Monday, October 1, 2018

G45.14: A Letter from a Single Mother

This is a letter from a woman who became pregnant out of wedlock, written to the father of her twin children, who left her two months before they were born. It shows that this particular Grebenshchikov manuscript (F. 75, Op. 1, No. 45) includes other types of short literary works beyond poems and songs.

Soon after her children were born, her parents died, leaving her to raise the babies alone. The letter is written three years after her parents’ death. The children are now toddlers, but still young enough to nurse.

bodoci amga emge-i beye gemu sain fulgiyan buraki de enteheme giyalabuhangge geri fari ilan aniya oho,

   I think it has been roughly three years since my parents became permanently parted from us by the good red dust.

yacin gashan jasigan hafumbure de manggangge hūwai sere emu mukei haran, ede kidume gūniha tolgin banjinafi, monggo sambi1 nimeku de darubuha,

The disaster that made it difficult to get letters through to you was a high flood, because of which I was haunted by dreams of longing, and then I sprained my neck1 and was sick for a while.

buru bara abka na korsocun bihe seme ainaci ojoro,

But what can one do about the vague misfortunes of Heaven and Earth?

geli gūnici biya de baime genehe heng o, šungga gurung de hono beye teile, komso maktame2 jodoro jy nioi, sunggari bira de kemuni emhun usaka bade, muse oci ai gese niyalma,

And then I think about Heng’e, who went pleading to the moon and continues to live by herself in the Osmanthus Palace, and also the weaving2 girl Zhinü who is still alone in that forsaken place on the Milky Way, and I wonder: What kind of people are we?

adarame enteheme hajilame banjime mutembi,

How is it that we can live continually in love?

ubade gūnime isinaha de uthai, songgoro be nakafi injehe,

When I arrive at this place in my thoughts, I stop crying and I smile.

fakcafi juwe biyai dubede bahafi kaba jui banjiha, 

Two months after you left, I gave birth to twins.

te emgeri huhuri jui ofi, juju jaja injere gisurere be, mujako ulhimbi,

Now they are still nursing, but I really do understand their babbling, laughing chatter!

soro baime šulehe3 jafame mutufi, eniye ci aljaha seme banjici ombi,

Since they have grown old enough to ask for jujubes and to hold pears3, it think it would be OK for them to be parted from their mother.

gingguleme agu sinde amasi buki,

I would respectfully like to present them to you.

werihe fulgiyan gu-i šu ilha be, mahala de hadafi, temgetu obuhabi,

I have taken the red jade lotus flower you left behind and affixed it to my hat, making a memento of it.

jui be buhi de sindafi tebeliyehe erinde, uthai fusihūn beye hashū ici de bisire adali oki,

When I put the kids on my knees and hug them, I want it to be like I am all around them.

agu sini da gashūha babe tuwakiyame mutehe be donjifi, gūnin-i dolo kek sehe,

I heard that you were able to garrison in the place you were originally sworn to, and it pleased my heart.

fusihūn beye ere jalan de juwederakū, bucetele gūwabsi akū,

I am loyal in this world, and there is nowhere else for me until I die.

sithen-i dolo buyecuke jaka šunggeri ilha nimanggi4 be šuwe-i sarahabi,

I have taken the lovely things and elegant catkins4 that were in the box and spread them out.

buleku de bakcilame injeme miyamirengge, fiyen fiyan be aifini ijuhakakūbi,

I have stood before the mirror smiling and dressing up, but it has been a long time since I have put on makeup.

agu si dailanara niyalmai adali, fusihūn beye sula hehe ombi,

You are like someone who has gone off to war, and I have become a single mother.

udu giyalabufi dere acahakū bicibe, eigen sargan waka seci, ojoro kooli bio,

Though we have parted and not seen each other, is there any sense in saying that we are not husband and wife?

damu gūnici amga emge emgeri omolo tuwaha bime, kemuni ice urun be emgeri sabuha akūngge,

Yet I think of my parents, who saw the grandchildren, but have still not seen the bride.

gūnin giyan de tolbime gūnici, inu acanarakū babi,

If you think about what is right and reasonable, there is something unsuitable about it.

ishun aniya emge-i icihiyame sindara erinde, giyan-i tomon de genefi, urun-i teisu be emgeri akūmbuci acambi,

Next year, on the date of my mother’s burial, we should go to her grave, and I will stand in the place of the bride and do my utmost to meet you at that time.

ereci julesi lung gung5-i hesebun sain ofi, gala be seferere erin edelerakū, musei jui fuhai6 jalgan golmin de, hono amasi julesi yabure jugūn bi,

After that, the fate of the Dragon Palace5 being good, there will be no shortage of opportunities for them to take your hand, and as it seems6 our children’s lives will be long, there is a road by which they may often go back and forth.

banjirengge agu-i beyebe olhošome ujelereo, 

Has life been treating you well and generously?

fi-i dubede gisurehe seme wajirakū, 

I have talked to the point that the brush is used up, but I am still not done.

erei jalin fusihūn sargan agu-i elhe be baime gingguleme donjibume jasiha,For this reason, this humble woman dictates this letter, respectfully asking after your health.

