书评:范稳的《碧色寨》

《碧寨》  

(赵敏:annie.zhao2010@gmail.com)

小小的碧色寨随着火车和洋老咪(洋人)的到来发生了巨大的变化。宁静的生活被打扰、彝人的神灵被激怒,洋人们用火车带来了西方的工业文明、洋火、洋皂、洋布,同时送走了一车有一车的矿产。

刚来昆明时,听范先生介绍滇越铁路感觉在听天方夜谭。读完小说后才知道一直记忆深刻的剪子形状的那座桥叫“戈登桥”,是滇越铁路的一部分。我曾多次感叹:为什么在昆明、大理到处可以见到法国人?云南的咖啡文化如此盛行,昆明、丽江、大理、西双版纳走到哪都能喝到 cappuccino、espresso、cafe latte , 还有正宗的西式点心。法国人真把这当家了,喝杯咖啡、学学中文、泡个吧、交交女朋友,不亦乐乎。

从希腊的克里特岛乘坐“澳大利亚人”号来到碧色寨淘金的大卡洛斯和弟弟小卡洛斯,在碧色寨做了工地主任、哥胪士洋行的主人、各自面对了一段不幸的爱情。印证了:在西方做流浪汉的白人,在碧色寨这样的地方却做上了老爷。

我不知道碧色寨曾经怎样辉煌过,到今天还会不会还有燃烧过的残渣。搜到了一片叫《碧色寨之恋》的小说。简介是这样的:小说讲述了一个十七岁法国少女丽莎和一个三十多岁的中国男人周亦然之间的爱情故事。我倒是对所谓“中国男人第一次获得了全部的主动权”不感兴趣。让我好奇的是:在白人作为上等人的时期,一个法人少女是怎么喜欢上一个中国男性。而这个设定和比杜拉斯的《情人》何其相似。 [Read more…]

“Bisezhai Village” (碧色寨): Chronicling the Collision of Cultures behind the Building of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railroad

Kunming-based Fan Wen (范稳), author of  a trilogy set on the border of Yunnan and Tibet, has launched a new novel exploring the history of the Yunnan-Vietnam railway that linked Haiphong with Kunming in 1910. Bisezhai Village (碧色寨) portrays the clash of cultures between the French, then colonial masters of Indochina just south of Yunnan and the driving force behind the new railway, and the indigenous Yi people (彝族).The completion of the railway through the mountainous terrain was an incredible engineering feat at the time, and its famous gravity-defying Wishbone Bridge (人字桥) is still firmly intact with nary a repair to date.  Estimates are that the project cost more than ten thousand Chinese laborers their lives.

Annie Zhao, a recent emigrant to Kunming, has written a brief book review of Bisezhai Village. Click here for the review in Chinese (中文书评), and for the English version, see below. [Read more…]

Selling “Shanghai Baby” to the Hungry Masses

Writing in the China Daily (The Slim Years), Chitralekha Basu looks at how translated Chinese fiction has fared since 2000:

The last book to have notched up outstanding sales in the English-speaking market is Shanghai Baby [上海宝贝] by Wei Hui (translated by Bruce Humes/Robinson Publishing UK) in 2001. The somewhat morbid tale of a waitress-turned-writer of erotic novels—torn between an artist who overdoes on heroin and a German businessman who she knows is cheating on her—is thought to have sold over 300,000 copies.

Please note—that sales figure wasn’t provided by me! But if you’d like to know a bit more about that translation project, see Bruce Humes and his Shanghai Baby.

Synopsis: Ran Ping’s “Legend of Mongolia”

Legend of Mongolia (蒙古往事) is a fictionalized biography of Genghis Khan, the leader who united the fiercely independent tribes known today as the Mongols, thanks to his iron resolve, military savvy, shrewd alliances, and willingness to shed blood.

Written mainly in Chinese prose, the book is peppered with original poems by the author, Mongolian words, and citations from an enigmatic 14th-century work, Secret History of the Mongols (蒙古秘史). What emerges is a stark and personal view of Temüjin, the man who became the Khan of Khans, as envisaged by writer Ran Ping (冉平).

