Mongolian Shaman Songs of Praise Rendered in Chinese

Two poets have collaborated to publish a book containing 29 renditions of songs of praise traditionally chanted by shaman. The original odes in Mongolian were first translated into Mandarin by Mongolian scholar Ni Ma (尼玛), and then polished by Xi Murong (席慕蓉), who also knows Mongolian but was educated in Taiwan. The book is published by the Ethnic Publishing House (北京民族出版社), according to a report in Chinawriter (萨满神歌).

Entitled 萨满神歌 (lit., sacred songs of the shaman), they offer praise mainly to mothers, and the spirits of mountains and rivers. Such songs are passed on orally and rarely written down.

Shaman and their lyrics do occasionally appear in 21st-century Chinese fiction, however. For example, here are three novels with key roles for shaman, the first below being Evenki (and a woman), while the latter two are Mongolian:

  • Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian (额尔古纳河右岸, 迟子建著)
  • Legend of Mongolia (蒙古往事, 冉平著)
  • Mongolia by Guo Xuebo (蒙古里亚, 郭雪波著). This is a powerful new semi-autobiographical work by an author who is the descendent of a line of shaman. I’m working now on an excerpt and hope to post in September.

Profile of Octogenarian Orochen: Folk Song Singer, Folk Tale and Dictionary Compiler

Among one of the first batches of young Orochen (鄂伦春) chosen to receive a formal Chinese-language education in Zhalantun in 1948, E’erdenggua (额尔登挂) was just 17 at the time. She had never been outside her village on the banks of Chuo’er River (绰尔河畔) in Inner Mongolia, and didn’t speak a word of Chinese. Now 84, she was recently profiled in Zhongguo Minzu Bao (老人的鄂伦春文化情缘).

Orochen songstress E'erdenggua (Note the teepee at right, traditional lodging for the Orochen and Evenki)

Orochen songstress E’erdenggua (Note the teepee at right, traditional lodging for the Orochen and Evenki)

Although she later held various jobs with the Bureau of Commerce in China’s first Orochen Autonomous Banner until retirement, she never lost interest in her native language or culture.  A brief list of her achievements as noted in the article:

Orochen dress: Personally handicrafted folk costumes and Shaman ritual attire that are now part of collections at the Beijing History Museum, Inner Mongolia Museum (Hohhot), Hulunbuir Ethnography Museum, Oroqen Museum (Hulunbuir) and Evenki Museum (Hulunbuir).

Folk songs: She compiled and sang Orochen folk songs. Designated as an expert regarding traditional hunting songs known as Zàndárén (赞达仁). Her collection includes love songs, narratives and shamanic chants.

Orochen dictionary: Spent 3 years compiling an Orochen dictionary using IPA. Unfortunately never published for lack of funding. [Read more…]

Inner Mongolian Artists Speak Up as Mining and Logging Encroach on Traditional Grazing Lands

Protests over land have occurred in several herding communities in Inner Mongolia during May and early June, according to RFA (Grassland Protests Spread). Ethnic Mongolian herders say access to traditional grazing land is increasingly being curtailed or permanently denied in favor of mining and logging projects, or highway construction. Inadequate or total lack of compensation for the land is also an issue.

Among the communities where protests have taken place are Tulee Gachaa, Mingren Som Township, Zaruud Banner and Ar-Horchin Banner. Arrests have been made, cell phones used by onlookers to shoot videos of police actions have been confiscated, and in one instance in Zaruud Banner, one herder was reportedly beaten unconscious by police and is “still receiving emergency medical treatment in the Zaruud Banner People’s Hospital,” according to the RFA report.

Unrest due to government-supported exploitation of Inner Mongolian natural resources is not a new phenomenon. Back in June 2011, a Han truck driver was found guilty of running over a Mongolian herder who was “blocking a road to protest environmental damage by trucks hauling coal,” and — in a move that shows how seriously the authorities viewed the large-scale protests at the time — the driver was sentenced to death (Truck Driver).

