Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mnemotechnic (Knotted Cords)


Confucius meeting Lao-Tse ca. 518 BC

In China the most ancient mode of recording thought was accomplished by chieh sheng or "knotted cords", which is alluded to by Lao-Tze in his Tao Teh King (written in the 6th century before Christ) [1] as the ancient and venerable, though awkward, mode of writing, and also by Confucius in the third appendix to the Yih King.[2]

Samoan knotting patterns

        All detailed knowledge of the use of knotted cords in China has been entirely lost, but we can easily understand that it was a mnemotechnic method of remembering data of various kinds and communicating ideas.  The same practice prevailed in ancient Peru as well as among the islanders of Oceania, and seems to have been common all over the globe among peoples of a primitive civilisation.

Malanggan (funerary) knotted sculpture From New Ireland, Papua New Guinea.

To'o God image of wood wrapped in knotted sennit cord found in the Society Islands, Tahiti, 1881 (British Museum). 

        In South America the knotted cords are called "quippu" and some that are still preserved in ethnological collections were used to indicate the tribute to be paid to the Incas by several tribes.  They consist of woolen threads, the different colors of which represent different kinds of produce:  corn, wheat, fruit, furs, etc., while the number of knots register the amount or measure.[3]

Two Inca quippus (approximately 600 survive mainly dating from 1400-1532 AD;  see Khipu Project Database)

        Herodotus informs us that King Darius when fighting the Scythians gave his orders to the Ionians in the form of a leathern thong with sixty knots in it, thereby indicating the number of days in which they should expect his return.  We thus see that the Persians employed the same mnemotechnic means that have been discovered in several South Sea islands as well as in America , and we may assume that the ancient Chinese knotted cords (chieh sheng) also were in principle the same.

Surviving portion of Darius I's inscription at Behistun describing the campaign against the Scythians (between 522 BC and 486 BC)

Frieze containing Darius I's inscription recording the major events of his life and reign at Behistun (Bistan, Iran)  describing the campaign against the Scythians (between 522 BC and 486 BC).

        Knotted cords were replaced by notched bamboo sticks, and the incised characters may in olden times have been as primitive as are mnemotechnic communications of the American Indians, such as prayer sticks and other pictorial writings as are still extant.

Native American prayer stick, ca. 1825, engraved wood, Detroit Institute of Art. 
("Great is a ripe sunflower, and great was the sun above my corn-fields. His fingers lifted up the corn-ears, his hands fashioned my melons, and set my beans full in the pods.  Therefore my heart is happy and I will lay many blue prayer sticks at the shrine of Ta-wa.")

[1]  See Lao-Tze's Tao Teh King, Chapter 80.

[2]  Section 23.  See James Legge's translation of  Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XVI, p. 385.

[3]  What can be done with knotted strings is well illustrated by the fact that a string alphabet has been invented for the use of the blind in which the letters are indicated by form or arrangement.  The knots are easily made and sufficiently different to be easily deciphered.  The Standard Dictionary II, p. 1780, contains an illustration of the string alphabet.

String alphabet for the blind,  1850, David McBeath and Robert Mylne, Edinburgh Asylum for the Blind.

Paul Carus, Chinese Astrology.  LaSalle, 1907, Open Court. 
Excerpt from first chapter, Chinese Script: Communication of Thought.
See also:  Bill Severn,  Knots That Built An Empire Boys Life, October 1961.



  1. Two weeks ago, a friend of mine mentioned the word "Quippu". I got intrigued and puzzled. I then said: "Quippu is a Quechua word,isn't it". I delved into books and I immediately fell in love with the simplicity.It's amazing how a humble tool could constitute a kind of blueprint for all Inca's life activities. It's worth saying that nowadays there are some communities in Peru that still uses it for story telling purposes.

    Natalia Bertolino
    from Argentina.

  2. Natalia -- I am so pleased that you found this and took the time to write. It's one of the posts here that really means a lot to me. Please visit again. Greetings (this evening) from Tuxedo Park, New York. Curtis