A Han Chinese who neither speaks nor reads Mongolian, the author has arguably molded the very image of Genghis Khan among contemporary Chinese through a TV series based on his screenplays (“Genghis Khan,” 26 episodes, 1991), the script for an award-winning movie (“Genghis Khan and his Mother,” 1997), and more recently this popular novel, Legend of Mongolia, short-listed for the Mao Dun Literary Prize in 2008.

For my complete synopsis, click here. If you are interested in the author’s use of Mongolian terminology in the Chinese novel, see also 《蒙古往事》及其汉化的蒙古语.

Hakka and Minnan “tulou”: Former Residents Emigrate, Opt for Indoor Plumbing

The New York Times has just published Monuments to Clan Life Are Losing their Appeal, a marvelous look at the state of tulou (土楼) built by Hakka and Minnan in Fujian. These communal structures, usually but not always round, housed dozens of families from the same clan:

Yongding, China—The gargantuan buildings are so iconic that they appear on a Chinese stamp. The most famous have distinctive round shapes, appearing from a distance like flying saucers that have plopped down in the middle of farm fields. Some were reportedly mistaken for missile silos by American officials poring over satellite images.

But the thousands of “earthern buildings” here, built by the ethnic Hakka and Minnan people of rural Fujian Province, are the ultimate architectural expression of clan existence in China.

For centuries, each building, called a tulou in Mandarin Chinese, would house an entire clan, virtually a village. Everyone living inside would have the same surname, except for those who married into the clan. The tulou usually tower four floors and have up to hundreds of rooms that open out onto a vast central courtyard, like the Colosseum.

The outer walls, made of rammed earth, protected against bandits. The forms vary. Many are square, resembling medieval keeps. With stockpiles of food, people could live for months without setting foot outside the tulou.

But as the clan traditions of China dwindle today, more and more people are moving out of the tulou to live in modern apartments with conveniences absent from the earthen buildings—indoor toilets, for example.

Also of interest is a book by Huang Hanmin (黄汉民) published only in Chinese (I believe), 《福建土楼》(Fújiàn tǔ lóu).

You might think that China’s media minders would be fairly happy with this report, but when it was translated and published in Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息) on March 24 (美报称福建土楼对居民失去吸引力), large chunks of it were deleted.

Cankao Xiaoxi 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.” For earlier coverage of how Cankao Xiaoxi repackages foreign newspaper reportage for domestic eyeballs, check out But where are Pederasty, Passion and the Dalai Lama? or Just Say “No” to Orgasms.

Here is some of the copy that appeared in the New York Times report but was deleted from the Chinese version:

  • “President Hu Jintao visited them [some tulou] during the 2010 Lunar New Year festivities”
  • “One afternoon, they [elderly residents] were moving firewood stacked outside the front entrance of the tulou to nearby storage sheds; the local government had asked them to do this to hide the messy stacks from tourists.”
  • “Chinese officials tried smashing the clan system during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Collectives built more and more tulou and randomly assigned people to live in the buildings, so each clan would have members spread among different collectives. When the Cultural Revolution ended, people drifted back to their clans.”
  • ” ‘People don’t clean it [Huan Xing tulou] anymore,’ said Jiang Qing, 28. . .’As long as people live here, the ecosystem thrives. Once people move out, then it all falls apart.’ “
  • “Mr. Huang, the scholar. . .’What they’ve preserved is just the structure, but the people have all moved out,’ he said. ‘So the living part has died. You’re just preserving a relic.’ “

Phags-pa Script: Tibetan Links to Kublai Khan’s Unified Script for his Empire

A volume devoted to a Yuan Dynasty script inspired by written Tibetan, Collection of Phags-pa Inscriptions and Annotations (八思巴文碑刻文物集释), will soon be launched. Editor Cai Meibiao (蔡美彪) says the book gathers some 60 years of scholarship.

