The SBJ (Staatsbibliothek-Jakdan) Poems

The poetry in Staatsbibliothek 34981 and the poetry in the eighth fascicle of Jakdan’s Jabduha ucuri amtanggai baita share some common features that distinguish them from other Manchu poetry, as well as from Manchu translations of Chinese poetry. Whereas there is no argument that Jakdan composed poetry originally in Manchu, the Staatsbibliothek poetry has heretofore been assumed to be entirely translated from Chinese, so a careful discussion of its unique features is important.

Staatsbibliothek 34981 is a manuscript of 20 fascicles and just over 2,000 pages that was donated to the State Library of (then) West Berlin by Professor Erich Haenisch. Much of the manuscript contains Manchu translations of Chinese literature. In fact, it is described on the Staatsbibliothek site as an “Anthology of Chinese Literature in Manchu Translation.” In addition to these translations, SB 34981 contains some mixed-language verse, a fact that was noted by Stary (1985).

Most literature in Manchu is translated from Chinese, and for this reason any given Manchu literary text is assumed to be a translation from Chinese unless there is a compelling reason to believe otherwise. Among the 20 fascicles of Staatsbibliothek 34981 there are 17 that I believe to be translated from Chinese and three that I believe to have been originally composed in Manchu. Here are the reasons I argue that the poems in fascicles 4, 11 and 14 contain poetry originally composed in Manchu:

1. Chinese “originals” do not exist for any of the poems in these particular fascicles. This is actually an impossible claim to prove because an original might have been lost, or might simply be inaccessible to me. However, I make this claim because it should be easy to disprove, and the longer it stands without being disproven the more credible it becomes.

In my own efforts to search for “originals” I have chosen a number of poems that contain relatively uncommon terms and searched for them in the massive Sou-Yun online database. So far I have been unable to find any matching poems there. I plan to set aside time for an exhaustive and methodical search of the National Library of China digital collections as well. Here are some examples of the searches I have done so far:
  • There is a poem titled nisukū, “ice skates,” glossed as 冰鞋. Sou-Yun only has one poem that even uses the term 冰鞋, but it clearly a different poem with a different title, and it is by an author who was born in 1920.
  • The first poem of fascicle 11 ends in the words bele edun biya, for which the obvious translation would be 米風月 or 飯風月, but those characters don’t occur together in any of the poems in the database.
  • The poem titled moo sacirengge (樵) contains the word holo, glossed as 㵎. Sou-yun has four poems with 㵎 in the body, and none of them have 樵 in the title, or otherwise look like the Manchu poem.
2. The SB poems in fascicles 4, 11 and 14 are not accompanied by a Chinese interlinear and no author is listed for any of them. Most of the other Manchu translations of Chinese poems that I have seen in other sources have the original Chinese in interlinear, and for the majority of them a Chinese author is listed as well.

3. The SB poems use consistent syllable-based meter and relatively short lines. Manchu words have more syllables than Chinese words, so the standard Chinese seven-syllable line can expand to 14-21 syllables in translation. However, the SB poems have relatively short lines that are unlikely to have resulted from translation. Here are some examples of SB poems:
  • One SB poem is based on a four-syllable meter. It has 84 lines with exactly four syllables in each line.
  • Four SB poems are based on a five-syllable meter. They have 164 lines in total, exactly five syllables in each line.
  • 13 SB poems are based on a seven-syllable meter. They have 356 lines in total, of which only 20 lines have fewer than seven syllables (and in some of these cases I may be counting syllables incorrectly).
In comparison, here are some examples of translations:
  • For the first 20 lines from the 周南 section of 詩經, where the original songs had four characters per line, the Manchu translations have an average of 8.25 syllables per line, with a standard deviation of 2.3 syllables.
  • Poems 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 from the 金瓶梅, where the original poems had seven characters per line, the Manchu translations have an average of 19.5 syllables per line, with a standard deviation of 0.89 syllables.
When I have time, I will undertake a project to choose a representative sample of the poems (10% maybe) and search for possible originals for each of them, but one could spend one’s entire life arguing against the divine fallacy, and there is no need to do that. At some point we have to ask: Is it more incredible that the Manchus wrote poetry, or that they didn’t.

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