the first instance, the reference carries the implication that
communication by quipus exemplified a simpler, purer time; but, in the
second, Tu Fu implies that government bureaucracy and snafus may have
all started with the creation of quipus.

not sure where all of these investigations will lead, but, as W.H.
Auden once remarked, a poet is above all else passionate about
language. And quipus have been my recent vehicle to explore what
language can do. —Arthur Sze

Arthur Sze will give a lecture and a reading at the 2007 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference.