Chinese Muslim’s Pilgrimage to al-Andalus

Zhang Chengzhi (张承志), the white-hot Red Guard who mastered Mongolian and Japanese—and then converted to鲜花的废墟 Islam—has written En las Ruinas de la Flor: Viajes por al-Andalus (鲜花的废墟). His Chinese-language travelogue takes us through Moorish Spain, Portugal and Morocco in search of the golden age of Islam in Europe (8th-15th centuries).

Freshly Flowering Ruins: Travels in al-Andalus

“The Arabs call Muslim Spain ‘al-Andalus.’ From the eighth century to the fifteenth century, the central and southern part of the Iberian Peninsula and the land south of Gibraltar was the site of a miraculous blossoming, and withering, of a civilization.The name ‘al-Andalus’ evokes that historical era. The reason for my deep-seated interest in it is quite natural: Not simply because Muslims vanquished the West—the sole instance of any people from the East vanquishing the West—but especially because it is a period of time when civilization vanquished the West.” (excerpt, author’s Preface)

If you are looking for a dispassionate, objective view of Muslim Spain, stop here. Zhang Cheng-Zhi is a pilgrim, not a historian. But definitely a pilgrim . . . with a difference.

Arguably the most well known, and certainly the most controversial Muslim writer in China today, Zhang Cheng-Zhi sports an extraordinary bio: Born into a Muslim Hui family, he was raised as an atheist; the first, self-proclaimed Red Guard in Beijing in the 1960s, according to The People’s Daily;  “sent down” during the Cultural Revolution to the countryside in Inner Mongolia for four years, where he mastered Mongolian; after earning a degree in archaeology, he then studied in Japan, where he became fluent in Japanese; and in the 1980s, lived six years among the Hui of Xihaigu, Ningxia, and converted to Islam.  Along the way he published writing in Mongolian, and his History of the Soul (心灵史), a work of historical fiction about the development of Sufism in northwest China, was a China best-seller in 1994. [Read more…]

Book Review: Wang Lixiong’s “My Western Realm, Your Eastern Homeland “

Book Review:

我的西域,你的东土 (1)


My Western Realm, Your Eastern Homeland

By Wang Lixiong

Reviewed by Bruce Humes (2014)

The 2009 Ürümqi riots damaged the reputation of Xinjiang’s Uyghur in the eyes of many Chinese, but the “2014 Kunming Attack” in March this year has surely left a more blood-curdling and indelible image of the “Uyghur-as-Terrorist” imprinted upon the national psyche. Officially, with 197 killed (including both Han and Uyghur), the earlier inter-ethnic violence in Ürümqi events was more deadly. But the lightning attack by assailants wielding long-bladed knives who randomly stabbed and slashed passengers in Kunming Railway Station, leaving 29 travellers dead and well over one hundred injured, was a decidedly one-sided, cold-blooded affair.

Xinhua News Agency quickly announced that the slaughter was carried out by Xinjiang separatists. Whether that claim is based on hard facts is irrelevant; within China, it is widely assumed to be true.

What “ethnic” policies does the central government pursue in Xinjiang, and how have they evolved since 1949? Why have Han-Uyghur relations become so volatile? Can a “Middle Way” be found, and what would it look like?

Openly posing these basic questions in today’s China — much less debating them — is fraught with danger, especially if you are Uyghur. The recent arrest of Beijing Minzu University economics professor Ilham Tohti, an outspoken but moderate Uyghur intellectual since charged with “inciting separatism,” shows where discussing issues relating to ethnic minorities can lead.

Several years back when it was a tad less sensitive — for a Han, at least — to address these topics, writer and rights activist Wang Lixiong published his 473-page My Western Realm, Your Eastern Homeland (note: my translation of the title, 我的西域,你的东土). “Western Realm” conjures up images of the Silk Road, the Taklamakan Desert and Turkic tribes, all part of the Chinese empire. “Eastern Homeland,” however, is a taboo term in today’s PRC, a homophone for the abbreviation of the short-lived, pre-1949 East Turkestan Republic, whose legacy still gives Beijing splittist migraines. Both of these terms refer, of course, to what is known in the PRC as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Though first published in Taiwan in 2007, the Chinese authorities have banned the work, which both confers it with a certain legitimacy, and suggests that it is not yet out of date.

