A Sino-Mongolian tale in three languages and five scripts

« previous post | next post »

"Silk Road Tales: A Look at a Mongolian-Chinese Storybook"

By Bruce Humes, published

This post features the tale of Zhang Qian, diplomat and explorer of the “Western Realm” during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (141-87 BCE). The book is in Chinese and Mongolian (traditional script) and forms part of a "Socialist Core Value" (社会主义核心价值观幼儿绘本) picture-book series for children aged 5-6.

To facilitate comparison, the blogger has provided the text in three languages, five scripts: the original Chinese and Inner Mongolian script (vertical); Hanyu Pinyin; Cyrillic Mongolian (used in Mongolia); and a translation of the text into English.

Students of Chinese and Central Asian history may note that one related “episode” has been left out of this rendition. As noted in the storybook, after years of imprisonment at the hands of the Xiongnu, Zhang Qian escaped and was welcomed by the ruler of Da Yuan. We learn that With the help of the king of Da Yuan, Zhang Qian visited many countries and gained a great deal of knowledge of the culture and geography of the countries of the Western region.

Da Yuan (大宛) was likely a reference to Ferghana Valley famous for its hardy “blood-sweating horses,” the latter being a useful piece of military intelligence that Zhang Qian revealed to his emperor upon return to China. As noted in the Chinese-language Baidu Encyclopedia, the emperor was keen to possess a herd of these fine steeds, but when refused, he dispatched his army that killed the king and reduced Da Yuan to a vassal state….

Here is the title, introduction, and first episode:

[VHM: In the blog, the Mongolian script appears in the correct orientation and order, which you can view by clicking on the link above. As copied below, the shapes of the letters are not distorted (which is not always the case when copying Mongolian and Manchu script), but the direction and orientation are changed. For one thing, the lines should be vertically oriented, not horizontal. Still, I'm impressed that the Mongolian script came out looking as good as it does.]

Торгоны зам


The Silk Road

ᠲᠣᠷᠭᠠᠨ ᠵᠠᠮ

This is the story of Zhang Qian (張騫), who helped break Xiongnu (Hunnu*) dominance of trade routes during the Han dynasty by making contact with states to the West. The book is in Chinese and Mongolian (traditional script) and forms part of a "Socialist Core Value" picture-book series for children aged 5-6 (社会主义核心价值观幼儿绘本(5-6岁)) (ISBN 978-7-5312-3652-8). Press the 'Show' button to reveal pinyin for Chinese and Cyrillic for Mongolian. Хятад хэл суръя! 学蒙语吧!
(* Hunnu is the preferred form in Mongolia. Usages preferred in Mongolia are also noted in the text.)

ᠨᠡᠢᠭᠡᠮ ᠵᠢᠷᠤᠮ ᠦᠨ ᠭᠣᠣᠯᠯᠠᠭᠴᠢ ᠥᠷᠳᠡᠭ ᠦᠨ ᠦᠵᠡᠯᠲᠡ ᠵᠢᠨ ᠬᠡᠦᠬᠡᠳ ᠦᠨ ᠵᠢᠷᠣᠭᠲᠤ ᠤᠩᠰᠢᠭᠤ


Xiǎo péngyǒu, nǐmen jiàn-guò chūncán tǔ sī ma? Xiǎo xiǎo de cán'r tǔ de sī kě yǐ zhì chéng sīchóu, zuò-chéng piàoliàng de yīfú. Xǔduō wàiguórén dōu fēicháng xǐhuān wǒguó de sīchóu.

ᠪᠢᠴᠢᠬᠠᠨ ᠨᠠᠢᠵᠠ ᠮᠢᠨᠢ᠂ ᠲᠠ ᠨᠠᠷ ᠬᠠᠪᠤᠷ ᠦᠨ ᠬᠦᠷᠢ ᠵᠢᠨ ᠰᠢᠷᠭᠡᠭ ᠪᠥᠭᠡᠯᠵᠢᠬᠦ ᠵᠢ ᠬᠠᠷᠠᠭᠰᠠᠨ ᠤᠤ? ᠵᠢᠵᠢᠭᠬᠡᠨ ᠬᠦᠷᠢ ᠬᠣᠷᠣᠬᠠᠢ ᠵᠢᠨ ᠪᠥᠭᠡᠯᠵᠢᠭᠰᠡᠨ ᠰᠢᠷᠬᠡᠭ ᠵᠢᠡᠷ ᠳᠣᠷᠭ᠎ᠠ ᠨᠡᠭᠡᠭᠡᠳ ᠭᠣᠶᠣ ᠰᠠᠢᠬᠠᠨ ᠬᠤᠪᠴᠠᠰᠤ ᠬᠢᠵᠦ ᠪᠣᠯᠳᠠᠭ᠃ ᠲᠤᠩ ᠣᠯᠠᠨ ᠭᠠᠳᠠᠭᠠᠳᠤ ᠵᠢᠨ ᠬᠦᠮᠦᠨ ᠮᠠᠨ ᠦ ᠤᠯᠤᠰ ᠦᠨ ᠲᠣᠷᠭ᠎ᠠ ᠲᠣᠷᠳᠣᠩ ᠢ ᠮᠠᠰᠢ ᠪᠠᠬᠠᠷᠠᠭᠳᠠᠭ ᠰᠢᠦ᠃

Бяцхан найз, та нар хаврын хүрийн ширхэг бөөлжихийг харсан уу? Жижигхэн хүр хорхойн бөөлжсөн ширхэгээр торго нэхээд 2 гоё сайхан хувцас хийж болдог. Тун олон гадаадын хүн манай улсын дурданг маш бахархдаг шүү.

