Qing Dynasty Translations of Han Classics into Various Languages of China

The four classics of Chinese vernacular literature during the Ming and Qing Dynasties — Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber — were all more or less fully translated into Manchu under the Qing, writes Yiming Abula (伊明·阿布拉) in Minority Translators Journal (民族翻译).

Translations into Manchu actually began before the Manchu breached the Great Wall at Shanhai Pass and established the Qing Dynasty in 1644. According to Abula’s article, Jurchen chieftain Nurhachi (reigned 1616-26) commissioned the translation of Sun Zi’s Art of War (孙子兵法) and Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义).

Other interesting factoids in Abula’s piece:

Translations from the Chinese included historical, philosophical, religious and military subjects, as well as literature. Besides the four vernacular classics noted above, literary works that were translated into Manchu and Mongolian included the very ancient Book of Songs (诗经), Strange Tales from Liaozhai (聊斋志异) and the erotic classic, The Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅).

Mongolian renditions were sometimes retranslations based on Manchu or Tibetan translations direct from the Chinese.

Later during the Qing, popular Chinese literary works were also rendered in indigenous languages further south in places such as Hunan and Yunnan:

  • Dehong Dai (德宏傣语): Journey to the West, Water MarginRomance of the Three Kingdoms and Wu Jingzi’s The Scholars (儒林外史)
  • Yi language (彝语): Journey to the West and Butterfly Lovers (梁山伯于祝英台)
  • Miao (Hmong): Hunan’s Shi Bantang (石板塘, 1863-1928) composed songs in Miao based on short extracts from works such as Journey to the West, Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Thirteen Confucian Classics (十三经).

By the Numbers: Non-Han “Literary Families” during the Qing

In much the same way as modern gender studies have exploded the myth that great writers throughout human history were necessarily male, contemporary research into literary production by non-Han authors is slowly lifting the veil on their role in China’s pre-20th-century literary life.

In a recent piece on the current state of research into so-called “literary families” during the Qing Dynasty (民族文学家族研究, 多落肯著), Duo Luoken notes that most such research has focused on socially prominent Han families in the Jiangnan and Central Plains regions. The author is a professor at Northwest University for Nationalities in Lanzhou.

Until recently, this focus on Han writers, writing in hànwén and the dominance of Han literary critics, have all resulted in a general sense among the Chinese public that the other officially recognized 55 peoples of the PRC have rarely made important contributions to the nation’s literature since ancient times.

According to Duo, to date just a dozen or so research papers have delved into the existence of Qing era non-Han literary families nationwide, each of which featured several writers whose manuscripts — printed or handwritten — are extant. Based on that research, Duo has compiled statistics on the ethnicity of the families, number of writers they produced, and numbers of known manuscripts. I’ve simplified as follows:

80 Manchu literary families (270 writers)

14 Hui families (53 writers)

11 Zhuang families (33 writers)

10 Mongol families (31 writers)

5 Bai families (18 writers)

4 Yi families (14 writers)

3 Naxi families (11 writers)

1 Buyi family (3 writers)

Definitions of “Chinese” Literary Works in Expansion Mode?

An intriguing picture of what constitutes Chinese literature (中国文学) emerges via an interview with Bai Gengsheng (访中国作协书记处书记白庚胜), a Naxi who has held several senior positions in the state-run ethnic minority literary research apparatus, including his current role as Secretary of the China Writers Association.

In the interview with Chinese Reading Weekly (中华读书报), Bai says:

In ancient times, the myths, epics and narrative poems of minority ethnicities blossomed with éclat in the garden of Chinese — even global — literature . . . Guan Hanqing (关汉卿), Pu Songling (蒲松龄), Nalan Xingde (纳兰性德), Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹), Abay (Ibrahim) Qunanbayuli (阿拜), Tsangyang Gyatso (仓央嘉措), Maḥmūd al-Kāšġarī (喀什噶理), Ali-Shir Nava’i (纳瓦依), Kutadgu Bilig (福乐智慧), The Gate of Wisdom (真理的入门), Compendium of the languages of the Turks (突厥语大辞典), Secret History of the Mongols (蒙古秘史), Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦), Storied Building with a Single Floor (一层楼), Weeping for the Red Pavilion (泣红亭), and The Story of Qing Dynasty History (青史演义) are all world-renowned authors and works.

