New Directions at Ethnic ChinaLit

A Note to New & Frequent Visitors

Oral Storytelling —  Griots, Mystic Bards & Textualizing

I am gradually re-orienting this site to focus on:

  • Oral storytelling traditions
  • Profiles of master storytellers, particularly on the fringes of the Chinese empire, and in Central Asia and West Africa
  • How the storytelling roles of the shaman, aşık and griot have evolved over the centuries
  • Live performance of epics, hikâye and the like, and how storytellers interact with their audience
  • What happens when oral literature is written down, i.e., the process of textualization
  • State policies aimed at appropriating storytelling traditions and exploiting storytellers for political ends.

I will continue to occasionally pen posts about ethnic writers in the PRC, including English-language reviews of their published works in Chinese, and short translations of their fiction.

If you have suggestions on topics I should address, contact me here.

Bruce Humes

Penang, Malaysia

August 10, 2015


Aug 2015 Update: Strategies for Exporting More of China’s Ethnic Fiction

I was invited to the “2015 Sino-foreign Literature Translation & Publishing Workshop” (2015 中外文学翻译研修班) that just ended in Beijing, but didn’t make it. It looks like it was a major happening with more than 50 translation and publishing professionals attending from 30+ countries. Check out the site here. Most of it is in Chinese, but the bios of the participants are in English too. Just click on the pix.

I suggested beforehand to the organizers that they discuss how to increase the overseas profile of China’s non-Han authors, and apparently they did. For a full-length news item on the discussion, read 少数民族文学 “走出去”步伐极须加快.

Since 2013, the China Writers Association has subsidized an ongoing project to enable translation and publication of

Adriana Martínez González, Chinese-to-Spanish translator

Adriana Martínez González, Chinese-to-Spanish translator

fiction by ethnic writers (当代少数民族文学对外翻译工程), according to Li Jingze, Secretary of the China Writers Association, who is cited in the news item. Some 54 “projects” were undertaken in 2013-14, and “almost half have been published.”

The report mentioned just a handful of translators and their works, including translations of various books about Muslim culture and literature in China into Arabic by Egyptian Shaimaa Kamal, and a book by Hui writer Ye Duoduo (叶多多), rendered in Spanish by Adriana Martínez González.

Several suggestions on how to better package ethnic fiction for an international readership were summarized in the news item. This included the need for China to cultivate “externally oriented” editors and publishing and sales managers.

Ironically, this is painfully obvious from the marketing of a collection of short pieces about the Lahu, entitled La vida contidiana de las mujeres Lahu de Lancang (澜沧拉祜女子日常生活) published by Five Continents Press (五洲传播出版社) in 2015. I should note that it’s not clear from the report whether this particular book was financed via a grant from the China Writers Association.

Mexican translator González explained that she knew nothing about the Lahu people (拉祜), some 700,000 of whom live in Yunnan Province. Yet when she asked for help from overseas Chinese specialists, they too admitted they knew little about this ethnicity. “This is a common conundrum faced by ethnic writing globally,” she told the conference. “Mainstream society’s lack of familiarity with the culture of minority peoples, publishers’ isolation from them, and a narrow readership form a self-perpetuating cycle that results in their fiction rarely achieving visibility to the public at large.”

Intrigued to see how her book is marketed in the West, I searched for her translation at Amazon. Sadly, what I found was this entry: Lancang Lahu woman daily life (Spanish Edition). This is a word-for-word translation of the Chinese title that gives little hint that it is a collection of short reportages. Although the book is in Spanish, the Spanish title is not given; and this listing is on English-language, while the book is not available at There is no graphic of the cover. And to top it off, the brief description of the book’s contents has obviously been penned by a non-native speaker of English:

Lahu Ethnic Group is one of those ethnic group named by Tiger. They also call themselves as Penyapeya, which means the descendant of calabash. According to their legend, the goddess Etha created the sky and the earth, the sun and the moon, and the calabash. The ancestor Zadi y Nadi reproduced the Lahu people from the calabash. Lancang, with the official name as Lancang Lahu Autonomous County, is where gather the majority of Lahu people. This book unveils this mysterious ethical group, who still keeps certain customs of matriarchy. There are merely four elements in the life of most Lahu women: mountain, fireplace, marriage and work. They make the living by haunting, planting tea, raising bees, and habitat in the rudimentary thatched dwelling. Becoming increasingly aware of the significance of education, Lahu people start to send their children, especially the girls to school. Can they break the shackles of poverty and underdevelopment? May time find the answer.

