Sogdian Ancient Letter III: Letter to Nanaidhat
Dated to 313-314, the documents known as the Ancient Letters are so called because they are the earliest surviving texts written in the Sogdian language (De La Vassiere 2005, 19). The letters were discovered by Aurel Stein in 1907 outside of Dunhuang, in a Chinese watch tower set up to protect against incursions from the West (Waugh 2004). The letters were all discovered in a mailbag, which may have been confiscated en route from the Eastern Silk Road back to Sogdiana. None of these letters ever reached their intended destination.
Letter #3 is written by Miwnay, a Sogdian woman who accompanied her husband to Dunhuang and has now been abandoned there along with her daughter Shayn. She writes to her husband Nanaidhat directly, who has been missing for some time without sending word to his wife. Miwnay’s letter describes her attempts to find assistance among the Sogdians in Dunhuang, giving us a glimpse of the ways in which the diasporic Sogdian communities abroad maintained a network of support for one another (Whitfield 2001, 249). Unfortunately for Miwnay, she is unable to find assistance in this way, and we learn that both Miwnay and her daughter are surviving as servants in a Chinese household.
The letter begins with politeness and an elaborate proper greeting: “To (my) noble lord (and) husband Nanai-dhat, blessing (and) homage on bended knee, as is offered to the gods.” (Sims-Williams 2004). She goes on to describe the struggle that she faces as a woman left on her own in a foreign city, a situation which has left her begging for help from a series of relatives and acquaintances, none of whom provide her with any assistance. Her predicament demonstrates how difficult it was for a woman alone to take care of herself and her daughter. She concludes the letter with bitterness, abandoning the polite conventions with which she began: “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!” (Sims-Williams 2004).
It is important to understand the historical context in which Miwnay’s letter, and all of the ancient letters, were written. This period in the early 4th century was a time of momentous upheavals in the central Chinese government, mentioned in Sogdian Ancient Letter #2 found in the same mailbag. While Miwnay is expressing her anger at having been abandoned by her husband, it is possible that Nanaidhat himself met a worse fate amidst the sacking of Luoyang and Ye, the subsequent famine in Luoyang, and the fighting between Xiongnu and Chinese in this area (Whitfield 2001, 249). This historical document may be revealing not just for what it shows us about Miwnay in Dunhuang, but also for what it tells us about the dangers of silk road travel, and the lack of steady communication between those at home and abroad.
Sogdian Letter III, also known as the Letter to Nanaidhat, is part of the Sogdian Ancient Letters collection. The Sogdian Ancient Letters comprise a total of eight letters that were discovered by Aurel Stein in 1907. These letters are significant in that they provide insight into the life of an average Sogdian. The letters are indeed the only written records penned by merchants and scribes, and not authorities concerned with trade or taxes. These letters provide the image of a content society comprised of merchants, farmers, wives, and servants situated in a long-distance trade. At the time the letters were written, there was political instability in China as dynasties were struggling for power (Hansen 2015, 120).
In this letter, Miunai (also spelled Minway), is writing to her husband, Nanaidhat, who abandoned her in Dunhuang. A line from this letter is often quoted as Miunai exclaims, “I would rather be a dog's or a pig's wife than yours!” Given the political situation, Miunai, who once was prosperous, is now a servant to Chinese. Miunai also includes in the letter that their daughter, Saina (also spelled Shayn), is working as a guard for a flock of animals. Miunai is upset that her husband does not send her any money, nor has she heard from him (International Dunhuang Project 2016).
Included in the letter is a post-script from their daughter Saina. The main body of the letter is written in a different hand than the post-script which could show that Saina was literate, and could read as well as write. Others speculate that the difference in hand-writing does not show that females were literate but rather, this is an example that two different scribes were used to write the messages (de la Vaissiere 2005, 56).
This letter not only gives insight to what the average Sogdian was concerned with, but it also illustrates that a developed postal network existed, capable of transporting messages between people regarding family issues, as well as economic dealings and trade information (de la Vaissiere 2005, 47).
Miunai was also the author of Letter I of the Sogdian Letters. Letter I was written to her mother, Catisa, providing further insight to the conditions surrounding the contents of the letter to Miunai’s husband (de la Vaissiere 2005, 47). The social customs of the period do not allow Miunai much freedom and she had to petition her male relatives for permission to return to her mother, which is part of her frustration with Nanaidhat in Letter III (International Dunhuang Project 2016). (AC)
de la Vaissière, Étienne. Sogdian Traders: A History, trans. James Ward (Leiden: Brill, 2005). (AC)
“Letter to Nanaidhat”, Omeka site, http://sogdians.nyufasedtech.com/admin/items/show/67.
Sims-Williams, Nicholas, “The Sogdian Ancient Letters”, https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/sogdlet.html. (AC)
Waugh, Daniel C., “Introduction: The Sogdian Ancient Letters”, https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/sogdlet.html.
Whitfield, Susan. Life Along the Silk Road (Oakland, University of California Press, 2001).
International Dunhuang Project. 2016. “Cultural Dialogue on the Silk Road: A Mini Gallery.” Accessed March 25. http://idp.bl.uk/education/dialogue/index.a4d#6 (AC)
4th century CE
Size (h x w): 26.5 x 42.8cm
Ink on paper
Additional Research Metadata
Fragment of one of the 4th century letters written by an abandoned Sogdian wife (found in a mislaid post bag near Dunhuang). "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!"