          (1. Хүр хорхойн амнаас шүлс гарч байгааг харсан уу? 2. шүлсээр торго нэхээд)

'Boys and girls, have you ever seen silkworms spinning thread? The thread that these little worms spin can be made into silk and used to make beautiful clothes. Many people in foreign countries greatly admire our country's silk.'

I should note that the episodes are accompanied by delicate, beautifully colored paintings.  All in all, an exquisite production.


  1. Daniel said,

    October 10, 2019 @ 1:19 pm

    It's annoying to me that Mongolian text copied shows up as a left-to-right script. If anything, it should be a right-to-left script, as it derives from Syriac. Displayed left-to-right, all the letters look upside down!

  2. Michael Watts said,

    October 10, 2019 @ 5:31 pm

    I was just reading about the conflict between the Han and Da Yuan. Yuan 宛 is supposed to reflect the Greek self-appellation (presumably Ἰάονες or similar), or a Sanskrit rendition thereof. This made me curious what the reconstructed ancient pronunciation of 宛 was.

  3. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    October 10, 2019 @ 7:43 pm

    More on the war on the Da Yuan:

  4. Chris Button said,

    October 10, 2019 @ 8:05 pm

    @ Michael Watts

    宛 would go back to Old Chinese *ʔwàn and so its identification with Sanksrit "Yavana" or Pali "Yona" for Ionian is well founded.

  5. Bathrobe said,

    October 10, 2019 @ 10:28 pm

    Mongolian traditional script is something of a challenge for representing on web pages. Windows and Android seem to work reasonably well now. But Apple is almost criminal in the way it keeps breaking it. Every system update seems to cause problems and Apple takes an inordinate amount of time to fix it, if ever. On a Mac Unicode works ok, but Chinese websites that use some kind of workaround to convert to a Unicode compliant representation appear to have been completely broken and are still not fixed after more than half a year after the most recent system upgrade. Safari has been mangling case endings for a long time, and as a result iPhone doesn’t render the script properly. Apple doesn’t seem to give a damn.

  6. Ian said,

    October 11, 2019 @ 3:09 am

    @Daniel, this is something Juha Janhunen is perennially upset about too. During the publication of this article he was able to get Brill to flip it, such that the (admittedly very short) fragments of traditional script are oriented "correctly" (right to left). The Unicode representation of the Mongol script in general leaves a bit to be desired, but I think had Juha been involved with the oversight of its creation it would have worked out better (or at least more accurately).

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    October 11, 2019 @ 11:02 am

    The following code is singularly evil, but it does demonstrate that one can typeset small stretches of Mongolian in vertical, left-to-right, mode. The Mongolian text is taken from http://www.cjvlang.com/mongol/silkroad.html, Section~7. It is probable that upTeX would allow one to achieve the same effect far more elegantly, but I have zero experience of the program.

    % !TeX Program = XeTeX

    \parindent = 0 pt
    \font \thisfont = "Mongolian White" at 18 pt

    \special {pdf: begintransform rotate -90}
    \obeylines \everypar = {\vadjust {\vskip -4 \baselineskip}}
    \quad ᠭᠡᠲᠡᠯ᠎ᠡ᠂ ᠵᠠᠩ ᠴᠢᠶᠡᠨ ᠨᠤᠭᠤᠷᠠᠰᠢ ᠦᠭᠡᠢ ᠪᠠᠢᠵᠤ᠂ ᠶᠡᠷᠦ ᠡᠴᠡ
    ᠪᠠᠭᠤᠵᠤ ᠥᠭᠭᠦᠭᠰᠡᠨ ᠦᠭᠡᠢ ᠪᠣᠯᠬᠣᠷ ᠾᠦᠩᠨᠦᠴᠤᠳ ᠠᠷᠭ᠎ᠠ ᠪᠤᠰᠤ
    ᠲᠡᠳᠡᠨ ᠢ ᠪᠠᠷᠢᠪᠴᠢᠯᠠᠨ ᠬᠣᠷᠢᠵᠡᠢ᠃ ᠲᠡᠳᠡᠨᠦᠰ ᠨᠢᠭᠡ ᠡᠳᠦᠷ ᠢ
    ᠥᠩᠭᠡᠷᠡᠭᠦᠯᠬᠦ ᠢᠨᠦ ᠣᠨ ᠢ ᠲᠤᠭᠤᠯᠬᠤ ᠮᠡᠲᠦ᠂ ᠨᠢᠭᠡ ᠲᠠᠯ᠎ᠠ ᠪᠠᠷ
    ᠬᠣᠨᠢ ᠮᠠᠯ ᠬᠠᠷᠢᠭᠤᠯᠤᠨ ᠵᠠᠷᠤᠴᠠᠯᠠᠭᠳᠠᠵᠤ᠂ ᠨᠦᠭᠦᠭᠡ ᠲᠠᠯ᠎ᠠ ᠪᠠᠷ
    ᠵᠠᠪᠰᠢᠶᠠᠨ ᠡᠷᠢᠨ ᠳᠤᠲᠠᠭᠠᠵᠤ ᠭᠠᠷᠤᠭᠠᠳ ᠡᠭᠦᠷᠭᠡ ᠲᠶᠰᠢᠶᠠᠯ ᠵᠢᠠᠨ
    ᠪᠡᠶᠡᠯᠡᠭᠦᠯᠬᠦ ᠵᠢ ᠪᠣᠳᠣᠭᠰᠠᠭᠠᠷ ᠪᠠᠢᠪᠠ᠃
    \special {pdf: endtransform}


RSS feed for comments on this post