The author originally intended to pen a book on Xinjiang that would serve as a sister volume to his controversial Sky Burial: The Fate of Tibet. No expert in this field, he set out for Xinjiang to do onsite research, and to get his hands on background material and statistics that he believed were key to understanding the Xinjiang question. Unwisely, he employed his guanxi to obtain reports from government archives and for this, he was arrested, jailed and intensely interrogated; he won freedom only by promising he would work as an informant for China’s intelligence services.

Luckily for us, in jail during interrogation he established a strong bond with Mukhtar, a highly educated and devoted Uyghur activist who turned out to be his ticket into Uyghurdom. After Wang was released from jail, he visited Xinjiang four times during 2003-6, each time meeting Mukhtar, engaging him in long discussions — and debates — as well as traveling on his own, and gathering impressions direct from a host of interlocutors, Han, Uyghur and others as well.

The book closes with a long series of letters to Mukhtar penned in 2007, in which Wang attempts to persuade him of the need for a “Middle Way,” i.e., a compromise that could avoid inter-ethnic conflict yet satisfy many of the grievances of the Uyghur people that Mukhtar has enumerated so compellingly.

Whatever you may think of Wang’s views on the ethnic politics of Xinjiang — hopelessly naïve some would say, and in the light of the violent incidents noted above, rendered irrelevant by events on the ground — the book offers historical insight and first-hand reportage in several areas. This is particularly valuable because Xinjiang is huge, occupying one-sixth of China’s territory, and he covered a lot of it in his vehicle.

His portrait of the role of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (兵团 bīngtuán), is particularly edifying. Founded in 1954 by order of Mao Zedong to develop frontier regions and consolidate border defense, it built farms, towns and cities, and provided land and work for disbanded military units. But the bingtuan has not only not disbanded, in the 21st century it arguably operates as a patriotic army of Han settlers holding down the fort in this Turkic-speaking, Muslim-dominated “Wild West,” a virtual state-within-a-state with iron-willed backers in Beijing.

Wang reports how the bingtuan even sets up roadblocks to stop peasants from taking their goods to market; instead, they are forced to sell them at low prices to the bingtuan. While much of China now constitutes a semi-market economy, the exploitive bingtuan — almost exclusively peopled by Han — effectively keeps a large chunk of the Xinjiang economy stuck back in the centrally planned economy of the 1950s.

Via Wang’s discussions with Mukhtar, we learn about three distinct classifications of “dissatisfied” Uyghur: those angered by the ethnic discrimination they face in the job market; devout Muslims who reject being governed by infidels; and outright nationalists who want Uyghur to rule Uyghur. This is a considerably more nuanced portrait of the populace than anything one will find in the Chinese press.

Perhaps the most rewarding part of the book is simply the hundreds of Xinjiang “vignettes”— records of brief conversations and unposed photos — that appear throughout the text that rambles at times. Wang is an unpretentious man with a common touch, and time and time again he captures Han, Uyghur, Kazakh and others speaking candidly.

Talking about the decision to knock down most of Kashgar’s Old Town, the remains of a 2,000-year-old oasis city, a former policeman reveals the authorities’ practical but unpublicized motivation for demolition: facilitating the policing of its wholly Uyghur inhabitants. The Old Town is a maze where residents’ whereabouts and activities cannot be systematically supervised.

It’s not illegal to be a practicing Muslim in Xinjiang, at least, not exactly. But another of Wang’s quiet discoveries helps put the difficulties in perspective. Here is my translation of a sign posted in Uyghur and Chinese at the entrance to a middle school in the countryside near Subashi, a “lost” city in the Taklamakan Desert near Kucha, noted during the author’s visit there in 2006:

The 23 Illegal Religious Activities (2)

(非法宗教活动 23 表现)

  1. Forcing others to believe in religion
  2. Forcing others to fast
  3. Operating a madrassa on one’s own
  4. Holding a traditional marriage ceremony
  5. Condoning prayer by students
  6. Using tradition to interfere in modern daily life
  7. Organizing a hadj outside of the official channel
  8. Exacting a traditional tithe from believers
  9. Establishing a religious venue without permission
  10. Hosting religious activities without a government certificate
  11. Religious activities involving several districts
  12. Printing and distributing materials for promotion of religion
  13. Accepting foreign donations for religious end-uses
  14. Going abroad to participate in religious activities
  15. Proselytizing without permission
  16. Criticizing patriotic religious devotees
  17. Infiltration by foreign religions
  18. Instigating disputes between different sects
  19. Promoting a cult
  20. Circulating statements that dispute official policy
  21. Congregating to march or demonstrate
  22. Establishing anti-revolutionary bodies
  23. Other activities that harm social order.


