Heart Wrenching Letters Reveal the Traumatic Life of Miwnay, A Sogdian Woman in China 1,700 Years Ago
“From her daughter, the free-woman Miwnay, to her dear mother Chatis. I am very anxious to see you.”
History rarely remembers the little people. Our history books are full of stories of kings, queens, and conquerors; of influential men and wealthy people who lived in gilded castles. But the rest of us are forgotten.
The lives of countless ordinary people -- people who loved and lost and struggled and died – have been completely forgotten. To them, their lives were the most important thing in the world; but today, no one even remembers their names.
That’s what makes a box full of 1,700-year-old letters found in the Chinese town of Dunhuang so incredible. Because in that box are two letters written by an ordinary woman named Miwnay.
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They’re a rare glimpse into the life of the Sogdian people who, in 313 AD, were living under Chinese rule. But more than that, they’re a glimpse into the love and pain that filled the life of an ordinary woman – one of only a few who will never be forgotten.
A Chinese Eastern Han (25–220 AD) ceramic statuette of a Sogdian caravan leader of the Silk Road, wearing a distinctive Sogdian cap. ( Public Domain )
A Mother’s Desperate Plea For Help
“From her daughter, the free-woman Miwnay, to her dear mother Chatis,” Miwnay’s first letter begins. “I am very anxious to see you.”
This wasn’t a polite formality. Miwnay’s letter was a plea for her life. She was trapped in Dunhuang, a town miles away from anyone she knew. Her husband had dragged her there three years ago, but now he was nowhere to be found.
He’d abandoned Miwnay and her daughter, Shayn, and hadn’t left them a penny to support themselves. And now Miwnay and her little girl, who had once been the pampered family of a wealthy merchant, were starving to death.
“I live wretchedly, without clothing, without money,” Miwnay told her mother. “I ask for a loan, but no-one consents to give me one.”
Sogdian silk brocade textile fragment ca 700 AD. ( Public Domain )
She hadn’t seen her husband for years. He’d even stopped writing. Miwnay had given up on waiting. Her only hope now was to get out of this town and get back to her mother’s home – the only place she’d ever felt at home.
A Woman Trapped In A Man’s World
For a woman with an absent husband in the year 313 AD, though, leaving Dunhuang wasn’t an easy task. By the laws of her land, Miwnay wasn’t allowed to leave unless her husband gave her permission.
Sogdian women, like Miwnay, were second-class citizens in Dunhuang. Their homeland, Sogdia, had once been a province in the Persian Empire; now, though, Miwnay was living in China’s Gansu province, just outside the frontier wall that divided China from the rest of Asia. And there, the Chinese made the rules.
Surroundings of the Crescent Lake in Gobi Desert near Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China. (Sigismund von Dobschütz/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Many of them ended up being a sold into sexual slavery . It was a common fate for Sogdian women, especially the poor. They would be bound up and sold off to the wealthiest Chinese, who had the legal right to beat them, tie them up, and do anything they wanted to do them.
Miwnay, in a way, had been lucky. She’d married a Sogdian man named Nanai-dhat, a merchant who’d placed his home on the Silk Road. There was a good chance that he was a wealthy man – the Sogdians, it’s said , were experts at making a fortune through trade.
Ceramic figurine of a Sogdian merchant in northern China, Tang Dynasty, 7th century AD. ( Public Domain )
By law, if she couldn’t get her husband’s consent, she would have to get the consent of his closest relative, a man named Artivan. But Artivan had refused, and no one would help her. Everyone she turned to told her the same thing: “Wait. … Perhaps Nanai-dhat would come.”
But Nanai-dhat wasn’t coming. Nobody knew where he was – and if Miwnay couldn’t get out of Dunhuang, there was a chance she’d end up like those other poor women, left with no choice but to sell their daughters as slaves.
A Letter To A Father Who Abandoned His Family
Miwnay’s other letter , directed to her husband, Nanai-dhat, opens with a long stream of gushing platitudes, almost as if her husband were a god:
“To my noble lord and husband Nani-dhat, blessing and homage on bended knee, as is offered to the gods. And it would be a good day for him who might see you healthy, happy, and free from illness, together with everyone; and sir, when I hear news of your good health, I consider myself immortal!”
All that over-the-top praise, though, was just what was expected in Sogdian culture . As soon as they were out of the way, Miwnay got vicious:
“I would rather be a dog’s or a pig’s wife than yours!”
Miwnay’s letter to her husband. ( International Danhuang Project )
Miwnay’s family, she reveals in the letter, had begged her not to follow her husband to Dunhuang. She’d tagged along, though, starry-eyed with love, only to be abandoned. Nanai-dhat hadn’t written to her in a long time. The only letter she’d gotten from him was a chiding, reminding her “how to serve the Chinese.”
But that was Miwnay’s greatest fear. If Nanai-dhat didn’t come back soon, she and her daughter – females who had once enjoyed the life of freedom in a wealthy man’s home – really would become servants to the Chinese.
A Wealthy Woman Turned Into A Servant
There was a post-script on that second letter, added by Miwnay’s daughter, Shayn, that seems to have been written a little later. Everything Miwnay feared, it seems, had come true. Shayn writes:
“We have become the servants of the Chinese, I together with my mother.”
A family friend named Farnkhund had ruined them. Miwnay had hoped that Farnkhund would take her and her daughter out of Dunhuang, but Farnkhund let them down. He had built up an incredible amount of debt from the Chinese, though, and now he was on the run, and the Chinese soldiers trying to hunt him down.
Miwnay and Shayn had inherited his debts. Shay was a peasant girl now, watching over a flock of animals to survive.
A contract for the purchase of a slave during the Tang dynasty in Turpan, Xinjiang. The Contract records the purchase of a 15 year-old slave for six bolts of plain silk and five Chinese coins. Silk Museum, Hangzhou, China. (Discott/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
When the man in their family left, they’d lost everything. And, as women living in the 4th century Gansu, they were forbidden to do anything about it.
The Fate Of Miwnay And Shayn
Nobody knows for sure what became of Miwnay and Shayn. Those two letters are the only clues that were ever even alive.
Miwnay’s letters, though, never reached their destinations. They were intercepted by a Chinese guard and locked in a box on the frontier wall , hidden away and forgotten until an archaeologist found them in 1907.
Western End of the Great Wall Hanchangcheng Dunhuang Jiuquan Gansu China. (Hiroki Ogawa/ CC BY 3.0 )
Miwnay’s mother never read her daughter’s plea for help. Her husband never read Shayn’s note telling him what had become of his family. And whatever fate greeted them when it was all done was likely a dark one.
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But there was still one hope. In her letter to her mother, Miwnay revealed that there was still one person looking out for her:
“I depend on charity from the priest. He said to me: If you go, I will give you a camel, and a man should go with you, and on the way, I will look after you well.”
Perhaps the holy man who’d given her clothes to wear and food to eat went through with his promise. Perhaps he gave her a camel and a man to help her sneak past the guards. Perhaps she made her way home to her mother and lived out a peaceful life, back among her family.
Sogdian on a camel, Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907). Shanghai Museum. ( Public Domain ) Perhaps the holy man gave her a camel and a man to help her sneak past the guards?
The only thing that we know for sure is that Miwnay accomplished one incredible thing: she made her story heard. Though she could never have expected it, Miwnay managed to make her life one of the few that is thought of more than a thousand years later.
Miwnay, like all people, died. But her story is remembered.
By Mark Oliver
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