It is interesting to note that Bai does not mention Life of Jangar (Mongol, 江格尔), King Gesar (Tibetan, 格萨尔王), and Manas (Kyrgyz, 玛纳斯), which are now officially recognized by Beijing as the three great non-Han epics of ancient Chinese literature. Over the last year or so, however, several experts in ethnic literature have pointed out that these works are still not widely introduced in standard textbooks on Chinese literature used in the PRC today.

I recently published a post about how writing in languages native to China — other than Mandarin — has long been relegated to the periphery by Han literary historians. Here’s a passage from that post (Mother-tongue Literature) (the words are mine, my summary of ideas presented in Chinese by Liu Daxian, who is a member of the editorial staff at the quarterly Studies of Ethnic Literature 民族文学研究):

Liu emphasizes that “mother-tongue literature” includes both written and oral forms. He points out that “literature” as defined and promoted via China’s modern education, media and scholarship, tends to focus on written forms such as the novel, poetry, essays and drama, and since much mother-tongue literature — by which he basically means “literature in indigenous languages except for Mandarin” throughout the essay — doesn’t easily fit in those categories, it is viewed as a non-mainstream, even subtly inferior class of literature (亚文学).

If anything, Bai’s list of Chinese literary classics by a range of multi-ethnic authors moves in the opposite direction. He concentrates on “written” (as opposed to “oral”) literature, and considers the texts he cites as mainstream. But does his list represent the result of a positive and inclusive view of Chinese literature, or an expansive, even imperialist one in which the Chinese literary establishment is attempting to appropriate classics that rightfully belong to other peoples of Northeast and Central Asia? [Read more…]

China’s Ethnic-themed Fiction: Mongolian Author Raises the Bar with Call for Bilingual Skills

Xi Jinping’s recent media blitz reminds China’s propaganda workers that — as Chairman Mao told us back at the 1942 Yan’an Forum — art should serve politics. No ifs, ands or buts, Comrades.

To ensure the message gets across to the 55 ethnic minorities that weren’t born Han, “learn from Chairman Xi” study sessions targeting non-Han writers are underway, and one was held on October 29 in Beijing (学习习近平总书记). Jointly organized by China Writers Association and Chinese Minority Writers Society, it featured several speakers who hold important positions in state-run bodies such as Ye Mei (Tujia, editor-in-chief, Nationalities Literature Magazine),  Malchinkuu (Mongolian, editor, Inner Mongolia Literature Magazine) and Dan Zeng (Tibetan, former deputy chairman of China Writers Association).

But in the midst of (predictable) lavish praise for Xi Jinping’s recent talk on the role of art, Mongolian author Guo Xuebo (郭雪波) issued this

Guo Xuebo: Calling for authors to bone up on minority tongues

Guo Xuebo: Calling for authors to bone up on minority tongues

challenge to those authors who wish to write about China’s ethnic minorities: [Read more…]

A Suite of Poems from China’s Borderlands

Chinese Literature TodayChinese Literature Today’s new edition is out and features a special section featuring bilingual versions of poems by 13 of China’s non-Han poets: Aku Wuwu, Altai (阿尔泰), Asu Yue’er (阿苏越尔), Baoyinhexige (宝音贺希格), Burao Yilu (布饶依露), Mushasijia Eni (俄尼·牧莎斯加), Lu Juan (鲁娟), Ma Deqing (马德清), Mo Du (莫独), Qiangrenliu (羌人六), Sha Ma (沙马), and Yangzi (羊子).

This entire section is introduced by Mark Bender and translated by him and several others, and can be read free online here. 

It’s neat to see that Aku Wuwu’s original text in Nuosu is published here too in romanized form.

Backgrounder: Modern Ningxia Writers

Collection of short stories by Ningxia's Hui author Ma Jinlian

Collection of short stories by Ningxia’s Hui author Ma Jinlian

Hui author Li Jinxiang (李进祥), born in the 1960s, recently introduced Ningxia writers of fiction and poetry in an article entitled 纯净朴诚的宁夏少数民族文学.  I haven’t read most of these authors and hope to write about them in detail in the future, but for now, I’ll just cite some authors and works for reference.

Major Ningxia-based writers since the 1960s to our day include 马知遥 (Ma Zhiyao), 石舒清 (Shi Shuqing), 查舜 (Cha Shun), 郎伟 (Lang Wei), 金瓯 (Jin Ou), 李进祥 (Li Jinxiang), 白草 (Bai Cao), 单永珍 (Shan Yongzhen), 马占祥 (Ma Zhanxiang), 了一容 (Liao Yirong), 马金莲 (Ma Jinlian), 平原 (Ping Yuan), 阿舍 (A She), 曹海英 (Cao Haiying), and 马悦 (Ma Yue).

Almost all write in Chinese. Ethnicities include Dongxiang, Hui, Manchu, Mongolian, Salar, and Uyhgur. Many are Muslim and religious motifs are common. [Read more…]

Xinjiang-based “West” Magazine Announces 2012-13 Awards

西部 magazine (lit, “West”) recently held an award ceremony in Tekes County (located in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture). Ten authors received awards for texts published in the magazine during 2012-13 (西部文学奖). They are:

Winning poet Maimaitimin Abolizi: Writes in Uyghur and Mandarin

Winning poet Maimaitimin Abolizi: Writes in Uyghur and Mandarin


《龋齿》by 弋舟 (Yi Zhou), and《小说二题》by 流瓶儿 (Liu Ping’er)

Short Stories

《小叙事》by 汗漫 (Han Man);《母亲》by 辛生 (Xin Sheng); and《禾木纪事》by 康剑 (Kang Jian)


《冉冉的诗》by 冉冉 (Ran Ran), and《石头里的天空》by 麦麦提敏·阿卜力孜 (Maimaitimin Abolizi)

Literary Criticism

《诗之思》by 泉子 (Quan Zi), and《巴扎里的时间》by 王敏 (Wang Min)


《英美自然诗文》translated by 松风 (Song Feng)

Unveiled: List of “2014 China Classics” to Benefit from Translation/Publication Subsidy

Tenzin's collection of autobiographical works

Tenzin’s collection of autobiographical works

In yet another move that emphasizes how much $$ China is spending to take its literature global, the 2014 list of finalists for the “China Classics International Publication Project”  (经典中国国际出版工程) has just been announced. It comprises 256 titles that will be translated into 27 languages, according to an article on China Book Int’l (入围). You can find the full (but unprintable!) list here in Chinese.

The translation and publication of these works will be subsidized, but the specific amounts are not detailed. Obviously, this represents an opportunity for enterprising foreign translators and publishers to follow up. [Note: I’ve just been asked how to apply for your share of the subsidy pie, and all I can suggest is: contact the publishers of these works direct.]

Works of fiction represent but a small number of the finalists. Authors whose fiction appear on the list include [Read more…]

Ethnic Literature in China: A Primer for the Uninitiated

A while back I came upon what seems to be a fairly comprehensive look at novels by non-Han writers published since 1949 that deal directly with issues of culture and identity. Entitled Ethnic Minority Novels  (少数民族小说), the Chinese-language article is unfortunately not signed, but it appears to have been written by a scholar and published in one of China’s academic quarterlies.

I’d like to summarize parts of it here.

First, a few factoids from the essay:

  • China officially recognizes 55 non-Han peoples as native to the PRC
  • There are over 500 writers in the China Writers Association who consider themselves members of a minority ethnicity
  • Since the 1970s, China has published over 300 novels by minority writers dealing with ethnic themes
The paper focuses on several authors: Tujia writer Sun Jianzhong (孙健忠), the Evenki Ureltu (乌热尔图), and three Tibetans, Yeshi Tenzin (益希单增), Taxi Dawa (扎西达娃) and Alai (阿来). Several “ethnic” novels have been awarded the Mao Dun Literary Prize, arguably the most prestigious literary award in China today:

[Read more…]

“The Creation Story”: An Excerpt from “Canticle to the Land,” the Third Novel in Fan Wen’s Yunnan-Tibet Trilogy

The Story of Creation

Long, long ago

Sky and earth not yet distinct

Water and soil not yet formed

Darkness shrouding all.

No sun, ho! No moon,

Neither flower nor beast, ho!

And no love.

No Tashi Gyatso, Tibetan minstrel,

For his wings of passion had yet to unfurl.

— Tashi Gyatso’s Creation Ballad

大地雅歌The audience erupted in laughter in Chieftain Khampu Dzongsar’s spacious salon.“You sang that wrong,” uttered someone to Tashi Gyatso, the troubadour. “Those last two lines were added on by you!”

“Twang” sounded the string, dexterously plucked by the fellow in the middle of the salon who was fondling his zither and performing the Creation Ballad, like a savvy horseman lightly reining in an errant steed.  He affected a mischievous smile that evoked knowing chuckles.

Only one who enjoyed the chieftain’s good graces dared behave so nonchalantly at a gathering of nobility. [Read more…]