  1. 我的西域,你的东土 (My Western Realm, Your Eastern Homeland) by 王力雄 (Wang Lixiong). Published by Locus Publishing of Taiwan (大块文化). 2013 edition.
  2. My translation of an excerpt from page 232, 我的西域,你的东土 (My Western Realm, Your Eastern Homeland).

Çin Edebiyatından Kültür Devrimine Ergen Gözüyle Bakış: Wang Gang’ın İngilizce Romanı

Ayşe Ünal Ersönmez

(for English version, click here)

Çin edebiyatının son birkaç yılda hem kendi ülkesinde hem de dünyada en ilgi görmüş örneklerinden Wang Gang’ın İngilizce adlı romanı, 2013 yılında Kalkedon Yayınları tarafından Nil Demir çevirisiyle Türkçe’ye kazandırıldı.

Roman, Çin’in kuzeybatısındaki Sincan Uygur Özerk Bölgesinde yaşayan Çinli genç “Aşk Liu”nun delikanlılıkIngilizce dönemini konu alıyor. Aşk Liu’nun, her ergen gibi yetişkin dünyasını ve karşı cinsi anlamlandırma dertleriyle boğuştuğu yaşlarını sürerken ilave bir yükü daha var çünkü aynı dönemde Çin, yakın tarihindeki en sancılı süreçlerden 1965-1975 yılları arasında Mao önderliğinde yaşanan Kültür Devrimiyle boğuşmakta. Nitekim roman, bu politik arka planın, bireysel ve toplumsal yaşamın cinsellik dahil her alanına yedirilmesiyle, bildiğimiz ergenlik dönemi romanlarından farklılaşıyor.

İngilizce konuşulan ülkelerin okurları, Kültür Devrimi döneminin ele alındığı Çin edebiyatı eserlerine aşina olabilir ancak Türk okuru için bu roman gerçekten de yepyeni bir dünyanın kapısını aralıyor.

Bunun yanında, hem Başbakan Erdoğan’a yönelik eleştiriler anlamında hem de Atatürk dönemiyle hesaplaşma kapsamında şimdilerde Türkiye gündeminde pek bir havada uçuşan “diktatör” sözcüğünün yankısının bulunabileceği, bir başka ülkenin yakın geçmişine ait baskıcı bir liderlik örneğinin, kültüre ve yaşam tarzına yönelik dayatmaların veya moda deyimiyle “toplum mühendisliği”nin yansımalarının görülebileceği bir roman İngilizce.

Aşk Liu, her ikisi de mimar ve aydın kişiler olan anne ve babasıyla birlikte Uygur bölgesinin başkenti Urumçi’de yaşamakta ve ortaokula devam etmektedir. Ne var ki zamanın Urumçisi kent bile sayılamayacak durumdadır, üstelik Kültür Devriminin baskısı altında inim inim inlemektedir. Eğitim devam etmekte ancak niteliği yerlerde sürünmektedir. [Read more…]


去年来土耳其刚好一个月的时候,究竟买到了一本用得上的土耳其语到英语的字典: Fono Yayınları 出的 Türkçe-土耳其字典的阅读Ingilizce Büyük Sözlük。不容易啦--因为此类参考书主要是为了帮助土耳其人学习英语的,所以其重点不是我们英语为母语者感兴趣的那些。



大学时代读了日本平安时代清少納言写的《枕草子》,特喜欢她对朝廷里日常现象风趣的描写和 “分类”。为了方便阅读,下面我也把我新近 “逛字典” 时的一些零碎印象同样分类: [Read more…]

“Champa the Driver”: Tibetan Dreamer in an Alien Land

Original Chinese novel:  《裸命》

English title:                     The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver

Author:                             Chan Koonchung (陈冠中)

Translator:                       Nicky Harman

Reviewer:                         Bruce Humes


 “Dreams are so good. Why do we have to make them a reality?

What’s a young Tibetan stud to do for a living nowadays in a tourist hotspot like Lhasa? And what happens when his childhood dream—to hang out in the capital of a country called China—comes true?

In the just-published Champa the Driver, author Chan Koonchung takes us on a rocky road from Lhasa to Beijing. The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the DriverAlong the way he paints disturbing vignettes. An apartheid-in-the-making. The eerie death wish of a would-be self-immolator. The Kafkaesque “black jails” where provincial petitioners who dare air their grievances to the Beijing Mandarins are brutalized, then sent home.

If they’re lucky, that is.

