Interview with China Novelist Fan Wen: A Century of Cultural Collisions in Shangri-la

Shuiru Dadi tells the tale of a multi-ethnic settlement in Lancangjiang Canyon—Gateway to Tibet—beset by battles between arrogant French Catholic missionaries, incompetent Han officials and their marauding troops, Naxi Dongba Shamanists, and the dominant Tibetans, not all of whom lead pacific, vegetarian lives in the local lamasery.

The saga spans most of the 20th century, hopping back and forth between the decades and capturing the non-linear Tibetan sense of time. Fan Wen’s imagination almost seems to get the better of him as Living Buddhas levitate, Shamans summon spirits for battle, and Communist Party officials rue their Red Guard days, but his tale is firmly rooted in the locale’s colorful history. Historical fiction with dabs of highly entertaining “supernatural realism” thrown in, if you like. 

Below, Ethnic ChinaLit’s Bruce Humes interviews Fan Wen (范稳), author of Shuiru Dadi (水乳大地). Nominated for the 2008 Maodun Literature Prize, the novel has sold nearly 50,000 copies in China, and Stéphane Lévêque, who rendered Wang Anyi’s Song of Everlasting Sorrow (恨歌) into French, has been chosen to translate Shuiru Dadi. [May 2014 update: the French version has been published as Une terre de lait et de miel by Philippe Picquier. See book cover below.] The rights to the English version are still open.

Ethnic ChinaLit: Why did you choose the border of Tibet and Yunnan as the backdrop for your novel?

Fan Wen: The region on either side of the Tibet-Yunnan border is inhabited by several different ethnic groups, not just Tibetans. One also finds Han, and other minorities such as Naxi, Yi, and Lisu. Within this realm, each ethnic group possesses its own unique culture. The interaction and tempering process that goes on between these cultures and belief systems form a vibrant painted scroll of humanity.

I find describing the interaction—and collisions—between different cultures is a challenging and engaging affair. And conflicts have actually taken place due to differences in culture and faith, like wars between Naxi and Tibetans, and Tibetans and Han.

Christian martyres' gravesWhen Catholicism was transmitted to this land, irreconcilable contradictions occurred between Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism. Even today, one finds the graves of missionaries. Local annals chronicle religious disputes, and documents in the hands of missionary societies record tales of evangelists who died proselytizing. Father Maurice Tornay, a Swiss citizen, was murdered in 1949 and subsequently beatified as a martyr by the Vatican.

As an author, I see story lines and the fates of characters in all of this, and insights about mankind’s destiny that are born of these colliding cultures and religions. People of different cultural backgrounds and levels of civilization inevitably come into close proximity, and in the course of this, some pay for it with their lives, while others discover a new shore on the other side. But their sacrifices leave us with a priceless heritage.

I treat the Tibet-Yunnan border region as my own creative paradise, an inspiration of sorts. You can interpret this as a summons from God; you can also see this as a writer who has been vanquished by a certain spirituality—the cultures and beliefs of the people of this realm. I am a baptized Catholic. The day in 1999 when I came across Father Maurice Tornay’s (杜仲贤神父) lonely grave in Lancangjiang Canyon, I realized I had found my sacred vocation.

Q: Why do think Shuiru Dadi has aroused the interest of France’s Gallimard, which subsequently bought the French language rights? Are you of the opinion that French publishers, or the French reader, have a special understanding of, or taste for, Things Chinese?

A: Just two years after Shuiru Dadi came out, Gallimard contacted me and wanted to publish it. But they just couldn’t find the “right” translator. After four long years, at last they have found someone who is qualified to do the job.

French edition of "Shuiru Dadi"

French edition of “Shuiru Dadi”

In my opinion, first and foremost this is a book about Tibet, and secondly it describes the experiences of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris. More importantly, it’s because this book revolves around the collision between Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism, and the interaction between different cultures and civilizations as the West and the East approached one another. These are global motifs. I assume that Gallimard, a publisher that has long enjoyed a fine reputation, bought the rights to my book based on these points.