Chinanews.com has published interviews with two scholars who have spent years studying the script.

Kublai Khan commissioned the creation of a unified script for the vast Mongolian-controlled, multilingual Empire of the Great Khan (1271-1368), known in China as the Yuan Dynasty. To do the Khan’s bidding, Tibetan Lama Drogön Chögyal Phagpa extended his native Tibetan script to encompass the sounds of the empire’s disparate languages such as Turkic, Mongol, Chinese and Tibetan. Now dubbed the “Phags-pa script,” it consisted of 38 letters written vertically. Experts classify it an abugida, i.e., a segmental writing system based on consonants wherein vowel notation is obligatory but secondary, in contrast to European languages where vowels and consonants have equal status.

The Phags-pa script (八思巴文, or 蒙古新字) was never widely accepted and fell into disuse with the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368. But scholars such as Gary Ledyard believe that the hangul alphabet, Korea’s national language, may have links to the alphasyllabary. Significantly, the script also provides linguistic clues about the evolution of Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian during the Yuan era.

Perhaps surprisingly, many extant examples of the writing are to be found in traditionally Tibetan regions. “The Phags-pa script was once the official written language of the Yuan Dynasty,” says scholar Wuli Jibaiyila (乌力吉白乙拉), “and for that reason there should be many written records, but they simply haven’t been uncovered yet.

“But there are many Phags-pa relics among the people and in temples in the Tibetan region, particularly variant forms, many of which contain errors. Among temples, inscriptions at the Potala Palace are the best preserved, but they can’t be photographed so I haven’t been able to put them in order. Since Phags-pa [the script’s Tibetan creator] himself was the fifth-generation founder of the Sakya Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Phags-pa script was passed down within Tibetan areas, and continued to be used particularly as a form of Tibetan calligraphy.”

Naxi Script Resource Center: One-stop Resource for Naxi Dongba Script Fans

This new blog is hosted by Duncan Poupard, who studied Chinese and Tibetan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and has studied the Naxi pictographic script at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences (Lijiang). His mission:

This site is designed to be an accessible, one-stop resource and blog for those who wish to learn more about the Naxi Dongba script and the culture of Lijiang (丽江), in China’s Yunnan province.

The first problem for the average Western enthusiast is this: about 98% of all material related to the scripts is in Chinese.  Even the huge research project undertaken by the Dongba Culture Research Institute that translated a large chunk of the Dongba scriptures was conducted in Chinese, save for a few poorly translated abstracts. This is a great shame, especially when you keep in mind that it was in fact a western scholar/explorer, Joseph Rock, who opened the door to Naxi studies.

The second problem is that unlike more popular scripts, such as Chinese and Tibetan, there are virtually no online resources to aid in the study of the Naxi Dongba script.

These humble pages are an attempt to redress the balance, to provide the English-speaking enthusiast and interested reader with a collection of study aids, book reviews, articles and other items of interest that will hopefully help them to get to grips with this most fascinating of scripts.

Fine-tuning the Spin: Xinjiang’s Awkward Not-so-Chinese Mummies

Uh-oh. Looks like those suspiciously Caucasian mummies from Xinjiang are making trouble again. Or so says an AP report in early January 2011:

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A museum just days away from opening a long-awaited exhibit including two mummies and other historical artifacts from China is gutting the display of all objects at the request of Chinese officials, the museum announced Wednesday.

The artifacts were part of “Secrets of the Silk Road,” which is scheduled to open Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. The exhibit has already traveled to museums in California and Texas without issue. Visitors to the Philadelphia museum will see a pared-down exhibit.

But China’s sensitivities about mummies with Caucasian features unearthed in Xinjiang are long-standing. Here’s a piece I wrote last year showing how foreign news reports about these mummies are translated into Chinese and then edited to ensure political correctness:

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Imagine you work for the China Unity Department: It’s your 24/7 mission to convey that, more or less since Day One, the Middle Kingdom has ruled all the land claimed by the PRC, including Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. [Read more…]

African Lit in Chinese Translation: Still Stuck on “Things Fall Apart”?