I read both the Chinese original and Nicky Harman’s translation, and her rendition convincingly captures Champa’s conflicted mindset and odd lingo; after all, like any young PRC citizen he is the product of 21st-century China’s booming economy and rampant materialism. But he is also not a native speaker of Chinese, and deep down, he is more Tibetan and Buddhist than he realizes. Even as Chan evokes the gap between image and reality, between the tourist’s Lhasa and Tibet under the heel of the dragon, and Beijing as it is dreamt vs. lived, the novel remains a quick and compelling read.

At the outset, Champa is sitting pretty. He’s got a cushy job in Lhasa as a chauffeur for Plum, a savvy Han businesswoman with a robust appetite for the occasional “spurt of the moment” (as Champa puts it), and before he knows it, he’s her lover-on-demand. However the simple days of cock-and-cunt—there’s a hefty dose of raw sex as the novel opens—are soon overshadowed by the troubling loss of his Tibetan virility. After an-all-too-short trip to Beijing, he realizes that she doesn’t want to be seen parading her “Tibetan Mastiff puppy” in the capital.

This is a body blow to his self-image, and impacts their relations back home in Lhasa. “Plum just didn’t get my tantric juices flowing” any more, he admits. To do his night gig with the boss now, he has to spend his daytime headhunting a fresh new sex object—in a whorehouse, online, among tourists, whatever—that he can visualize while servicing Plum. [Read more…]

Wang Gang’s “Ingilizce” : Intriguing look at the Cultural Revolution for Turkish Readers

IngilizceAs China’s fiction “exports” pick up, it will be interesting to watch which novels and themes win an Exit Permit to foreign lands, and how they are received there.

Take Wang Gang’s 《英格力士》, for instance.  This semi-autobiographical novel set in Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution was snapped up by Penguin, and rendered in English by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan as . . . English.  See my Growing up Han in Fictional Xinjiang for a combined book review and interview with the translators. The novel has since also appeared in French (English) and Spanish (El profesor de inglés) .

I assume the purchase and publication of Wang Gang’s work was a market-driven decision by Penguin. But late last year, his novel was launched in Turkish at the Istanbul Book Fair. The driver in that instance may have been somewhat more political. It was one of just two Chinese novels that were translated into Turkish and published in time for the fair thanks to a joint project subsidized by Turkey and China. The other was a relatively unknown work by Tie Ning (How long is forever?), who happens to be favorably placed; she’s top honcho at the state-run China Writers Association.

Given that only a handful of contemporary Chinese novels have appeared in Turkish, I can’t help but ponder the symbolism of choosing a Xinjiang-born Han author’s novel as an introduction to 21st-century Chinese literature. The novel is set in Xinjiang, the home of some ten million Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking, traditionally Muslim people who have ancient ties with the Turkish. But the novel itself focuses almost exclusively on the Han community there; there are no Uyghur male characters in it.

Irony of ironies, Wang Gang’s novel was translated from the English-language English, not his Chinese original. The first casualty may have been the book’s title in Turkish that couldn’t be much more mundane: Ingilizce, the proper Turkish term for the English language. The original novel  was entitled 英格力士, however, which is closer to a phonetic transcription of the word as you would find it in a dictionary, e.g., “ing-glish”, a more notable title that positions the word as alien to the speaker.  As you can see from the Spanish and French titles above, Ingilizce is a more orthodox translation from the, uh, English.

At any rate, keen to see how a novel about the Cultural Revolution would be rendered in Turkish, I commissioned an English-to-Turkish literary translator here in Istanbul to review the Turkish book as well as comment on how it compares with the English rendition. The review—in English—follows below. Here’s her Turkish review Çin Edebiyatından Kültür Devrimine Ergen Gözüyle Bakış: Wang Gang’ın İngilizce Romanı . [Read more…]





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。


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…]

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.

Book Review: A New Turkish-Chinese Dictionary

Three things strike you as you hold this weighty tome in your hands: It’s 2,075 pages, there are no Turkic-sounding names listed among the compilers, and it’s new.

I recall my 2001 bus trip across Turkey from Istanbul at the doorstep of Europe to Diyarbakir in the southeast in search of Kurdistan, a place that my Turkish friends heatedly assured me “doesn’t exist.” Well, partly on such a quest. The other reason was my ardent desire to practice my (pidgin) Turkish with any native speaker outside Istanbul who didn’t know English or German.

Along the way I passed through Cappadocia, Kayseri and Urfa, and in each city I went to the main bookstore to see if I could buy a Turkish-Chinese dictionary. No luck. [Read more…]