Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Poem about Manchus

This poem reflects on the privilege of being Manchu in (presumably) the 19th century, and also casts a jaundiced eye towards Manchu life at the founding of the Qing. Who could be gloomy, the poet asks, when it’s so nice to be Manchu.

manju irgebun [滿洲詩]    A Poem about Manchus
Staatsbibliothek 14.39 (View Online)
baibi ališacuka,    Depressed for no reason?
ede tookabucina,    Let this banish your melancholy.
fukjin neire manju šu,    Manchu culture at the founding of the dynasty,
gūnin suse gisun muwa,    was crude in thought and coarse in speech.
5 giyangnan baici aibini,    If we seek an explanation, what is there?
ulhiljeme gūninja,    Snap out of it and consider:
huwekiyen yendere jalin,    For happiness and prosperity,
se selaci wajiha.    all we do is enjoy the years.

Translation Notes

ulhiljeme. This is ulhi-, “understand,” with a suffix -lje-. This suffix appears in verbs with a meaning of “winding, shaking, twisting,” but also in dekde-lje-mbi, “to start (from fright while sleeping).” I’ve chosen the translation “snap out of it” to convey the idea of coming suddenly and unexpectedly to realization.


  1. I wonder if verses 3-5 could be read differently, that is with šu meaning ‘splendid, magnificent, well-ordered’ (or the like) instead of ‘culture’:
    ‘Manchu(s) at the founding of the dynasty were magnificent,
    [albeit] crude in thought and coarse in speech.
    If we seek an explanation, what is there?’
    It seems to me that it gives a mre satisfactorily reading than applying things like a gūnin and a gisun to a šu. It also makes the poem, especially the question verse 5, more understandable: ‘Manchus of old were superb, despite being not refined. Why is that? They enjoyed the years.’.

    Also, v.7, I would take yendere as a verb: ‘for happiness to arise,...’.

    1. We could definitely take šu to be an adjective. In my experience the connotations of šu are quite the opposite of 'gūnin suse gisun muwa', as in Jakdan's poem on Lotus flowers where he uses the words 'dignified' (ambalinggū) and 'elegant' (fujurungga) to play on the šu in šu ilha. But that contrast doesn't need to create a problem, because the poet could be using it for effect, as in the English epithet 'Magnificent Bastard.'

      And you're right, it's not completely clear who is the subject of the last two lines. I took it to be a reference to contemporary Manchus living on the dole, who don't need to do anything by let the years go by. I was thinking the whole force of the poem was intended to say: "Don't be so glum, life used to be brutish for us Manchus, but now we live at ease." But I suppose it could also be "Follow the example of the magnificently barbaric Old Manchus, who just enjoyed the passing years."