Ever since I completed my translation of Han author Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon, set in the Greater Khingan Range (大兴安岭) that divides the Manchurian plain of northeastern China from the Mongolian Plateau of Inner Mongolia, I’ve been wondering: How would one of the indigenous nomadic peoples, an Evenki, Oroqen or Daur for instance, recount the tale of how they lost their mountains, rivers and shamans, only to face modern life in “fixed settlements,” or even as migrants to big cities where the Han dominate?
With Sa Na’s new untranslated novel 《多布库尔河》 (literally, Duobukuer River), we have one answer, according to a book review that appeared recently on the web site of the China Writers Association (鄂伦春族的心灵秘史).
Sa Na (萨娜) is a Daur (达斡尔族) born in Yakeshi in the northern part of the Greater Khingan Range, although her story’s protagonists are Oroqen (鄂伦春族), a people related to the Evenki (鄂温克族) featured in Chi Zijian’s novel.
I haven’t read Sa Na’s novel, so my impressions are based solely on the review. But the similarities between Duobukuer River and Chi Zijian’s 2006 novel are striking:
- Book title: Both are named after actual rivers in the Greater Khingan Range (Chi Zijian’s novel was entitled Right Bank of the Argun in Chinese)；
- Human births, deer deaths: Both have key characters whose birth mysteriously coincides with death of a deer;
- Female shaman: Both feature shaman who save the children of others, but lose their own offspring as a consequence;
- Artists: Both have key characters who leave the mountains, study art at a university and become well-known thanks to works inspired by their homelands.
Given these obvious similarities, one can’t help but wonder: Just how original — or derivative — is Sa Na’s new book?
Reviewer Zhang Lijun points out that beginning with Chapter 5, the focus of Sa Na’s tale switches focus to life in the city where the narrator is studying painting. Chi Zijian’s storyteller, on the other hand, is an Evenki woman now in her nineties who has never spent a day outside the isolated mountains of her youth.
In Zhang Lijun’s eyes, one key point of difference between the two novels lies in the way that two key characters — both artists — cope with their transition to modern urban life:
Sa Na’s protagonist Gudiya, and Irina in Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon, both go to the city and choose painting as a means to express the spiritual worlds of their peoples. They differ in that within the Evenki spiritual world, Irina cannot find the spiritual DNA to facilitate her transition into modern life, and thus struggles bitterly between the city and the forest, tradition and modernity, finally drowning herself. But in the city Su Na’s Gudiya finds a spiritual passageway from the primitive thought of primeval painting to the artistic thought of modern painting, and confirms her own value and existential meaning in the modern urban mirror of otherness.