How the Turtle Lost its Shell

Sino-Tibetan Divination Manuals and Cultural Translation

  • Duncan J. Poupard
Keywords: divination, Naxi, Sino-Tibetan, cultural translation


This article is a pan-Himalayan story about how the turtle, as a cultural symbol within Sino-Tibetan divination iconography, came to more closely resemble a frog. It attempts a comparative analysis of Sino-Tibetan divination manuals, from Tibetan Dunhuang and Sinitic turtle divination to frog divination among the Naxi people of southwest China. It is claimed that divination turtles, upon entering the Himalayan foothills, are not just turtles, but become something else: a hybrid symbol transformed via cultural diffusion, from Han China to Tibet, and on to the Naxi of Yunnan. Where borders are crossed, there is translation. If we go beyond the linguistic definition of translation towards an understanding of transfer across semiotic borders, then translation becomes the reforming of a concept from one cultural framework into another. In this way, cultural translation can explain how divination iconography can mutate and transform when it enters different contexts; or in other words, how a turtle can come to lose its shell.

How to Cite
Poupard, D. (2018). How the Turtle Lost its Shell. HIMALAYA - The Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, 38(2), 4-19.
Research Articles