Oddly Monolingual Manchu Emperors and “New Qing History”

In The Charms of Qing TV, The Economist takes a closer look at the popular Qing historical dramas that are so popular on China’s video-sharing sites.

Is Mark Elliot—author of The Manchu Way, one of the first studies to use Manchu sources in the research of Qing history—bothered by Chinese TV’s monolingual Manchus?

“I’d say there is little doubt that the Manchu emperors could all speak decent Chinese. Kangxi’s was almost certainly not as good as that of his son and grandson, but he could get by just fine. Still, it seems he was more comfortable speaking Manchu, and preferred communicating with the Jesuits at court in Manchu rather than in Chinese. So the issue is not so much that the emperors are speaking Chinese, but that they are never found speaking Manchu, which they most definitely could and did do, especially in dealings with Manchu officials.”

This soap opera representation of the Manchu ruling class as curiously dependent on the Han tongue is at odds with a fresh but problematic interpretation of rule under the Manchus, known as “New Qing History.” For the details, see The Charms of Qing TV.

Translation of Century-old French-Buyi Dictionary Dogged by Concerns over Political Correctness

Published in 1908, a rare dictionary of the Buyi language—Essai de dictionnaire dioi-français reproduisant la langueDictionnaire Français-Buyi parlée par les tribus Thai de la Haute rivière de l’Ouest (布法辞典)—compiled by two French missionaries (Joseph Esquirol & Gustave Williatte) has long been slated for translation into Chinese. Attempts were made to complete the project in the late 1970s and again in 1989, but according to a recent report published on the Institute of Ethnic Literature’s web site (布依文化百科全书), for “certain reasons” they were not successful.

According to Wikipedia, the Bùyī  “live in semi-tropical, high-altitude forests of Guizhou province, as well as in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, and speak a Tai language.”

The report doesn’t explicitly state the past or current obstacles to the dictionary’s translation and publication. One reason noted is the fact that it is written in “old French” (古法语), a somewhat bizarre claim given that 19th–century French is still quite understandable to your typical francophone.

Perhaps more insightful, in its own way, is this explanation offered by Guo Tangliang (郭堂亮), head editor at Guizhou Nationalities Publishing House (贵州民族出版社), who is taking part in the latest attempt to prepare this reference work’s first-ever appearance in Chinese (my translation):

. . .publishing the French-Buyi Dictionary is a big project and should be undertaken with a scientific and serious attitude. Since this book was created by French missionaries who had penetrated deeply into ethnic minority regions, the culture and customs of China’s Buyi people are seen through foreign eyes, and therefore evidence a certain bias. If it were directly translated, published and distributed, there would be issues related to matters such as its authorship, copyright and relationships between different ethnic groups.

Put bluntly, it looks like we can expect the final copy to be “edited” to ensure that we get an “unbiased” view of the Buyi and their language.

Interesting. I wonder: has the same sort of “editing” been done on classics like the still widely-consulted Kangxi Dictionary  (康熙字典)—compiled  in 1716 when foreigners (the Manchu), not the Han, ruled China?

“Follow Me in Dai!” Soon to be Published

Two textbooks aimed at pupils in Yunnan have been approved and will soon be published (傣文教材出炉): Dai Reader IV for Xishuangbanna Elementary School Students (西双版纳傣文小学教材第四册) and Follow Me in Dai! (跟我学傣文).  The Dai Reader consists of 30 texts, 19 traditonal Dai pieces and 11 translations (I assume from Chinese). Follow Me in Dai! will be available in digital format.

According to Wikipedia’s Dai People (傣族), there are approximately 1.2m Dai in the PRC, 134,000 in Laos and 145,000 in Thailand. Those in China mainly speak one of two dialects: Dailü or Dai Nüa, and both are part of the Tai language group that includes Thai, Lao and Zhuang. “Various dialects of the Tai/Dai language family are spoken from Assam India to Taiwan and Shanxi Province in the North to [Indonesia’s] Java in the south,” notes Wikipedia.

In fact, the term “Dai” has been used officially in China—replacing “Tai” or “Thai”—only since 1953. If the goal of this policy was to create the impression among the mainstream Han that Dai people, language and culture are unique to China, it has been fairly successful. Even in Kunming, provincial capital of Yunnan, just a day’s bus ride from Xishuangbanna, most locals I meet are largely unaware that the Dai and their language are closely related to the country known as Thailand.