China’s 21-century investment in Africa is massive, multifaceted and a cause for anxiety to 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 not being neglected. 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 in 2011.

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.

Assuming one is interested, at Douban.com (a popular social media site) the Chinese consumer can purchase works by a dozen or so of the authors who have won or been shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing. They include Leila Aboulela, Binyavanga Wainaina, Laila Lalami, Chika Unigwe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half a Yellow Sun), seen by some as Nigeria’s most talented writer since Chinua Achebe.

The only hitch: they’ll have to read them… in English. Few, if any, have been rendered in Chinese.

So which African writers have managed to get published in Chinese? Take a look at our table below for a sample of more recently published African fiction and poetry.

A quick look suggests that successful contenders for translation into Chinese share several traits: the original text is in English and was published abroad several years (or even decades) ago, and the author is the recipient of at least one globally celebrated literary award.

Four of Chinua Achebe’s best-known works have been published recently by Chongqing Publishing (see table below). I asked Lillian Yin (尹楠), who handles copyright matters for the group out of Beijing, why it has chosen to focus solely on the Nigerian writer. “Because he is representative of African literature, dubbed ‘the father of modern African literature,’ and fairly well known in China. Furthermore, he was a very popular choice for the Nobel Prize of Literature.”

Yilin Press, arguably China’s leading source for translated literature, has published three high-profile African writers: Nigeria’s Ben Okri (see table), and two white South African authors, J. M. Coetzee (see table) and Nadime Gordimer. The latter two are also Nobel Prize winners.

Neither Chongqing Publishing nor Yilin Press has specific plans to publish any new African works in 2011 or 2012, though both are on the lookout for promising new writing from the continent.

Why so?

“Africa is a sprawling continent with numerous authors who use many different languages,” explains Yilin’s Zhou Xuan (周璇), editor responsible for marketing and publicity. “[Their use of] indigenous languages is a real headache. It’s very hard to locate translators who both know the language and can write [Chinese] well.”

But this doesn’t mean that Chinese readers aren’t interested. “Africa is a magical land and its nature and peoples seem to be beckoning to us from afar,” continues Zhou. “But as far as we can see, the themes in current African writing are rather narrow, such as the relationship between whites and people of color in the post-apartheid period, recollections of that era, and so forth.

“This isn’t to say that Chinese readers aren’t interested in such themes, but the key is whether these narratives possess depth, or are particularly moving or infused with new significance. Of course, everyone looks forward to new books that revolve around Africa’s own homegrown motifs.”

In the table below, we have tried to give mainly examples of African writing published in the last two to three years, but some of the dates can be misleading. For instance, the Chinese version of Things Fall Apart was first translated in the 1960s by Gao Zongyu (高宗禹), and Yao Yu’s (尧雨) version of Man of the People was published in the 1980s. Rather than retranslate them, Chongqing Publishing chose to republish them in 2009 and 2008, respectively.

That said, three of the translations noted in the table are fairly new and worthy of mention. <神箭> (Arrow of God) by China Achebe, was launched this year. Co-translator Chen Xiaoli (陈笑黎) studied comparative literature in the US, and translated The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (心是孤独的猎手).

<这里不平静> (No Serenity Here) is a rare bilingual collection of contemporary African poets published in late 2010. Included are the works of Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Keorapetse Kgositsile (South Africa’s Poet Laureate, whose poem lent the title to the anthology), Kofi Anyodoho and Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana), Makhosazana Xaba and Lebo Mashile (South Africa), Veronique Tadjo (Ivory Coast), Fatima Naoot (Morocco), TJ Dema (Botswana), Shailja Patel (Kenya), Tania Tome (Mozambique), and Amanda Hammar, Chirikure Chirikure and Joyce Chigiya (Zimbabwe).

