Sinology Sunday: Tang Dynasty Funeral Address for a Donkey


A painting by China’s most well-known donkey artist, Huang Zhou 

This  Funeral Address for Donkey 祭驴文 from the Dunhuang Library Cave made me tear up, so here’s the translation.

The scroll is dated to be from the 7th to the 10th Century and is currently at the British Library. See the original  here.

I sometimes rode you into mud and sometimes into ditches. I remember once on Mount Taixing, you and I rode between the treacherous mountain rocks. The sky was gloomy. The road was far. The rocks above us looked like they were about to fall any moment. The cliff below us seemed bottomless.  I was scared out of my mind until we came down the mountains.

I had secretly hoped that if I were to become an official with titles, I would be able to repay you. Even if I can afford the best horses, I still wouldn’t sell you. I’ll accompany you in and out of the bright red mansion doors. I’ll let you jump joyously in my courtyard. I want to buy a new set of pig skin for you to replace your reins. And a new saddle, and a new headgear. I wanted to enjoy the splendor of life with you, but did not expect you to fall sick before we got there.

The road is far, and it’s been a blessing to have you walk the journey with me. Yet this journey has made you tired and sick. I cried as I saw you barely able to breath, able to neither eat the freshest grass nor taste any more beans. The squire came at dawn and told me you passed away last night. You leaving made me stricken with sadness. For so many years, we traveled far and wide. You and I went through fear. You carried me through the rain and the snow.  Today, you said goodbye to your stirrups and reins forever. I saw your headgear left by the wall, soaked by the rain; Your saddle falling apart under the trough. You were unlucky to be born into my home. At home,  I couldn’t treat you well.  Outside, you traveled day and night for me. Had you been born into royalty, they would’ve liked to hear your hee-haw. Had you been born in the times of Emperor Ling of Han*, you would definitely be his favorite ride.

When you reincarnate, I think the following are potential options:  I hope you will not be born into the home of an official, for you will often have to carry heavy luggage faraway to the capital.  Nor should you be born into the home of a general. If they ride you while playing polo, you will be tired all the time.  Also don’t be born into the home of a pilgrimer, for you’ll be whipped every day.  Also don’t be born into a Buddhist Temple, for they’ll say you are born a donkey because you sinned in your past life. I hope you’ll be born into a simple country home. They’re not wealthy and would treat you as a treasure. They’ll treat you as they do their own child.

*Emperor Ling of Han is known for riding donkeys in his garden

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