Tsering Norbu’s “Amerika”: Village Life in 21st Century Tibet – with a Twist

Only a handful of Tibetans who write fiction in Chinese have seen their work published in English, but Tsering Norbu has recently joined this elite. Here’s a brief intro to his Amerika (阿米日嘎,次仁罗布著):

A farmer in rural Tibet invests his life savings and more to purchase a breeding bull imported all the way from “Amerika” — an act that drives his fellow villagers green with envy. When the farmer’s prized bull dies in suspicious circumstances, a Public Security Bureau officer is called in from the county town to investigate. This short story provides a witty insight into the fragile social structures at the base of village life in modern-day Tibet.

Translated by Petula Parris-Huang, Amerika will appear in the soon-to-be published Anthology of New Stories from China (2006-2009). Earlier this year Tsering Norbu’s A Sheep Released to Life (放生羊) was published in issue 2 of Pathlight, the new English-language magazine showcasing contemporary Chinese fiction.

Tsering Norbu will be speaking with Alai on the topic of Ancient Myths in Contemporary Fiction on April 17 at the London Book Fair.

Seediq Bale, the Novel: Out now in French as “Les Survivants”

One of just 9 films to be shortlisted for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in Hollywood, Seediq Bale (《賽德克·巴萊》) is a 4.5-hour epic about one Taiwanese aboriginal tribe’s war of resistance against the Japanese in the 1930s, shot entirely in the Seediq language.

As is often the case with contemporary Chinese literature, a French publisher has published the novel itself before any Anglophone publisher has got around to it. Entitled Les Survivants, it is co-translated from the Chinese into French by Esther Lin and Emmanuelle Péchenard.

On his French blog, Bernard Mialaret reports (Drame de la colonisation):

Après la défaite chinoise, le traité de Shimonoseki en 1895, cède l’île au Japon jusqu’en 1945. Une politique d’assimilation est engagée, la langue japonaise est imposée, les tatouages traditionnels et les ablations dentaires sont interdits. En 1926, les Atayals rendent 1300 fusils, « l’arme étant le bien le plus précieux du chasseur » (p.90) mais les crânes, « objets sacrificiels » sont conservés.

En octobre 1930, un incident entre le fils de Mona Rudao, chef d’une tribu Sedeq et un policier japonais, conduisit à l’élimination par « fauchage » des têtes de 130 Japonais qui assistaient à une manifestation sportive à Musha. La réplique massive des Japonais avec des armes modernes, entraîna des suicides en masse de Sedeq. En avril 1931, les aborigènes d’une autre tribu Sedeq, les Tuuda, à l’instigation des Japonais, « fauchèrent » une centaine de corps !

Les survivants furent déportés au village de « l’île entre deux eaux ».Et c’est là que Wuhe [舞鹤] va séjourner en 1997 et 1998 pour enquêter sur les « Evènements de Musha ».

Are Foreign Devil Translators Hijacking China’s Debut on the Global Literary Stage?

Ever since China was named Guest of Honor at the 2009 Frankfurt Int’l Book Fair, overseas publishers have begun to take an interest in contemporary Chinese literature, and the list of works of fiction and poetry slated for translation and publication into English in 2011 and 2012 is growing quickly.

Take a look here for a partial list. They include Zhang Ling’s Gold Mountain Blues (translator: Nicky Harman), Endure: Poems by Bei Dao (Lucas Klein and Clayton Eshleman), Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village (Cindy Carter), Wang Xiaofang’s Notes of a Civil Servant (Eric Abrahamsen), He Jiahong’s Blood Crimes (Duncan Hewitt), and more.

In December the venerable People’s Literature (人民文学) magazine launched an all English quarterly (at left) featuring translations of works by several popular 21st-century Chinese writers, Pathlight: New Chinese Writing.

Chinese novelist Han Haoyue (韩浩月) praises the magazine’s publication as a “good thing” (好事), but in his article of December 12 (烂苹果) he calls attention to the fact that “all the translators for the first issue are native English speakers of foreign nationality.” Without stating whether he has read the first issue of Pathlight or compared its renditions against the Chinese originals—or personally examined its translators’ passports, for that matter—he then trots out the tired argument that given the profundity of Chinese literary expression, “it stands to reason that it would be more appropriate for Chinese translators to complete the task of translation.”

Of course, Han isn’t the only one concerned about the fact that the officially funded campaign to “export” Chinese literature—seen as an extension of China’s soft power—seems to be largely dependent on foreign brains for the moment. But the catch with Han’s patriotic vision is that Made-in-China, Chinese-to-English literary translators are regrettably thin on the ground. [Read more…]

Mongolian Fluency Drops among Minority Students in Hulunbuir

“News 1 + 1,” a CCTV News Channel program, recently broadcast a show devoted to exploring the status of Mongolian fluency among students in Inner Mongolia. I didn’t watch it, but you can read the transcript in Chinese here: 如何用母语诉说?. The following piece is based on the transcript, with some of my own thoughts at the end.