Links to Oral Storytelling Traditions Inscribed by Unesco

Oral Storytelling:

Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage Watch

Countries worldwide are increasingly going to the trouble of applying to officially register their “intangible cultural heritage” with Unesco. As I come across those relating to oral storytelling, I’ll try to add them to this list of links. If you’d like to alert me to new applications, please contact me here.

Hezhen Yimakan Storytelling (赫哲族 “伊玛堪”)

  • The Hezhen, who speak a Tungusic tongue related to Manchu, number between 4,000-5000, and have long inhabited the reaches of three rivers: the Amur, Sungari and Ussri. They are now mainly based in the China’s Heilongjiang Province. Their Yimakan storytelling is narrated in verse and prose without instrumental accompaniment. For the detailed nomination for Inscription on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of urgent Safeguarding, see here (choose English or French).
  • 《伊玛堪集成》巨著问世

Excerpt of the Week: Kurdish Dengbêjî and the ‘Nostalgia Industry’

Building the dengbêj ‘tradition’ . . . must also be considered in a wider context. Interest in memory is rapidly spreading in contemporary Turkey and is helping people explore personal and collective histories. These memories are also — within certain limits — fostered by official narratives that ‘rediscover,’ for instance, an Ottoman and multicultural past. With the opening up of [Turkey’s] ‘Pandora’s Box of History’ since the 1990s, ‘a nostalgia industry’  has emerged, ostensibly offering up tidbits from a ‘lost past’ (Neyzi 2002: 142).

The interest of the state as well as associative or private sectors in such memorial narratives, policies and products, is observable today in Turkey as in many other parts of the world. EU-funded projects that openly aim at developing a ‘cultural dialogue’ promote an image of Turkey as a peaceful ‘cultural mosaic.’ But these cultures and this diversity, in the way they are exhibited and displayed, may also be frozen and innocent representations of a lost but also imagined past (De Certeau 1993). The way memories are remembered, traditions reinvented (as in the dengbêj’s case) often confirms this.

(Excerpted from The Invention of a Tradition: Diyarbakır’s Dengbêj Project by Clémence Scalbert-Yücel)

Links to China’s Ethnic-themed Literature in Translation

Quick Guide to China’s Ethnic-themed Literature in Translation

I’m often too busy to immediately read or review new  “ethnic-themed” writing that was originally penned in Chinese, and has now been translated and published. This is a loose category that includes stories — regardless of the author’s ethnicity — in which non-Han culture, motifs or characters play an important role.

In the meantime, here is a set of links I hope you’ll find useful:

Chinese Fiction in Translation: Novels/Novellas with “Ethnic” Theme 

  • Table with info on ten contemporary works translated into English or French.

Guo Xuebo 

  • A comprehensive introduction — en français — to this China-born Mongolian author who has published several novels and short story collections that draw deeply on Mongolian culture. They include two novels translated into French, La Renarde du désert et Les Loups du désert, and The Desert Wolf, a collection of shorter pieces in English.

Jidi Majia: Five Poems

  • Poetry in bilingual (Chinese and English) layout appears in Chinese Literature Today. Jidi Majia belongs to the Yi-Nusuo ethnicity based in southern Sichuan.

Last Quarter of the Moon 

  • Several posts about Chi Zijian’s moving tale of the decline of the reindeer-herding, nomadic Evenki who once inhabited the sparsely populated, richly forested mountains straddling the Sino-Russian border. The novel has been translated into English, Italian, Japanese and Spanish, and French and Turkish renditions are underway.

The Bear Whispers to Me 

  • A poignant forest fable seen through the eyes of a Taiwanese aboriginal boy, about the vivid beauty of the natural world, childhood, loss and the transient nature of time.

The Doctor

  • A (very) short story by Tibetan Pema Tseden. Has an air of Waiting for Godot to it, and includes a detailed introduction to the author by translator Françoise Robin.

The Man with Compound Eyes

  • Eco-fiction about a giant trash vortex, this novel is interlaced with Taiwanese aboriginal myths.

The Song of King Gesar

  • A book review of this translation of Alai’s modern take on the Tibetan epic.
  • Visit The Shepherd’s Dream for an extract of the translation by Howard Goldblatt.