This reminds me of a visit I made to Kashgar in western Xinjiang near the ‘Stans (Uzbekistan, etc.). Linguists estimate that the language spoken by Xinjiang’s Uyghurs shares up to 70 percent of its vocabulary with modern Turkish, which isn’t surprising since both are Turkic tongues. But the young Uighurs I met in my brief stay there rejected the idea that their language or culture shares its roots with today’s Turkey. They appeared to be ignorant of any ties.

Tibetan, Daur, Evenki and Oroqen Databases Appraised by Experts

According to China’s Ministry of Education (数据库), several minority language projects underway during the current 12th Five-year Plan (2011-15) have been appraised and approved by experts. They are:

  • Database of Modern Tibetan Grammar Research (现代藏语语法信息辞典数据库研究)
  • Database of Daur, Evenki and Oroqen Voice Acoustic Parameters (达斡尔、鄂温克和鄂伦春语语音声学参数数据库)

Undertaken by the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (中国社会科学院民族学与人类学研究所), applications for these databases include promotion of minority language education, language engineering research, and in the case of the Tibetan database, text annotation and machine translation. [Read more…]

China Ethnic Dictionary Project: Yunnan’s Lahu Next in Line

The compilation of a Chinese-Lahu dictionary officially began in Kunming on April 14, according to a report on the拉祜族邮票 Institute of Ethnic Literature site (编篡工作在昆明启动). Some 100 Lahu scholars met to discuss the reference book, scheduled for publication in 2015, that will comprise over two million words of text.

The Lāhù (拉祜族) are one of the 56 peoples recognized by the PRC. In China they number 475,000 and are concentrated within the Lancang River Basin in Yunnan Province around Pu’er and Lincang, but some 160,000 also inhabit Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos. Experts believe the Lahu’s origins lie in the ancient nomadic Qiang people (羌人) of Gansu and Qinghai.

The China Ethnic Dictionary Project (中国少数民族大辞典) aims to compile 16 dictionaries. According to the report re-published by the Institute of Ethnic Literature, three have been completed (Bai, Hani and Naxi) and another two—for the Dai and Wa languages—will soon be.

Just how the dictionary will be formatted was not mentioned. However, the recently launched Miao-Han Dictionary (苗汉辞典) may well serve as a model. It featured:

  • Pronunciation using international phonetic alphabet (IPA)
  • Bilingual text
  • Sample sentences

Visit here for links to several Lahu films.

Tibetan Epic “King Gesar” Published in 8-volume Chinese-language Edition

A comprehensive 8-volume, 2-million word translation of the Tibetan classic “King Gesar” (格萨尔王传) has just been published in Chinese by Higher Education Press (高等教育出版社), according to a report carried on China Ethnic Literature Network (中国民族文学网).

The traditional Epic of King Gesar (Tibetan: གེ་སར་རྒྱལ་པོ), believed to date from the 12th century, relates the heroic deeds of Gesar, the fearless lord of the legendary Kingdom of Ling. It is recorded variously in poetry and prose, and is performed widely throughout Central Asia. According to Wikipedia, besides versions of the tale conserved by PRC-based minorities such as the Bai, Naxi, Pumi, Lisu and Yugur peoples, other variations are also found among the Burushaski-speaking Burusho of Hunza and Gilgit, the Kalmyk and Ladakhi peoples, in Baltistan, in Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, and among various Tibeto-Burmese, Turkish, and Tunghus tribes. The first printed version was a Mongolian text published in Beijing in 1716.

The 8 volumes in the new translation are: 卡切玉宗, 辛丹内讧, 歇日珊瑚宗, 雪山水晶宗, 象雄穆德宗, 阿达拉姆, 大食财宝宗, and 丹玛青稞宗. The texts were translated by more than ten Tibetan specialists including 角巴东主、索南卓玛 and多杰才让.

A bit earlier this year an excerpt from Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Lin’s translation of Alai’s King Gesar was released, and can be seen here.

African Literature in China: Still Stuck on “Things Fall Apart”?

China’s 21-century investment in Africa is massive, multifaceted and a cause of anxiety for leaders in Washington, London, Paris and among the continent’s other former colonial masters, as well as New Delhi. But China is not just busy building airports and railways in Africa, or inking deals to monopolize the exploitation and export of valuable minerals and fossil fuels for decades to come.

