Echoes of Samarkand: Salar Literary Conference Held in Qinghai

A conference highlighting writing by Salar authors  (撒拉族文学) was held in January 2013 in Xunhua County (循

The Registan in Samarkand

The Registan in Samarkand

化), Qinghai Province, home to most of the 100,000 Salar  (撒拉族) who consider themselves descendants of Muslims who migrated in the 13th century from Samarkand (present-day Uzbekhistan, and once home to Omar Khayyam) in search of religious freedom.

Subsequent contacts and intermarriage with Han Chinese, Tibetans and Hui have created a unique culture and strongly impacted the Salar language. Wikipedia notes that there are two large dialect groups: one branch influenced by Tibetan and Chinese, and another by Uyghur and Kazakh vocabulary.

The conference featured a focus on homegrown Salar poet Han Wende (韩文德) whose pen name is Samarkand (撒玛尔罕), and Muslim name is Habibullah (哈比布拉). He has been writing for two decades and has reportedly published nearly 1,000 poems (百度百科) and received many awards. Most recently, his fourth collection, entitled <清水微澜>, was released by Writers Publishing House (作家出版社). The Baidu Baike Chinese entry states that he writes about the past and present of his people along the banks of the Yellow River, and that his poems have been translated into Uyghur, Mongolian, Tibetan and English.

Since Salar is still a living language, reportedly spoken by over half of those who identify themselves as Salar, and—unlike many minority languages in the PRC—it can be written, one might expect that Han Wende write in Salar. However, as far as I can tell from my limited research—I found just one of his poems, <微澜之水> , online—he writes in Chinese.

Exiled by Definition: The Salar of Northwest China (click on Download this PDF) by David Goodman is a fascinating account of Salar culture, migration and language that documents the complex issues surrounding the written form of the language and the Salar sense of identity. Explains Goodman:

. . . contemporary Salars believe passionately in their status as a people in exile. Contemporary official and less formal published accounts all stress the origins of the Salar in the act of banishment from central Asia. Visitors to Xunhua all receive a similar introduction, and the fact of exile is usually the first thing mentioned by Salar business-people and officials when their nationality or ethnicity is being discussed with other Chinese or external visitors.

An interesting additional aspect of their belief system, which reinforces the notion of permanent exile, is the equally as strong attachment to being citizens of the Chinese state, demonstrated not least by the insistence on the continued use of Chinese characters in writing.

It also appears that for various reasons earlier efforts to romanize Salar and popularize it through typical PRC-style secular education have failed: In the early 1980s at the direction of the Central Nationalities College Central Nationalities Commission of the PRC Government, Professor Han Jianye of Qinghai Nationalities College designed a new Salar alphabet which was propagated in Xunhua (Han Jianye 1988, 46-79). It did not receive any acceptance and has been quietly shelved as an idea.

Another example [of coexistence vs. integration] is the experience of schooling. State school enrolments in Xunhua are the lowest in the PRC. A major reason for this is that the Salar, like other Muslims in the northwest, would prefer that the sexes are segregated at school and that in any case there should be more religious education for their children, as provided through madrasas attached to each mosque.

If you’re interested in how the Salar portray their mythical migration in drama form (döye oyna, “white camel”), then google Stone Camels and Clear Springs: The Salar’s Samarkand Origins by Ma Jianzhong and Kevin Stuart.  You should be able to download the PDF for free (originally published in Asian Folklore Studies,Volume 55, 1996).  Apparently the play’s performance is politically sensitive:

Our informant maintained that döye oyna was at its peak in the 1920s and has been in decline ever since. It was utterly forbidden during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).  As far as our informants knew, the play has vanished as a folk village performance.

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