2015 Mao Dun Literature Prize Shortlist: Two “Ethnic-themed” Novels Make the Cut

A native of Shaanxi, Hong Ke lived for ten years in Xinjiang and chose to set this novel in a desert there

A native of Shaanxi, Hong Ke lived for ten years in Xinjiang and chose to set this novel in a desert there

A while back in Who Will Snare Award for Unofficial ‘Ethnic-themed’ Category?”, I wrote:

. . . it is my understanding is that there is a tradition — albeit an unwritten rule — that each set of Mao Dun awards include one “ethnic-themed” work (民族题材的作品). In the past, winners included Huo Da’s Funeral of a Muslim (穆斯林的葬礼), Alai’s Red Poppies (尘埃落定), and Chi Zijian’s The Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸).

Sure enough, the shortlist is out and there is not just one candidate; there are two:

《这边风景》(lit., The Scenery over Here) by Wang Meng (王蒙)

《喀拉布风暴》(lit., The Kalabu Sandstorm ) by Hong Ke (红柯)

Both authors have spent considerable time in Xinjiang, and are Han males. (红柯). That’s a bit of a surprise to me. I had expected at least one shortlisted novel would be by a non-Han writer, because there is now an increasing recognition in official literary circles that ethnic writers deserve recognition for documenting the lives of their own people, both in fiction and in reportage/documentaries.

I do not know when the winners — typically five — will be voted on and announced. Click here for the official list of all ten in Chinese. Well-known authors on it include Ge Fei, Fan Wen, Xu Zechen and Su Tong.

Kurdish Storytellers Congregate in Southeastern Turkey’s Diyarbakır

In Few Dengbejs Remain to Sing Kurdish Stories, Mat Nashed reports from Turkey’s Diyarbakır on the “House of Dengbej,” established to provide a venue for performances by traditional Kurdish storytellers:

“We sing stories of love and war,” [Mehmet] Ince told Al-Monitor while lighting a cigarette in the house of the dengbej. “We express our history through our tongue.”

Kurds in Turkey have long been denied a history of their own. In 1980, their language was criminalized following a bloody military coup that saw the country fall under martial law, empowering the army to raid, imprison and kill thousands of leftists and Kurdish activists.

Faced with charges of separatism by the state for speaking their mother tongue, dengbejs traveled discreetly between villages to perform for their people. Whenever one would arrive, the town would elect two people to stand the lookout for Turkish soldiers, while the rest of the community would cram into an empty guesthouse to hear him sing.

The Kurdish dengbêj is a ‘reciter of romances and epics’, according to Michael Chyet, an expert in Middle Eastern languages and compiler of a Kurdish-English dictionary. But the traditional dengbêj “must also be defined by his social position: he used to work for and praise a master who took care of him in exchange.” (Dengbêj Project)

According to Kurdish music producer Hilmi Akyol as cited in Daily Sabah, Dengbej House opened its doors under the commission of the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality in 2007 with a group of 28 folk musicians, including one female dengbej. It hosts 70,000 visitors annually.

Read Kurdish Music Tradition Revived with Dengbej Culture or The Invention of a Tradition: Diyarbakır’s Dengbêj Project for more information. The latter is highly detailed and goes into depth on topics such as the stigmatization of this form of folk art and the pioneering role of Kurdish writers, and touches on once-popular dengbêj such as Şakiro, Hûseynê Farê, Ayşe Şan, Meryem Xan and Îsa Perwarî.

See also the Wikipedia entry on Karapetê Xaço, an Armenian  who witnessed the annihilation of his village during the Armenian Holocaust, and later went on to become a renowned singer of dengbêj.

Or, have a brief listen here to the more traditional form that is sung without accompaniment by musical instruments.

Mongolian Shaman Songs of Praise Rendered in Chinese

Two poets have collaborated to publish a book containing 29 renditions of songs of praise traditionally chanted by shaman. The original odes in Mongolian were first translated into Mandarin by Mongolian scholar Ni Ma (尼玛), and then polished by Xi Murong (席慕蓉), who also knows Mongolian but was educated in Taiwan. The book is published by the Ethnic Publishing House (北京民族出版社), according to a report in Chinawriter (萨满神歌).

Entitled 萨满神歌 (lit., sacred songs of the shaman), they offer praise mainly to mothers, and the spirits of mountains and rivers. Such songs are passed on orally and rarely written down.

