The Righteous Elephants

The Righteous Elephants


by David Porter

Ph.D. Candidate, Harvard University

The author of the story that follows was a Daur man originally from Qiqihar named Donjina. Donjina lived from sometime around 1860 until sometime after the fall of the Qing, as is demonstrated by his mention of the events of 1911 in the preface to the collection of stories from which the following work is taken. Though born in the northeast of the Qing empire, as a young man Donjina was sent to Xinjiang to participate in the suppression of the rebellion of Yakub Beg. Following the end of the rebellion, Donjina remained in Ili, living with the Sibe in Cabcal for the rest of his life.

The forty stories in the collection consist of two major types. The first twelve describe Donjina’s own experiences in Ili and in the Qing military, while the final 28 are fantastical tales of strange happenings set in various parts of the empire.[1] Readers interested in reading more of Donjina’s stories can consult a complete transcription of the Manchu and translation into German by Giovanni Stary.[2] We also plan to publish several more English translation on the Manchu Studies Group blog.

The existence of a set of stories in Manchu from such a late period are a reminder that the Sinification of the Manchus during the Qing period was far less complete than often is assumed, particularly in parts of the empire outside of China proper. Donjina’s writing is not just a reflection of the continued use of written Manchu among the Sibe, which is already well known and continues to the present, as his inclusion of stories about his own experiences in Ili likely suggests an intended audience not limited to northwestern Xinjiang. That Donjina was Daur also reminds us that the Manjurification of Mongolic peoples is just as much a story of the Qing as is the Sinification of the Manchus. Finally, the content of many of the stories reflects the popularity of tales of the strange among many Manchus. Donjina may well have read Jakdan’s 1848 translation of Pu Songling’s Liaozhai zhiyi, and even if he had not, his interest in stories of strange beasts and supernatural events should be seen as part of a Manchu literary tradition that continued into the 20th century.


The Righteous[3] Elephants

Translation by David Porter and Devin Fitzgerald

In a place called Wenle Si in Hunan, they tell a tale of righteous elephants. When Wu Sangui came to Hunan, there were forty or fifty war elephants still in use. Thus, among the people of Hunan, there were many who had seen the elephants, and for each elephant, a person went to take care of and nurture it. Thus all of the caretakers and elephants have come to love one another.


Once, after one of the elephant caretakers died, people had finished making his coffin and were about to place his corpse in it when, to their surprise, his elephant came. After having furtively observed what they were doing, it rolled up the corpse of the dead man in its trunk, placed him in the coffin, and closed the lid. When they wanted to nail the coffin shut, the elephant absolutely would not let them. After the people had finished digging his grave mound out in the wild, when they told the elephant where they had dug it, it lifted the coffin with its trunk and placed it in the grave mound itself. Then it buried him with earth, and missing him extremely, tears flowed from its eyes and it left.

One or two days later, the elephant came again. It moved aside the earth covering the coffin and, opening the lid, examined the corpse. Then it closed the lid again and tamped the earth back down. After that, every day or two it would always return, only leaving when it had looked at the corpse in the same manner as before. As time went on, after the dead man’s flesh and skin began to stink and come loose from his corpse, he cased to look like a person. Following this, the elephant finally stopped going to look at him. Henceforth, after any of the elephant caretakers died, the same thing happened.


One day, an elephant discovered that its caretaker was fooling around with a woman in its pen. When, angered, it blocked the door with its trunk, the man became afraid. When he climbed over the fence to flee, the elephant chased him down, wrapped him up in his trunk and flung him to the ground. The elephant then pierced the man repeatedly with his tusk until he died.

Before this, there had never been an incident of this sort, in which an elephant suddenly killed its caretaker. When the head caretaker, because of this, wanted to seize the elephant and investigate the situation, the elephant suddenly ran away at top speed. Nobody saw where it had gone, and the people fled from it. After a little while, the elephant showed up, bringing a woman wrapped in its trunk. He placed her in front of the official, making her kneel with his trunk so that she would talk about the stabbing. The woman trembled and shook, and after seeming for a long while as though she could not speak, finally revealed the true reason. After this, the head caretaker pardoned the elephant, saying that it was righteous, and appointed another caretaker to take care of it.


In my opinion, this elephant may truly be made a judge or a doctor of law. In this world, things that rebel against the principles of human relations are called birds and beasts. Only the elephant is not a beast. How is it that people in this world may be scolded by calling them birds and beasts? We should also consider this carefully. The elephant is a beast, but some are more worthy than people. Thus when Emperor Shun was doing the honest work of farming and weeding in the wilds of Io Sin[4], the elephant came to him on account of its filial thoughts and farmed and weeded in his place. This is absolutely true![5]

Jurgangga sufan

Wen le ši-i henduhe bade, hūnan-i bade jurgangga sufan-i baita bi sembi. U san gui hūnan-i bade jihede, sufan-i cooha dehi sunja bifi, kemuni baitalaha babi. Tuttu ofi hūnan-i ba-i urse sufan be sabuhangge labdu, sufan tome emu niyalma daname ujimbi, uttu ofi niyalma sufan ishunde gemu buyenin bisire de isinahabi.