As of 2011, all so-called elementary and junior high “ethnic schools” (民族学校) in Inner Mongolia reportedly receive government subsidies that ensure students go to school free of tuition, and also receive an allowance plus 3rmb daily for food.  Thus things do appear to be looking up, and Hulun Elementary School located in urban Hailar has seen the number of its pupils rise from 256 in 2008 to 588 this year.

But reporter Bai Yansong, himself an ethnic Mongolian who works for Hulunbuir TV, points out that the larger trend is  more worrisome: his grandfather spoke only Mongolian; his father both Han and Mongolian, as he was the first college graduate in the family;  Bai Yansong can speak and understand some, but can’t actually host the TV show in Mongolian; and his son doesn’t know a word. [Read more…]

Miao-Han Dictionary to Launch within 2011

Update: As of mid-June 2012, this dictionary has reportedly been published by the Nationalities Publishing House of Yunnan (云南民族出版社)

Chinanews.com reports (云南禄劝将出版《苗汉词典》) that a new bilingual reference book, the Miao-Han Dictionary (苗汉辞典), will be published by year-end 2011. Compilation began in 1996 and has been carried out by an editing committee of 45. It will include:

  • Pronunciations listed in international phonetic alphabet (IPA)
  • Sample sentences
  • Bilingual text (Miao and Han)
  • Over 20,000 entries with 410,000 words of text
Known variously as the Miáo (苗族), Hmong and Maewe, it is recognized as one of the 56 ethnic groups in the PRC. Within China, the Miao are located mainly in Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan and Hunan, and outside China in Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. For background on the language itself, see here. The news item did not state the name of the publisher, but notes that this project is managed by the Luquan Yi and Miao Autonomous County of Yunnan Province  (云南省禄劝彝族苗族自治县).

Rejuvenating the Tujia Language No Easy Feat

A journalist’s recent visit with primary school teacher and Tujia scholar Chu Yongming (储永明在课间与孩子们进行土家与对话) highlights a man with a mission—to ensure that the next generation of Tujia have the tools they need to speak the language of their people.

Working out of a primary school in Hubei’s Feng county, the 59-year-old has taken part in compiling two published works for language instruction (<土家语“原生态”土家语言校本教材> and <土家语言>), and is in the middle of editing a Dictionary of the Tujia Language (土家语辞典).

A few factoids re: the present state of the Tujia language cited in the article:

  • 7.38m: Number of Tujia people in the PRC
  • 50,000:  Number of Tujia who can actually speak the language
  • Distribution: Tujia are concentrated in Hubei, Guizhou, Chongqing and Sichuan

For a 2012 update on Chu Yongming’s activities, see 大山深处的土家语传承与坚守 .

“Butterfly Mother” and “Dragon-Eagles”: Processing Folklore in Southwest China

In the latest edition of Oral Tradition (Processing Epics), Mark Bender explores—via highly readable notes on his field-work—how the Miao myth-epic Mai Bang (Butterfly Mother) and the Nuosu’s creation-epic Dragon-Eagles have gradually been rendered in written form:

My title also contains the word “processing”—and by that I mean the process through which traditional texts are performed and received by local audiences. It also refers to the process by which some versions of stories are recorded, transcribed, translated, edited, and released in print or electronic format—a process the late Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko called the “folklore process.”

The term “processing” also carries, at least for me, a sense of the sorts of compromises and distortions inherent in the manner in which the recorded texts are preserved and communicated to new audiences. Just as natural foods or textiles are processed and marketed into products for consumption by target audiences, so too are items of oral literature. We now have genetically engineered corn, soybeans, and hemp. A box of “heart healthy” oat cereal may contain a whole list of additives, supplements, and fillers—sometimes mimicking original, truly wholesome products and directed at consumers open to healthy, natural, and eco-friendly foods.

But we increasingly know it is necessary to read the fine print—just as Lauri Honko reminded us that it is necessary to understand the process of the “processing” of oral texts that occurs behind the book or website banner.

He notes the tendency for compilers in China to strive for what they term a “complete” (完整), official version that involves “negotiations” and even deletion of “taboo” content:

Although the appreciation of multiple versions gathered in specific performance contexts has a growing place in folklore circles in China, there is still a strong tradition of creating “complete” versions of a given song cycle or story tradition that will serve as part of an ethnic group’s official tradition of oral literature. These versions usually combine several versions collected from a number of singers.

