Mongolian museum mystery

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From a miscellaneous collection of Chinglishisms:

Although the Mongolian writing at the top of the sign is not very clear, Juha Janhunen was able to transcribe, transliterate, and translate it thoroughly:

transcription: juu jiyuiv buqhumda qharuqsav talgav vuizaguilgae jiv vuruv

transliteration: joo jün boxumta garugsan delgen üjexülge-yin oron

modern pronunciation: joo jun boomt garsen delgen ujuulgiin oren

glossing: Zhao Jun barrier-exited spreading-showing place

'the place showing (how) Zhao Jun went over the barrier (= left China)'

that is: the meaning is the same as in the Chinese text.

As Juha added in a note, "The English translation offered by the museum is, of course, curious."

Here's what the Chinese really says:

Zhāojūn chūsāi guǎn


"Exhibition for 'Zhaojun going out of the pass'"

Here's a brief version of the story of the beautiful Zhaojun going out of the passes to the north to dwell among the nomadic, Hunnic Xiongnu:

Wang Qiang (Wang Ch'iang; 王牆, also 王檣 and 王嬙), commonly known by her courtesy name Wang Zhaojun (Chinese: 王昭君; Wade–Giles: Wang Chao-chun) was known as one of the Four Beauties of ancient China. Born in Baoping Village, Zigui County (in current Hubei Province) in the Western Han dynasty (206 BC–8 AD), she was sent by Emperor Yuan [VHM:  r. 48-33 BC] to marry Chanyu* Huhanye of the Xiongnu Empire in order to establish friendly relations with the Han dynasty through marriage.

In the most prevalent version of the "Four Beauties" legend, it is said that Wang Zhaojun left her hometown on horseback on a bright autumn morning and began a journey northward. Along the way, the horse neighed, making Zhaojun extremely sad and unable to control her emotions. As she sat on the saddle, she began to play sorrowful melodies on a pipa** (a round-bodied lute that was later called ruanxian). A flock of geese flying southward heard the music, saw the beautiful young woman riding the horse, immediately forgot to flap their wings, and fell to the ground. From then on, Zhaojun acquired the nickname "fells geese" or "drops birds."


*People (Chinese and others) pronounce 單于 both as shanyu and as chanyu, but most critical Western scholars pronounce it as chányú.

Old Sinitic

(Baxter–Sagart): /*dar  ɦʷa/

(Zhengzhang): /*djan  ɢʷa/

Cognate with Mongolian ᠳᠠᠷᠤᠭ᠎ᠠ (daruɣ-a) / дарга (darga, “chief; head; governor”), Persian داروغه‎ (dâruğe, “governor”), Old Turkic ‎ (tarqan, “commander”).

Related to 答剌罕 (“tarkhan”), 達魯噶/达鲁噶 (“darugha”), 達魯花赤/达鲁花赤 (“darughachi”)


**The word for lute (or "balloon guitar") in Chinese, pípá 琵琶 (there are several different ways to write it in characters; probably from the Iranian word "barbat"). The false ex post facto etymology, which you can find in even well-known Chinese dictionaries, is that pí means "down stroke" and pá means "up stroke" (or vice versa).


Borrowed from a language in the Western Regions during the Han Dynasty. Compare Persian بربط‎ (barbat, “barbat; lute”), Ancient Greek βάρβιτος (bárbitos, “barbitos; ancient stringed instrument”).

Both characters were initially non-checked-tone characters. Reborrowed during the Tang Dynasty from a source that more closely resembles the modern Persian name of the instrument, both characters were read as if they have checked codas. The original non-checked readings were restored after the Tang Dynasty. Compare the modern checked-tone dialectal readings of 枇杷 (pípá).

Much folk etymology exists surrounding the name origin. The dictionary Shiming [2nd CE] explains the name as 批把 (“slap-grasp”), reflecting the plucking movements while playing the stringed instrument. 琵琶 is also cognate with—and possibly gave rise to the name of (due to the similarity in shape)—枇杷 (pípá, “loquat”), which is also a non-native species.