Emu sufan be ujire niyalma bucehe manggi, niyalma terei tetun be arame wajifi giran be tetuleki sere siden, gūnihakū sufan jifi giran be narhūšame tuwafi, sufan ini oforo-i tere bucehe niyalmai giran be uhufi tetun-i dolo tebufi, okcin be gidaha. Geren hadan hadaki serede, sufan umai hadaburkū. Niyalma bigan de eifu-i munggan be feteme wajifi sufan de fetehe babe alaha bici, tere sufan oforo-i giran-i tetun be tukiyefi, beye eifu-i munggan-i dolo sindafi, dasame boihon burkifi, naršame[6] arame yaburkū, yasa ci muke tuhebufi teni yoha.

Emu juwe inenggi-i amala dasame jifi, oilo dasiha boihon be jailabufi, tetun-i okcin be neime jailabufi giran be kimcime tuwafi, dasame okcin be gidame, boihon gidaha. Terei sirame aici emu inenggi, embici juwe inenggi-i amala urunakū dasame jifi nenehe songkoi tuwafi teni yabumbi. Amala bucehe niyalma yali sukū warume, giran ci ukcaha amala, niyalmai arbun akū oho manggi teni genefi tuwara be nakahabi. Terei amala yaya sufan be daname ujiha urse bucehe manggi gemu uttu.


Emu inenggi, emu sufan be daname ujihe niyalma, cisui emu hehe niyalma-i emgi yobodome orho lenpen[7]-i booi dolo sasa tehe be sufan sabufi, jilidame oforo-i uce be daliha bici, tere niyalma gelefi, fu be dabafi ukara de, sufan tere niyalma be farganafi, oforo-i uhufi na de fahafi, dasame geli weihe-i tere niyalma be cokišame lalaji[8] obume bucebuhe.

Sufan gaitai beyebe daname ujihe niyalma be waha baita, nenehe enteke baita akū bihe, erei turgun de danara hafan sufan be jafafi fonjire arbun-i fonjiki serede, sufan gaitai sujume ukame genefi saburkū de, niyalma terebe ukaka de obuha. Bajima, tere sufan emu hehe niyalma be oforo-i uhufi gajime bime, hafan-i juleri sindafi terebe niyakūrabure arbun-i oforo-i tere hehe niyalma be tokošome gisure sere de, tere hehe šurgeme dargime gisun gisureme muterkū-i gese goidaha manggi teni yargiyan turgun be tucibume alaha manggi, danara hafan sufan be jurgangga seme guwebufi, encu emu daname ujire niyalma tucibufi danabuha.


Mini gūnin de, ere sufan be yala beidere hafan obuci ombi, fafun-i sefu obuci ombi. Jalan niyalmai ciktan giyan be facuhūrame fudarakangge be gasha gurgu sembi, sufan emhun gurgu waka. Ainu jalan-i niyalma gasha gurgu seme niyalma be tooci ombi ni? Inu olhošome gūnici acambi. Gurgu ofi niyalma ci fulungge sufan inu. Tuttu ofi, šūn han-i io sin bigan de beye tarime yangsara unenggi yabun. Hiyoošungga gūnin de sufan jifi terei funde tarime yangsaha sehengge yala tasan[9] akū nikai!





[1] The discussion of Donjina to this point is based on Giovanni Stary, “An Example of Manchu Autochthonous Literature in Prose: Donjina’s Records of Experiences,” Saksaha 2 (1997), pp. 1-6.

[2]Donjina, Geister, Dämonen und Seltsame Tiere: Ein Mandschurisches Liaozhai zhiyi aus Xinjiang, trans. Giovanni Stary, Aetas Manjurica 13, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag in Kommission, 2009.

[3] We translate jurgangga as “righteous.” Though Stary gives the title as “The Dutiful Elephant” (Stary, 5) and Norman also glosses jurgangga as “honorable, loyal, upright,” these terms seem too passive as a description of the elephant in the second episode described in the story. While “loyal,” “dutiful,” or “honorable” may be good descriptions of the elephant in the first episode who mourns his keeper, “righteous” conveys both the sense of simply being “morally right” as well as a flavor of “acting out of moral outrage” that seems appropriate to an elephant who gores to death his fornicating keeper.

[4] The usual version of the story is that Shun was at a place called Mount Li (歷山). It is unclear where Donjina came up with the place name “Io Sin.”

[5] Literally, “in the saying of this [story] there is indeed nothing false.

[6] This should probably read “narašame”

[7] This should probably read “lempen”

[8] This should probably read “lalanji”

[9] This should probably read “tašan”


Image credit: Wanguo Chaogong Tu, Qianlong Reign. Palace Museum, Beijing.



  1. Donjina on the ‘cin šu’ tree | Tales of Manchu life - […] For more on Donjina, read and enjoy the following post on the Manchu Studies Group’s blog : The righteous…

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