Translation Notes

1 monggo sambi. In this context I can’t make sense of the obvious literal meanings of these words, “Mongol” and “know.” It is possible that these are the names of the twins, but she hasn’t introduced them yet at this point in the narrative. I think this may describe her illness, perhaps something like monggon sampi, “my neck stretched.”

2 komso maktame. The same as homso maktame, “passing a shuttle back and forth.”

3 šulehe. The same as šulhe, “pear.”

4 ilha nimanggi. I provisionally take this to be a calque of Chinese 花雪, which can mean catkins.

5 lung gung. The only poetic allusion I can find that might match this is the Dragon Palace (龍宮), but I am not sure how that fits here. Perhaps she means 冷宮, a metaphorical place where unnecessary things are placed aside.

6 fuhai. I am taking this to be the same as fuhali, but not entirely happy about that.


  1. I'd keep amga emge as 'father- and mother-in-law' and urun as 'daughter-in-law'. It seems to me that it allows for a better understanding of the relationships in the poem. Also, I'd would have akûngge apply to both sabuha and tuwaha. Do you think it is possible grammatically speaking? I am drawn to this interpretation because it seems weird to me that the her parents-in-law would still have been alive to see the children but not her wedding.

    Yet I think of your parents, who didn't saw the grandchildren nor have yet seen the bride.
    Next year, on the date of your mother’s burial, we should go to her grave, and it will be fitting that I act as a daughter-in-law.

    Fulgiyan burakū in a Buddhist context refers to the 'mortal world' if I remeber well. I wonder if there could be other Buddhist references (the mirror?).

    And sorry for all the comments today, I just figured how to post comments again after it became impossible a few month ago. It is great that you got access to the Grebenshchikov poems. Many thanks for posting all these (difficult) texts and making them accessible!

    1. The problem with reading amga emge as 'father- and mother-in-law' is that (in English) it could refer to either the bride's parents or the husband's, depending on who is speaking. In Manchu, it only refers to the bride's parents, and since the bride is the narrator, we would need to say 'your father- and mother-in-law' in order to make it clear that she was referring to her own parents.

      A similar problem occurs with reading 'urun' as daughter-in-law in the same line where we refer to her parents, because she is their daughter, not their daughter-in-law.

      I don't think akūngge can apply to both sabuha and tuwaha because of the use of bime, which normally sets up a contrast between two different things.

      Yes, it is weird that her parents saw the children but not the wedding. She thinks so too, which is why she says gūnin giyan de tolbime gūnici, inu acanarakū babi. I infer that the reason her parents saw the children but not the wedding is because she did not actually marry the father of her children. I think that is why she asks eigen sargan waka seci, ojoro kooli bio? She wants to say, "We are effectively husband and wife, so why don't we call ourselves husband and wife?"

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  2. Thanks for your answers!

    I didn't know amha emhe were only used for the bride's parents, it sure makes my reading impossible (although I seee Hauer's entries for amha and emhe mention older forms amhan and emeke that designate the parents of the groom).

    About bime, I have the exact opposite view! :) I always took it as indicating not contrast but connexion, hence my question about akûngge applying to both verbs. I don't know where I took this from, I'll have to check around.

    About monggo sambi, I think your reading monggon sampi makes sense. I vaguely remember that the expression can mean "to stretch/extend one's neck", like in trying to get a better view. Maybe this line refers to the author longing after her husband and trying (metaphorically of course) to see him despite the distance.
    Norman mentions nimeku de darubumbi "to be prone to frequent illness".

    Not an easy text, certainly! I hope my comments are not annoying and that they don't sound like I'm probing you!

    1. Your comments aren't annoying at all! I am glad to be able to talk through these difficult translations with you.

      About amha: Interestingly there is some disagreement among dictionaries. The Qianlong dictionary explains amha by saying haha ini sargan-i ama amha sembi, "a man calls his wife's father amha". However, Amyot says "L'homme appelle ainsi le pere de sa femme; et la femme, le pere de son mari."

      As part of my background reading to understand this passage, I read a description of Sibe traditional marriage practices in Sibe uksurai an tacin. In that text it seemed amha emhe was used specifically to distinguish the bride's parents, but of course there are often subtle differences between Sibe usage and Classical Manchu.

      As for bime, I checked Qingwen qimeng and couldn't find anything to confirm my feeling that it sets up a contrast between two things. You may be right that she is saying that they have neither seen the grandchildren nor the bride, in which case she presumably wants to appear together with the children at their grave.

    2. Thanks for all the addintional data about amha/emhe. I'll certainly keep an eye on this in the future.

      I couldn't find where my "knowledge" of bime as connector comes from. I think it may be a note in Roth Li's textbook. Gorelova's Grammar describes bime as "a copulative conjunction" (p.356) and says (p. 465) that "homogeneous parts of the sentence may be linked by the converbal form bime which is used as an analogue of a connective conjunction". She then gives the phrase kapihûn bime golmin "flat and long". This kind of makes me lean towards the possibility that akûngge can apply to both phrases linked by bime, but without syntactically comparable examples it's maybe better to remain cautious.