Shaman and their lyrics do occasionally appear in 21st-century Chinese fiction, however. For example, here are three novels with key roles for shaman, the first below being Evenki (and a woman), while the latter two are Mongolian:

  • Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian (额尔古纳河右岸, 迟子建著)
  • Legend of Mongolia (蒙古往事, 冉平著)
  • Mongolia by Guo Xuebo (蒙古里亚, 郭雪波著). This is a powerful new semi-autobiographical work by an author who is the descendent of a line of shaman. I’m working now on an excerpt and hope to post in September.

“Last Quarter of the Moon”: Evenki Odyssey Captured in Chinese Novel Set in the Greater Khingan Mountains

My translation of Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸) can be ordered — e-book, hard cover and paperback — online at various places, including Amazon. Read the opening for free here (click on the cover), or the author’s Afterword.

For information on other editions, see: Dutch (Het laatste kwartier van de maan), French,  Italian (Ultimo quarto di Luna), Japanese (アルグン川の右岸), Spanish (A la orilla derecha del Río Argún ), and Turkish. 

If you’d like to peruse a book review, choose your language: ChineseEnglish, French, or Spanish. There’s also an in-depth interview with me about the novel in Chinese (中文采访).

Narrated in the first person by the aged wife of the last chieftain of an Evenki clan, the Right Bank of the Argun—as it is dubbed in Chinese — is a moving tale of the decline of reindeer-herding nomads in the sparsely populated, richly forested mountains that border on Russia.

At the end of the twentieth century an old woman sits among the birch trees and thinks back over her life, her loves, and the joys and tragedies that have befallen her family and her people. She is a member of the Evenki tribe who wander the remote forests of northeastern China with their herds of reindeer, living in close sympathy with nature at its most beautiful and cruel.

Over the last three centuries, three waves of outsiders have encroached upon the Evenki’s isolated way of life: the Russians, whose warring and plundering eventually pushed the Evenki down from Siberia across to the southern (“right”) bank of the Argun River, the tributary of the Amur that defines the Sino-Russian border; the Japanese, who forcibly recruit their men into the ranks of the Manchukuo Army; and the Han Chinese of the People’s Republic, who fell the forests that are crucial to the survival of reindeer, outlaw hunting, and eventually coerce the Evenki to leave the mountains for life in a “civilized” permanent settlement.

For an academic study of the ideologies behind the government’s official policy of resettling the Evenki—and an in-depth look at the psychological impact of divorcing them from their “reindeer lifeworld”— see Forced Relocation amongst the Reindeer Evenki of Inner Mongolia.

Visit Northern Hunting Culture for marvelous pictures of the Aoluguya Evenki, their lifestyle and handicrafts.

For a fascinating look at the etymology of names for rivers, mountains and forests in their homeland on either side of the Sino-Russian border, see Evenki Place Names behind the Hànzì.

Documenting Folk Songs of Yunnan’s Bai People in Multilingual Format

A Recovered Text of Bai Folk Songs in a Sinoxenic ScriptChinese Ethnic Minority Oral Traditions: A Recovered Text of Bai Folk Songs, a new work in the Cambria Sinophone World Series, was published recently. A brief backgrounder on how it came into being:

In 1958 while conducting fieldwork in Yunnan, a professor came across a rice paper booklet with strange script created from Chinese characters. This turned out to be a folksong booklet in Old Bai script. She safeguarded it carefully through the tumultuous Mao years until the 1990s, when the political environment had relaxed enough for her to conduct full-scale ethnographic research. Very few such texts remain, and what makes this booklet even more valuable is that it records songs that have already disappeared, including some with sexually explicit content.

One of the features of the book is how it delves into the use of “created characters” that were used in the Chinese-character based “old Bai script” to capture vocabulary or concepts that apparently did not exist in standard written Chinese.

But from my point of view, the most noteworthy aspect of the work is how the folk songs have been transcribed and translated. “The songs are presented in a multilinear format that includes the Bai text, an IPA version of the sound, a word-for-word Chinese line, a word-for-word English line, and vernacular (Standard) Chinese line and vernacular English translation,” according to the summary at Cambria Press.

The great majority of similar works available in China are often virtually monolingual — in a fluent Chinese translation only — which leaves the reader unable to get a feeling for the imagery or rhythm of the original, and on a more subtle level it reinforces the perception that the written Chinese version is “genuine” while the (unseen and undocumented) original oral version is somehow less so.