I’ve never been to France and cannot draw any firm conclusions about how the French really see China. But I believe the French are like the majority of Westerners. They have a special feeling for Tibet, and perhaps the fact that I wrote about French missionaries in Tibet will make them feel a bit more “involved.” But Westerners are probably more interested in relations between China and Tibet, while my focus is on the interaction and rough-and-tumble that ensues. Not just between the Han and the Tibetans, but also between the East and the West and their creeds. I believe these topics will be of interest to everyone.

Q: The novel is full of detail about the religions and customs of ethnic Tibetans and Naxi. How did you accumulate your knowledge of these two peoples?

A: When I decided to write Shuiru Dadi, I came to understand the preparations I must undertake. Firstly, I had to familiarize myself with the social customs and daily practices of the Tibetans and Naxi, or as you say, “accumulate” knowledge of them. The accumulation process was actually a learning process in and of itself. I had to study right there on the land, so I spent more than two years in the Tibetan region, working there for a year, and making friends with all sorts of Tibetans residing in the villages.

The most direct method meant drinking liquor with them. As soon as they’ve had a few drinks, they’ll tell you anything on their minds and treat you like a dear friend. Never before a frequent drinker, for this purpose I got drunk I don’t know how many times.

Another way of learning was through the written word. I read all the books about Tibetan and Naxi history and culture that I could lay my hands on. I also read widely about religion: Tibetan Buddhism, Dongba Shamanism and Catholicism, memoirs by foreign missionaries. Fortunately, nowadays there are many articles on such topics available in China.

My lifestyle consists of trekking about, and reading and writing in my study. It’s been like that for more than a decade. I’ve read more than ten million words on these subjects, and I’ve perused more than ten thousand photos. There are many academic works on Tibet-related topics in China, but my impression is that some Western Tibetologists have carried out better cultural research, because they know no taboos. They include France’s Rolf Stein, Italy’s Giuseppe Tucci and Rene de Nebesky-wojkowitz of Austria.

Q: Chinese aside, do you speak other languages?

A: Unfortunately, I don’t.

Q: What does the title of the novel mean?

A: The Chinese characters for shui and ru (水乳) are taken from the four-character idiom (水乳交融) that refers to blending water with milk, a metaphor for absolute intimacy or total harmony. The land described in my novel is a universe where multiple peoples, religions and cultures co-exist. There was a time when they were mutually incompatible and suspicious; they struggled against one another, fighting and killing, and many sacrificed their lives in the name of their faith. That was a state of disharmony.

But this is not an ideal direction of development for human civilization, nor an ideal for any religion. As human society has developed, people have learned how to respect others’ creeds and cultures, and learned mutual respect and peaceful co-existence. This involves elements of politics, the wisdom of ethnic groups, and religious enlightenment. With this title I hope to provide the reader with an ideal and a paradise—one where different faiths, cultures and peoples are mutually respected and recognized, and the road to peaceful development can be found.

Q: The first two novels of your three-part Tibet-based roman fleuve have been in print for some time now. Has anyone, proposed publishing them in Tibetan? What sort of reaction would a Tibetan have if s/he read your novel?

A: At this time, translation into and out of the languages of China’s ethnic minorities is problematic. Comparatively speaking, there are more translations from those minority languages into Chinese, but very few in the opposite direction. Particularly so for Tibetan. Many educated Tibetans speak their language, but can neither read nor write it because they are schooled in Chinese. In the Tibetan regions, only lamas in the temples have a somewhat higher level of written Tibetan. That being the case, there is no market for books translated from the Chinese into Tibetan, so publishers won’t publish them.

Typically, Tibetan friends who have read my novel find it represents their history and culture fairly accurately. Literary and scholarly circles here in China consider my novel to be the best contemporary novel reflecting the history and culture of the Tibetan people.

Q: The role of French missionaries in Shuiru Dadi is quite significant. They sing the praises of a merciful “God,” but they bring firearms, a malevolent attitude towards Buddhism, and eventually war to Lancangjiang Canyon. Are these missionaries portrayed based on real historical personages? Did a French missionary actually become so fascinated with the Dongba pictographic script of the Naxi, that he researched it and introduced it back to his compatriots in France?

A: Before 1950, Yunnan, Sichuan and land bordering on Tibet had long been areas where the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris (Missions Etrangères de Paris) was active. The Vatican established a Roman Catholic Diocese based in Kangding [now a town in the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province]