As regards their matters of administration, they write with wooden twigs. Their writing looks like frightened snakes and writhing earthworms; it looks like the magical writing in the Books of Heaven; their characters look like the wu, fan, Gong[?] and chi of musical notation. They are closely related to the characters of the Uighurs.
I, Ting, have concerned myself with this. The Tartars originally had no writing. Today, however, they use three different kinds.
For written communication in the Tartar lands proper they always use small pieces of wood, three or four inches in length on which they make incisions in the four corners. If for instance ten horses are to be sent, they make ten notches. As a rule they only cut the required number. Their customs are pure and their thoughts honest. Hence also their language is without ambiguity. According to their laws, liars are punished by death. Thus nobody dares to betray. Even if they had no writing, they would still be capable of founding an independent state. These small pieces of wood are the same as the wooden tablets of antiquity.
For their written correspondence with the Uighurs they utilise the Uighur system of writing. Chinqai is the master of this. The Uighur system of writing has only 21 letters. The others are formed by adding something on one or the other side of the letter.
For written correspondence with the conquered Chinese states, with the Kitan and the Jurchen, they make use exclusively of Chinese writing. Chucai [Ch’u-ts’ai] is the master of this. But apart from this, before the date at the end of the letter, Chinqai in his own hand writes in Uighur letters the words: ‘To be sent to NN’. This is presumably a security measure that is directed only at Chucai. Hence every piece of writing has to be marked with such a confirmation in Uighur; without it it has no official validity. This is obviously a measure to make sure that all correspondence passes through Chinqai’s hands, in order to ensure mutual control.
In the city schools in Yanjing it is mainly the Uighur writing that is taught along with translation into the Tartar language. No sooner have the pupils learnt to translate, than they begin to function as interpreters and then in company with Tartars go on violent rampages, where without inhibitions they begin to act as masters of punishment or favour and extort bribes, goods, services, and foodstuffs.
“Heida Shilüe (Brief Account of the Black Tartars),” in Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing, edited by Tabish Khair, Martin Leer, Justin D. Edwards, and Hanna Ziadesh (Indiana U. Press, 2005), pp. 109-111