The exercise of “soft power” is very much on the agenda too. China-funded Confucius Institutes—promoting the teaching of Chinese language and culture—are popping up throughout Africa, including Egypt and Morocco in the Arab world, and several sub-Saharan countries, including Benin, Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda.

In return, one might well ask: what is China “importing,” culture-wise, from Africa?  If the translation and publication of African writing in Chinese is anything to go by, the continent is hardly a blip on China’s cultural radar.

Internet research and our interviews with Chinese publishers indicate that the golden age of African literature in Chinese translation may well have been during the 1980s. Foreign Literature Publishing House (外国文学出版社), empowered by Beijing’s policy of promoting solidarity with the Third World back then, translated and published a fair number of African works such as those by Nigerian (Wole Soyinka), Kenyan (James Ngugi), Senegalese (Leopold Sengor) and Algerian (Mouland Mammeri) writers, as well as collections of folk tales for children, etc.

To read the rest of this article, click here.

The Transparent Translator: Cindy Carter on “Dream of Ding Village”

Dream of Ding VillageHere’s my interview with Cindy Carter, Chinese-to-English translator of Dream of Ding Village:

Bruce Humes (Ethnic ChinaLit): You studied Japanese and lived in Japan for several years before moving to Beijing. Has your knowledge of Japanese, the people and/or the language been useful to you in mastering Chinese? What made you willing to leave Japan to pursue your writing career in China?

Cindy Carter: Japan was the path that led me to China. These days, it probably makes better sense to do one’s studies the other way around, but back in the 1980s, Japan was the economic powerhouse, the modern miracle, and China was just an afterthought, the slow cousin, an object of fascination for classicists and linguists. . .certainly not the most obvious starting point for anyone wanting to understand the rubric of 20th century geopolitics or economic development in Asia. For every nascent Sinologist, there seemed to be a dozen budding specialists in Korean or Japanese contemporary history, politics or economics, and I was one of the latter. I did consider adding Chinese to a minor in Japanese and majors in Economics and Political Science, but decided it was more than I could handle and still manage to graduate in 4 years. I’ve been kicking myself in the arse for that lack of foresight ever since. [Read more…]

New Software for Yi, Zhuang, Tibetan, Uygur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz Applications

Xinhuanet reports (Minority Language Translation Software) that the China Ethnic Languages Translation Bureau has announced the development of several software programs for non-Han languages in China: 

These programs include electronic dictionaries for the characters of the Yi and Zhuang ethnic groups [彝文电子词典及辅助翻译软件 and 壮文电子词典及辅助翻译软件], a proofreading tool for the Zhuang ethnic language [壮文校对软件], and transcoding applications [编码转换软件] for the languages of the Tibetan, Uygur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnicities, according to a statement released Friday by the State Ethnic Affairs Commission.

“Sons of Heaven, Brothers of Nature: The Naxi of Southwest China”

Writes author Pedro Ceinos Arcones in his introduction to this new work on the Naxi, renowned for their Dongba pictographic language:

Every year thousands of travelers from all around the world visit the Naxi region [of Yunnan], turning their former isolation into a permanent exhibition of their land and homes. During their stay in Lijiang they come into contact with some of the most outstanding characteristics of Naxi culture: Dongba pictographs, Old City traditional architecture, Alili popular dance, ethnic clothes, Baisha mural paintings, Dongjing music, etc., but unfortunately these dispersed manifestations of the Naxi culture fail to provide an overall understanding of the Naxi people, remaining instead as touristic activities without a link to the soul of the people who created them, and part of whose spiritual world they are.

This first and sudden contact with the Naxi culture arouses the interest of many travelers that unfortunately cannot find any materials with which to satiate their thirst. This book was written to fill this void. Blending the most interesting Chinese and western academic materials in an easily readable and understandable guide to Naxi culture and history, we want to let the outside world understand the human environment of Lijiang, to help travelers fully enjoy their visit to the lands of the Naxi, and to provide our readers with a permanent emotional link to one of the most fascinating ethnic groups on Earth: The Naxi.

The Sons of Heaven, Brothers of Nature: The Naxi of Southwest China is available here on Amazon. Read a review by Duncan Poupard at the Naxi Script Resource Center. To contact the author, e-mail him at peceinos (at) hotmail.com

And here is the Table of Contents: [Read more…]