Dear Sir / Madam, I must apologise for my disgraceful behaviour last night…

Sorry, I have been neglecting you again. I have been a bit preoccupied this last week, and on Friday I got blindingly, stupidly, and probably intentionally, drunk. It was fun though. It wrote off Saturday, but has to be done on occasion. (Blab Blab, not condoning excessive drinking etc, taken in moderation, eat more lentils etc etc…) 

As I was drifting home on the bus I tried to catalogue all the apologetic emails and letters I have had to send over the years as a result of liver abuse and the spirited (usually gin based) belief that one last pint will not do anyone any harm. Few were poetic, most were pathetic. But its the ‘having written’ them, as well as the contrition aspect, that is important, not the linguistic gymnastics nor asking to be reminded of the young lady in question’s name. That is unless you lived in Central China in about 856 AD.

The draconian, but inventive local ‘Dunhuang Bureau of Etiquette’ (imagine a cross between your guilty conscience and the Debrett’s) insisted that local mandarins use an official letter template when sending apologies to offended dinner hosts. The guilty party would copy the template text, enter the dinner host’s name, sign the letter and then deliver with head bowed, usually before dashing off to the chemist for some 9th century Seltzers.

If you have never heard of the caves at Dunhuang, then you obviously have never met a Tibetologist. We tend to salivate and wax lyrical about this treasure trove of texts and manuscripts. The first caves were dug out 366 AD as places of Buddhist meditation and worship, but became a depository for all kinds of manuscripts and murals, in all the languages of the Silk Road until they were walled off sometime after the 11th century.

In the early 1900s, a Chinese monk named Wang appointed himself guardian of some of these temples. Wang discovered a walled up area behind one side of a corridor leading to a main cave. Behind the wall was a small cave stuffed with texts dating from 406 to 1002 AD. Wang sold the majority of the texts to Aurel Stein 1907 for £220 pounds, however unbeknownst to Stein he had purchased hundreds of copies of the same text, the Diamond Sutra, because he was unable to read any of the languages they were written in. The final laugh was with Stein (and do read the relevant bits in my thesis about looting, ‘collecting,’ and museum collections) however as one copy turned out to be the earliest known dated, printed text, that now lives in the British Library’s treasure rooms. Much of the collection is now being worked on by the International Dunhuang Project, based in part at the BL.

But, back to the etiquette letter. The following is a translation of the official letter. I suggest you make note of if… such things come in useful! 

Yesterday, having drunk too much, I was intoxicated as to pass all bounds; but none of the rude and coarse language I used was uttered in a conscious state. The next morning, after hearing others speak on the subject, I realised what had happened, whereupon I was overwhelmed with confusion and ready to sink into the earth with shame.


Filed under Tibetology

3 responses to “Dear Sir / Madam, I must apologise for my disgraceful behaviour last night…

  1. Michel Campbell

    Is the “drunken dinner party appology” the only translated part of the scroll? I’ve seen pics of a lot more of the scroll but can’t find any translations. Any ideas?


    • Hello Michel, I am afraid I don’t know the answer to your question. Perhaps if any kind soul does, they could let us both know?!

      • Michel Campbell

        I was afraid you were going to say that. Now I’m not sure how to express my regret for having adding an extra P to word apology. Until we get more of the scroll translated, know my regret is somewhere in between indifference and wanting the earth to swallow me whole.

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