In some cases the participating singers and eldersmay be involved with editors in the negotiations concerning the makeup of the final master version. In theory, such master texts—which might be best described as “collective versions”— are intended to reflect and preserve the richness and completeness of the tradition in a format that can be read and appreciated to its fullest by present or future generations without access to multiple live versions. In the past, much more so than is usual now, this stage of editing also allowed for selection or omission of content deemed crude, backward, divisive, or otherwise taboo.

Manchurian: 10 Million Manchus, A Handful of Native Speakers

The language of the last imperial dynasty to rule China, a Tungusic tongue called Manchurian (满洲话), will soon be accessible only in dictionaries. Verna Yu reports for the South China Morning Post from Sanjiazi village, Heilongjiang, in A Language Lost:

When Ji Jinlu , 66, was a boy, he was unable to speak Putonghua until he went to school at age nine. Today he has hardly anyone to talk to in his native tongue.

Ji is an ethnic Manchu – a descendant of a nomadic tribe from northeastern China that became the imperial rulers of the country for more than 250 years. He is one of fewer than 100 remaining Manchus with a working grasp of the language. 

Like most remaining speakers, Ji’s native tongue has become rather rusty over the years as most people in his village, including his children and grandchildren, are unable to speak it.

“Even if you speak Manchu with them they don’t understand,” said Ji, a farmer born and bred in remote Sanjiazi village in Heilongjiang province, where farmers grow rice and keep dairy cattle. “And they don’t want to learn anyway.”

Although there are more than 10 million people in China who are classified as ethnic Manchus – most of whom live in Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin in the northeast – linguists say that Sanjiazi is the last Manchu-speaking community in China.

[Read more…]

“Mosuo Culture Bonfire Parties”: Hamming it up for the Tourists, Attendance Required

Mosuo women on Lugu LakeCanada’s Globe and Mail recently ran a piece on the impact of modernity and tourism on the Mosuo (摩梭族), a matriarchal tribe that resides around Yunnan’s Luguhu Lake (泸沽湖). In China, a Matriarchy under Threat has now been translated, edited and published as 《云南摩梭人遭遇现代化挑战》in the August 17, 2011 edition of Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息).

Cankao is a respected and influential Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history, and in many cities across China it sells out every day before noon. Virtually no English is used and little or no content is added. But references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often “airbrushed.”

As usual in my pieces on Cankao Xiaoxi, I run the original English copy immediately below. For the benefit of English speakers who cannot read the Chinese version published and distributed throughout China, I cross out the English words that were deleted when the article was translated into Chinese, and indicate any added copy (normally just for readability’s sake) by putting it [in brackets]. This way one can better see how Cankao’s editors “package” foreign copy for domestic consumption.

To summarize the deletions you’ll find below:

  • All mentions of the Communist Party, and government policy aimed at changing Mosuo behavior, have been deleted
  • References to “male lovers” have been heavily edited
  • Some phrases that imply that Han visitors treat the Mosuo as curiosities have been deleted
  • The writer’s explanation as to why the society evolved into a matriarchal one has been deleted   [Read more…]

Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin: What Makes for “Good Literature” and “Good Language”?

Controversial German Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin was recently in Shenzhen where he spoke at some length on three subjects: What makes for “good literature” (好的文学)? “Good language” (好的语言)? And if a Chinese author writes in a foreign tongue, what sorts of changes occur?   On August 10, China Reading Weekly (中华读书报) published What is Good Chinese Literature (什么是好的中国文学)?, a record of his talk at the He Xiangning Art Museum (何香凝美术馆) which, the article notes, has not been proofed by Kubin. But I assume that he spoke in Chinese and that this represents a fairly accurate transcript.

Over the next few days I’ll translate a few excerpts. Here’s one on so-called popular writers:

Not a few Chinese writers have been very successful in Germany. How can we define this success? That’s a rather thorny issue. I’m talking aboutWolfgang Kubin novelists here, not poets. For example, books by Hong Ying (虹影), Ha Jin (哈金), Mian Mian (棉 棉) and Wei Hui (卫慧) are selling quite well in Germany. Each one of them can publish several tens of thousands of books with each earning $2 to $5 per copy, so after they’ve published a book in Germany, they make a fortune.

Readers of  Hong Ying, Ha Jin, Mian Mian and Wei Hui are quite numerous, but the works of this bunch belongs to the popular literature category. It’s basically not conceivable that professors or writers would read their works, and Germany’s most important newspapers wouldn’t publish reviews of their books. So their works seemingly don’t exist in the German literary world, and can exist only among the common people and general readers. Personally, I feel that Hong Ying and Ha Jin have no future whatsoever, and their works will be quickly forgotten.

Regarding Chinese novelists and their knowledge of foreign tongues:

In the past I’ve said that contemporary Chinese authors don’t generally know a foreign language, and aren’t willing to study them.   [Read more…]