Middle Sinitic: /biɪ  bˠa/

Old Sinitic (Zhengzhang): /*bi  braː/


The legend of "Zhaojun going out of the pass" has been endlessly and lachrymosely told and retold in ballads, stories, dramas, and films from the time of its historical roots in the Han Dynasty more than two thousand years ago to the present day.

Selected readings


  1. Bathrobe said,

    March 2, 2021 @ 9:13 pm

    The entire Zhaojun story has been embellished shamelessly over the centuries by the Chinese literati. I look at it briefly at this page on a poem by Li Ho (the latest twist is that Zhaojun is now a model for marriage between Han Chinese and ethnic minorities). The scholar Uradyn E. Bulag looked at this story and its elaboration in much greater detail in his 2002 book The Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity. A review by Peter Perdue (available at JSTOR) sums the episode up as follows: "Wang Zhaojun, a Chinese princess sent to marry a Xiongnu nomadic chieftain, was another exemplary woman who tied empires and nations together. This story illustrates Chinese use of sexual politics. Many dynasties used marriages to bind Inner Asians to the imperial family and to civilize them with feminine influence. Literati dissenters, however, told Wang Zhaojun’s story as a tale of suffering, reflecting their own marginal political position. Nationalists in the 20th century invoked Wang to promote the merging of peoples into a single racial body, but mavericks like Guo Moruo praised her for escaping to the freedom of the steppes. Now Wang Zhaojun “tombs” have proliferated across China, and some Chinese even claim that she was the Ice Maiden of Siberia. These fantastical, even farcical, elaborations of nationalist mythology rely heavily on sexual romance for their effect."

  2. Peter B. Golden said,

    March 2, 2021 @ 9:14 pm

    Perhaps, I have been laboring under a long-standing error, but I thought that Mong. darugha is from daru-"to press." It was regularly rendered in the Turkic speaking regions of the Ulus of Jochi as "basqaq" ( < Turk. bas-"to press"). It has nothing to do with tarqan/tarxan, darxan etc.

  3. Michael Watts said,

    March 3, 2021 @ 1:32 am

    A flock of geese flying southward heard the music, saw the beautiful young woman riding the horse, immediately forgot to flap their wings, and fell to the ground.

    Somehow this reminded me of a story of Orpheus playing before an audience of wildlife attracted by the music. He was found by his enemies the Maenads, who threw rocks at him. But the rocks appreciated the music too, so they stopped short before striking Orpheus — meaning that instead they fell on the ground around him, crushing the animals who were gathered to listen.

  4. Peter Grubtal said,

    March 3, 2021 @ 2:33 am

    Michael Watts
    ..or the Japanese story of the wise man of the mountains, who finally attained enlightenment, and so far transcended earthly things that he could fly, until flying over the fields his eye fell on a young women bending over and lifting her skirt – he came back to earth, both metaphorically and literally, with a crash.

  5. alex said,

    March 3, 2021 @ 3:23 am

    Peter Grubtal said,

    "until flying over the fields his eye fell on a young women bending over and lifting her skirt – he came back to earth, both metaphorically and literally, with a crash."

    reminded me of the Dave Matthews Band song Crash Into Me. nothing to do with the nice story you related other than same words.

    Hike up your skirt a little more
    And show the world to me
    Hike up your skirt a little more
    And show your world to me
    In a boy's dream
    In a boy's dream

    Oh I watch you there
    Through the window
    And I stare at you
    You wear nothing but you
    Wear it so well
    Tied up and twisted,
    The way I'd like to be
    For you, for me, come crash
    Into me,
    Crash into me
    Crash into me
    Crash into me
    Crash into me

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 3, 2021 @ 6:03 am

    Amazing correspondences!

    Only on Language Log — and so quickly adduced too.