<人间的事安拉也会出错> (Allah n’est pas obligé) is one of a handful of works translated from the French. Assuming it reads well in Chinese, translator Guan Xiaoming (管筱明) deserves praise, as the original is penned in a stream-of-consciousness style, employing an intriguing—if difficult to follow at times—hodge-podge of standard French, argot and expressions from languages indigenous to Africa.

Author Original Title(s): Chinese Title(s): China Publisher(s): Notes:
Ahmadou Kourouma Allah n’est pas obligé (2011) <人间的事,安拉也会出错> (2011) Hunan Literature & Art Publishing House (湖南文艺出版社) Brutal story of 10-year-old Birahima who leaves the Ivory Coast for Liberia where he serves as a child-soldier. The French-language novel won the Prix Renaudot and Prix Goncourt des lycéens.
Ben Okri The Famished Road <饥饿的路> (2003) Yilin Press (译林出版社) Nigerian writer who has authored 8 novels, and winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa and the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction.
Chinua Achebe 1. Arrow of God;
2. Anthills of the Savannah;
3. Things Fall Apart;
4. Man of the People
1. <神箭> (2011),
2. <荒原蚁丘> (2009),
3. <瓦解> (2009),
4. <人民公仆> (2008)
Chongqing Publishing House (重庆出版社) An Igbo raised in Nigeria, Chinua Achebe is arguably the best known English-language African novelist. His classic, Things Fall Apart, was first published in English in 1958, and 1964 in Chinese.
Wole Soyinka 1. Aké: The Years of Childhood;
2. Death and the King’s Horseman;
3. A Big Airplane Crashed into the Earth (Poems from Prison)
1. <在阿凯同年时光> 》 (2008);
2. <死亡与国王的侍从> (2004);
3. <獄中詩抄 : 索因卡詩選> (2003)
1. Hunan Educational Press (湖南教育出版社);
2. Hunan Literature & Art Publishing House (湖南文艺出版社);
3. Tendancy (傾向)
Nigerian writer, poet and playwright who was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature.
J. M. Coetzee 1. Diary of a Bad Year;
2. Disgrace
3. Waiting for the Barbarians
1. <凶年纪事> (2009);
2. <等待野蛮人> (2010);
3. <耻> (2003)
1 & 2. Zhejiang Art & Literature Press (浙江文艺出版社)
3. Yilin Press (译林出版社).
White South African novelist who grew up speaking both English and Afrikaans, and won the Booker Prize twice and the Nobel Prize in Literature (2003).
Naguib Mahfouz Palace Walk (Arabic) <两宫间> (2003) Shanghai Translation Publishing House (上海译文出版社) First of three volumes in the Cairo Trilogy by the best-known Arabic-language writer in Africa. Naguib Mahfouz published over 50 novels in Arabic and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.
Nadine Gordimer 1. Beethoven Was One-sixteenth Black;
2. Get a Life
1. <贝多芬是1/16黑人> (2008);
2. <新生>(2008)
1. Nanjing University Press (南京大学出版社);
2. People’s Literature Publishing House (人民文学出版社)
White South African writer renowned for her anti-apartheid activities, Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.
Uwem Akpan Say You’re One of Them <就说你和他们一样> (2010) Phoenix Publishing and Media (凤凰出版传媒集团) US-based, Nigerian-raised writer whose book of pan-African short stories—about the Rwandan genocide, religious conflict in Ethiopia and more—was a 2009 Oprah Book Club Selection.
Edited by Phillippa Yaa De Villiers, Isabel Ferrin-Aguirre and Kaiyu Xiao. No Serenity Here <这里不平静> (2010) World Knowledge Publishers (世界知识出版社) Various poets translated from the English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Amharic.

“Canticle to the Land:” Named One of Top Ten Books of the Year by “China Reading Weekly”

The last novel in Fan Wen’s Yunnan-Tibetan trilogy, Canticle to the Land (大地雅歌), has been designated as one of the top ten Chinese books published in 2010 by China Reading Weekly (中华读书报), an influential B2B publication serving China’s publishing industry.

To learn more about this novel, visit: