A Resounding “Yes” to Mother-tongue Literature — but for Whom and about What?

Liu DaxianLiu Daxian (刘大先) , left) has just published a persuasive call to recognize the great value of “mother-tongue literature” (多民族母语文学) to Chinese literature (中国文学) as a whole. Liu is a member of the editorial staff at the quarterly Studies of Ethnic Literature (民族文学研究) who did a stint in 2009 as a visiting scholar at Columbia U in New York.

Much of what appears in Chinese on the web site of the Ethnic Literature Institute (中国民族文学网) is so full of politically-charged jabberwocky that my eyes occasionally glide off the screen. Liu’s articles are a wonderful exception.

While it may seem self-evident, this viewpoint does need to be elaborated and defended in 21st century China. For one thing, post-1949 China had an entirely state-run economy until Deng Xiaoping opened the door to Sino-foreign joint ventures and private enterprise in the early 80s, and even today China remains a one-party state. Variety has not always been the “spice of life,” and at times official policy has called for minority writers to contribute to New China by painting a sugar-sweet picture of multi-ethnic harmony. Period. [Read more…]

China’s Bilingual Writers: Narrative with a Difference

It began back in 2008 with Penguin investing heavily—$100,000 is the rumored price—to purchase Jiang Rong’s tale based in Inner Mongolia, Wolf Totem. In 2013 two newly translated novels joined China’s “borderland fiction” category: Fan Wen’s Une terre de lait et de miel, located in the gateway to Tibet straddling Yunnan and Sichuan, and Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon, which features the reindeer-herding Evenki whose lives revolve around the Argun River that demarcates the Sino-Russian border.

Penned in Chinese, these novels are the creations of Han authors who have consciously chosen to set their tales amongNeige by Pema Tseden non-Han peoples who have historically resided at the fringes of the Middle Kingdom. Ran Ping’s Legend of Mongolia (蒙古往事), a fictionalized biography of Genghis Khan that was short-listed for the Mao Dun Literary Prize in 2008, also falls into this category, but it has not been translated into any European language.

Of course, there are popular novelists of various ethnicities who choose to write about their people using Chinese. Part-Tibetan Alai, author of The Song of Gesar (格萨尔王) and Red Poppies (尘埃落定), comes to mind, for instance.

But what about ethnic writers who not only speak two languages native to China, but write in both? Two have recently come to my attention, one who writes in Tibetan and Chinese, and another who uses both Uyghur and Chinese. [Read more…]

“Funeral of a Muslim”: Tale of Three Generations of a 20th Century Hui Family

With sales of some 2.5 million copies, Funeral of a Muslim, Huo Da’s tale about three generations of a Hui family in Beijing, is quite possibly the most popular ethnic-themed novel ever published in China. It spans the turbulent years of the Japanese invasion, World War II and part of the Cultural Revolution.

If the novel is not well known in the West, neither are the Hui, the “other” dominant Muslim people in China who actually number over ten million. Unlike the Turkic-speaking Uyghur of Xinjiang, the Hui are descendants of Silk Road travelers — Arab, Persian and Central Asians — who married Han Chinese and converted to Islam, itself introduced during the Tang Dynasty by Arab traders.

Beijing October Arts & Literature Publishing House has commissioned an English excerpt from me, and what follows is taken from it. Inquiries regarding overseas rights should be directed to Mr. Han Jingqun (韩敬群总编辑) at daisyh@vip.sina.com

Like many of his fellow Hui over the centuries, the novel’s protagonist, Han Tzu-ch’i, makes a living in the jade industry. He is a lapidary.

Funeral of a Muslim

(Excerpted from Chapter 1)

When Jade opened the storefront door, two strangers entered, one aged and one young. The old one was past sixty, tall and portly, with a bronze complexion, wide forehead and high nose, deep-set, spirited eyes, long white beard under his chin, head wrapped in a white prayer cap, wearing a full-length ch’angshan that was neither blue nor grey, and feet in a pair of straw sandals. [Read more…]

Chinese Fiction in Translation: Novels/Novellas with “Ethnic” Theme

Over the last few months a number of reporters have e-mailed to ask about the state of Chinese literature in translation, particularly in light of Mo Yan’s winning the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. But most cite just a handful of authors and works in their questions— and Shanghai Baby, translated by yours truly over a decade ago!—is often one of them.

My advice to them is simple: do your homework, please! For starters, check out Paper-Republic.  All sorts of goodies over there, including a list of translated Chinese fiction (and poetry) published in 2012, Chinese fiction published in 2013, and a Translator Directory too.

Here at Altaic Storytelling, we focus on writing by & about non-Han peoples, particularly those which speak an Altaic language, but not exclusively. And it is interesting to note that translated fiction with an “ethnic” twist has been building up steam for a while, pre-dating the Mo Yan craze, in fact.

To my mind, the impetus for the increased profile of Chinese literature in the outside world began when China was named “Guest of Honor” at the 2009 Frankfurt Int’l Book Fair. Chinese authors and publishers socialized with their European counterparts—many for the first time—and important contacts and contracts resulted, with the books born of this schmoozing finally hitting the market 2-3 years later.

In China is Focusing on the Fringes published in March this year, literary translator Nicky Harman presciently pointed out that “independent–minded Chinese writers are becoming seriously interested in the geographical fringes of ‘China proper’, drawing on its people, their traditions and conflicts at work.” And as you can see below, foreign publishers are interested. When you consider that over the last few years just 15 or so Chinese novels have appeared in English each year—ethnic or no—this table looks a bit more impressive.

Indeed. So, to show this more graphically—and perhaps even to save myself a bit of hassle in recreating the wheel for the next journalist who wants to pick my brains—I’ve put together this table. If you know something I should add to it, including current projects that will be published in 2014, please let me know! [Read more…]

Chutzpah!: Latest Issue Devoted to Writers of non-Han Descent

Good news from the bimonthly Chinese literary magazine Chutzpah! (天南): the latest edition (Issue 14) is devoted entirely to writing by authors of non-Han descent. Several languages are involved here—most are published in Chinese, but some were written in other tongues and then translated into Chinese, while one has been rendered in English.

The latter deserves a special mention because . . . I translated it. It’s a marvelous short story by Uyghur writer Alat Asem (阿拉提·阿斯木), entitled Sidik Golden MobOff (《斯迪克金子关机》). If you want to read it in full, you’ll have to purchase the magazine in hard copy form, but here’s an excerpt. But for more information on the author, see China’s Bilingual Writers: Narrative with a Difference.  And if you can read Chinese, check out this very informative interview with the author, 地域化、全球化和双语写作. [Read more…]

Au Tibet, les conflits sanglants entre Christ et Bouddha

Une_terre_de_lait2Dans Au Tibet, les conflits sanglants entre Christ et BouddhaBertrand Mialaret nous signale un roman et un événement actuels qui traitent sur l’histoire des religions au tibet du XIXe siècle:

Un livre et une exposition sont centrés sur les conflits sanglants entre le Christ et Bouddha à la frontière du Yunnan chinois et du Tibet. Deux événements simultanés mais sans lien entre eux.

Il s’agit de la publication en avril d’un roman de Fan Wen [范稳], « Une Terre de lait et de miel », et une exposition en cours, « Missions du toit du monde », aux Missions étrangères à Paris. Lire la suite . . .

For the English version of this article, click here.

“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…]

Scholar Critiques Media Coverage of Newly Published Miao Classic “King Yalu”

China media’s recent high-profile reportage of the launch of volume one of the first-ever bilingual version of King Yalu (亚鲁王), a Miao historical epic passed down orally, has been labelled “unscientific” (媒体对 《亚鲁王》报道不科学) by an academic whose views carry weight.

Traditionally sung over several days at a funeral, King Yalu is the story of war, defeat and migration of the western Miao tribes in Guizhou from their traditional homes in places such as Anshun (安顺). Legend has it that King Yalu was the 18th in a line of Miao rulers.

The scholar in question happens to be Chogjin (朝戈金), Chair of the Department of Ethnic Minority Literature in the Graduate School of the distinguished China Academy of Social Sciences.  He is an ethnic Mongolian and has an impressive résumé in oral literary research.

In particular, he rejects the assertion—proclaimed in the Chinese press and trumpeted in English by Chinadaily—that the origins of King Yalu doubtless go back more than 2,500 years.  In his brief but informative essay, Chogjin also notes: [Read more…]

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 ».