    Incidentally, I have heard the Dave Matthews band scores of times, but never understood it till now.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    March 3, 2021 @ 6:04 am

    Also, quite a different scenario, but nonetheless reminiscent of "Comrades, 'hike up your skirts for a hard shag'" (7/23/17)

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 3, 2021 @ 6:41 am

    "Orpheus is a figure from ancient Greek mythology, most famous for his virtuoso ability in playing the lyre or kithara. His music could charm the wild animals of the forest, and even streams would pause and trees bend a little closer to hear his sublime singing."

    World History Encyclopedia (Mar 19, 2020)

  9. KevinM said,

    March 3, 2021 @ 10:14 am

    My immediate, lay reading was along the lines of a slogan, like "US out of Southeast Asia."

  10. Victor Mair said,

    March 3, 2021 @ 11:45 am

    From Juha Janhunen:

    I suppose the museum is the Inner Mongolia Provincial Museum – or is it some smaller museum in Qinghai? I visited the place where Zhao Jun "left China" somewhere close to Lake Kuku Nor.

  11. Michael Watts said,

    March 3, 2021 @ 11:56 am

    I feel like there was a series of (American) television commercials some years ago on the theme of men seeing a beautiful woman, getting distracted, and nearly killing themselves, but I don't remember enough to find them, if they existed.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    March 3, 2021 @ 5:17 pm

    From James Millward:

    There are two broad kinds of lutes based on fundamental structure (a drum or box pierced by a neck, or a lute and neck carved from a single piece of wood, like a dug-out canoe). The spike lute had a round body (er-hu, banjo) and the monoxylous lute (sometimes called short lute, though it could be longer) had the egg- or pear-shaped body. Later lutes, including the oud and European lute, reproduced the egg shape with staves: like a row-boat or barrel, rather than a dug-out. This is a lot of work, but allows you to make instruments with smaller pieces of wood rather than a log, and wastes less wood. When made this way, or built like the later guitars (a four sided box), the neck was a separate piece, joined to the body somehow. I believe lutiers went to the trouble of fashioning pipa or barbat (egg- or pear-) shapes out of staves out of conservative impulse: the shape was meaningful, so they reproduced it. Such lutes tend to fall off the lap and are hard to hold and play standing up–let alone on horse or camel-back.

    The earliest lutes in China were likely round, and might have been spike lutes. The ruanxian and zhongruan, etc. are round. But these early lutes were originally called pipa, as were later, egg-shaped kinds. Later (from Tang), only the egg-shaped lute is called pipa in China, and that became iconic, so when the stories about princesses Xijin or Zhaojun playing pipa on horseback are retold, we put a more modern, egg/pear pipa in their hands. More likely, however, they played the round kind. That would have been a bit easier to hold onto, perhaps, but still unwieldy from the saddle. And of course, the whole idea of these princesses playing lutes is a kind of romantic just-so story arguing for Chinese origin of an instrument that is, in fact, a Central Asian / South Asian import to China.

    Barbat is probably the etymological source of "pipa", but the persian barbat is the ancestor of the egg-shaped lute, not the (usually round) spike-lute.

  13. Daniel Waugh said,

    March 3, 2021 @ 7:15 pm

    Well, this leads in all sorts of fun directions. I can't offer anything as intriguing as "Crash into Me," but if you go to a folder "VM" in my Dropbox, which you can freely access via this link,
    you will find there a pdf with some images and a note. I started thinking about images of lute players, for example. Thought there were mingqi [VHM: míngqì 冥器 ("funerary / burial objects; grave goods")] from back in the Han, but what turned up in a quick search were Tang Dynasty. Interesting that such imagery with lutes is found in Sogdian funeral reliefs in China; those mingqi certainly include foreigners playing the instrument. I suppose the women musicians could also be "foreign", though artistically not distinguished as such. I think the consensus indeed is that the lute comes from the West. I am much taken by those tales of the women married/dragged off into the steppe. A later incarnation of the Han era story is one that I am sure you all know, the Tale of Wenji (immortalized in the Songs of the Nomadic Flute* and in various paintings (including a probably Turkmen version), and in Bun-Ching Lam's haunting modern opera. See my pdf….


  14. alex said,

    March 3, 2021 @ 9:15 pm

    @Daniel Waugh

    Thanks for the db link!

  15. Victor Mair said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 12:29 am

    @Daniel Waugh

    That seated male Sogdian playing a pipa from Tianshui is amazingly lifelike, and I had never seen it before.


    There are three pages of photographs in the pdf provided by Dan. They are all extraordinary and well worth scrutinizing.

  16. Daniel Waugh said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 2:01 pm

    Since there seems to be some interest in the pictures, I pasted up another little pdf with more that may take you off on different tracks about the musical instruments. The file is "languagelogpost_2.pdf" in the same "VM" dropbox with the earlier one, which you can access via:

    Also, though I cannot claim to having read it yet, there is an attractive new publication by Hans de Zeeuw, Tanbur Long-Necked Lutes along the Silk Road and beyond (Archaeopress, 2019). The focus is on what the title suggests, which is not all the possible lute types and their variants. Lots of nice photos; brings the subject down into modern versions.

  17. Marcel Erdal said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 3:33 pm

    Peter Golden is right, of course: daruga is a verbal noun derived from the Mongolic verb daru- „to press, push down, suppress‟ attested from the Secret History on and in use in all Mongolic varieties. It is indeed the counterpart of Turkic bas-gak.

    I'll use the occasion for commenting on another wild etymology which was linked to Qaraqoram a few days ago. qorum ‘massive rock, heap of rocks’ is attested in Old Uyghur, e.g. in the binome qorum qaya, as well as in the 11th century Qutadgu Bilig, in the Secret History of the Mongols and in Middle Turkic, and appears in several entries in the 11th century encyclopedia of Mahmûd of Kâshghar. It is still in use as a noun with this meaning in a number of south Siberian Turkic languages. Sources written in Semitic alphabets can also reflect the pronunciation qorom with the second vowel assimilated to the first, and this shape of the word regularly became qoram in Modern Uyghur. Qara means ‘black’ in both Turkic and Mongolic, and the place name Qara Qorum in central Mongolia is connected with the person of Jinggis Khan. The name of that city as well as that of the mountain range, in Pakistan and in a number of adjacent countries, must have come from Turkic and must have this Turkic etymology. It is, I think, unlikely that it should have preceded the advent of the Turks.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 6:41 pm

    From Ingrid Furniss:

    Fu Xuan (third century CE) is the first to mention that Liu Xijun (late second century BCE), living centuries before him, was entertained by musicians on horseback. He suggests, in fact, that Han Wudi commissioned the lute for Liu’s journey and that its designers based it on Chinese zithers. None of the Han texts mention lutes in connection with Liu’s journey to Wusun, and the lute cannot possibly have evolved from Chinese zithers. The organology of Chinese zithers and lutes is very different. Poet and court official Shi Chong (240-300) elaborates on Fu Xuan’s account and suggests that that because Liu Xijun was entertained in this way that Wang Zhaojun must have been as well. Again, there is no surviving historical data from the Han period to corroborate it. In all likelihood, Liu Xijun and Wang Zhaojun never saw nor heard lutes during their lifetimes, unless they did so in the frontier region itself. The third-century accounts by Fu Xuan and Shi Chong do not indicate that Wang and Liu were lute players themselves, however. They suggest, instead, that lute players comforted them during their journeys to the frontier zone. As far as I know, Liu Xijun was never credited with skill in playing the lute; and the first accounts to describe Wang as a pipa player date no earlier than the eighth century CE. I think we can abandon the notion that Wang was a lute player and that Wang and Liu Xijun were familiar with (and likely that they were even entertained by) lute music.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    March 4, 2021 @ 6:44 pm

    Orpheus and the lyre certainly supports the theory of lutes played for animals.

    The Sogdian figure from Tianshui, plus the funerary couch it accompanied, is discussed in Annette L Juliano, Judith A. Lerner, and Michael Alram Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China, pp. 304-311.

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