Primary Sources Connect Women to the Silk Road


Primary Source #12

Sogian Letter Fragment

Fragment of one of the 4th century letters
written by an abandoned Sogdian wife.
(Found in a mislaid post bag near Dunhuang.)

Miwnay with her children dutifully followed her husband Nanaidhat, a merchant trading along the Silk Road, to the city of Dunhuang. Both were Sogdians, a group who emerged as a power at the center of the trade routes at the end of the second century CE. Sogdiana lay between the Amu Darya (Oxus River) and the Pamir Mountains in what today is Uzbekistan. The Sogdians ability to reap profits from trade along the Silk Roads lead them to established communities in regions as far east as Chang’an, (today’s Xi’an) and far west as Constantinople.

Unfortunately, after the collapse of the Chinese central government, wars and famine reached Dunhuang. Nanaidhat left the area, traveling off with his caravan, and somehow never retunred, leaving Miwnay for three years. Left destitute, well-to -do Miwnay was forced to become a servant of the Chinese while her daughter Shayn ended up guarding their flocks of domestic animals. With no one in the Sogdian community willing to help them, Miwnay wrote letters to her husband and mother, who apparently never answered nor sent money.

Letter to Nanaidhat:  "I obeyed your command and came to Dunhuang and did not observe my mother's bidding nor that of my brothers. Surely the gods were angry with me on the day when I did your bidding! I would rather be a dog's or a pig's wife than yours!"

Letter to her mother:  “I am very anxious to see you, but I have no luck. I petitioned the consular Sagharak, but the consular says: Here there is no other relative closer to Nanaidhat than Artivan. And I petitioned Artivan, but he says Farnkhund ... And Farnkhund says: If your husband's relative does not consent that you should go back to your mother, how should I take you? Wait until ... comes; perhaps Nanaidhat will come. I live wretchedly, without clothing, without money. I ask for a loan, but no-one consents to give me one.”

Letter from Shayn to Nanaidhat:  “From (his) daughter Shayn to the noble lord Nanai-dhat, blessing (and) homage. And (it would be) a good [day] for him [who] might see [you] healthy, rested (and) happy. ... I have become ... and I watch over a flock of domestic animals. Differently to you, I had a ..., and ... went out. I am ... and I know that you do not lack twenty staters(?) to send. It is necessary to consider the whole (matter). Farnkhund has run away; the Chinese seek him but do not find him. Because of Farnkhund’s debts we have become the servants of the Chinese, I together with (my) mother.”

Web Links

The Sogdian Ancient Letters:
Fuller, and somewhat different, translations of the lettters, plus those of other Sogdians.

The Sogdians in China:
New Discoveries.

The Sogdians and Buddhism:
Letter translation plus more information about the Sogdians.

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