Angered by the news blackout that followed the herder’s violent death, and the way official propaganda has long sought to blame desertification of the grasslands on the Mongol’s traditional way of life, a young Mongolian rapper composed an emotional song in memory of the unfortunate herder — in Chinese — that went viral before it was deleted and/or firewalled by the authorities (献给草原英雄莫日根的歌):

Yo, I am a Mongol even if I sing my rap in Chinese
No matter what you say I am a Mongol
Mongol blood flows in my veins
[Read more…]

Interrupted Traditions of “Altishahr,” Oasis Towns Ringing the Taklimakan Desert in Xinjiang

In Wall Street Journal’s interview with Rian Thum, author of The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, we learn that a century ago Uyghur in the Altishahr region (lit. “six cities”) traditionally visited shrines where the history of a local Islamic saint was read out loud to visitors.

Question posed by Wall Street Journal is bolded, while Thum’s answer is italicized:

How has this tradition changed?

A lot was lost primarily through Communist policies implemented after the advent of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Prominent in that category are the closure of shrines and the stoppage of local pilgrimages, which is a process that seems to have been pretty complete during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, opened back up in the 1980s, and is now returning to an almost complete closure of pilgrimage networks.

Another element that’s really gone is the manuscript tradition. The written version of all these stories took the form of handwritten books. Printing did not take off in Altishahr until the arrival of the People’s Republic of China. Those manuscripts that preserve these tales in physical form were largely collected, perhaps confiscated — we don’t really know what happened to them — by the Chinese government, probably in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. What used to be a form that was really widely available is now almost completely unavailable.

“Last Quarter of the Moon”: Evenki Place Names behind the Hànzì

I grew up in places with names like “Winnetka” and “Sewickley,” spellings no doubt based on mangled transliterations

1,800+ Evenki place names: many inspired by Russian, Mongolian and Manchu

1,800+ Evenki place names: many inspired by Russian, Mongolian and Manchu

of old, even ancient Native American words. I vaguely recall that Sewickley meant “sweet water,” but no one seemed sure.

How many cities, mountains and rivers in China, I wondered, hide their non-Han origins? [Read more…]

“Hegemonic Mindset” Hampering Recognition of Manchu Contribution to China’s Literature

Once in a blue moon I come across a well-argued scholarly essay which openly criticizes mainstream thinking about

Nalan Xingde, Manchu poet and official: Inspiration for "Dream of the Red Chamber"?

Yu Zhiding’s portrait of Nalan Xingde, Manchu poet and military official: Inspiration for “Dream of the Red Chamber”?

ethnic literature in New China. 不在场的在场:中国少数民族文学的处境 (Presence of Absence: Situation of China’s Ethnic Minority Language Literature) by Li Xiaofeng (李晓峰) is an outstanding example. He cites the words of author He Qifang (何其芳), and adds that precious little has changed since:

Right up to today [1961], all Chinese literary history is actually the history of literature written in hànyǔ — the history of literature by the Han plus literature written in hànyǔ by some ethnic minority writers.  

Li Xiaofeng’s article appeared in 2011.

In December 2014, another article was published that suggests that the concept of “Chinese literary history” continues to be contested (gasp!). Entitled 满族文学在中国文学史上的地位 (The Position of Manchu Literature in Chinese Literary History), it appears to be a summary of a December 2014 presentation made by Dr. Zhang Juling (张菊玲), former professor, now retired, of Beijing’s Central University for Nationalities (Chinese Language and Literature).

She is the author of 清代满族作家文学概论 (Introduction to Manchu Authors’ Writing during the Qing), 纳兰词新解 (New Interpretations of Nara Xingde’s Ci Poetry),产生《红楼梦》的满族文化氛围 (The Manchu Cultural Ambience that Generated ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’ ), and 阅读老舍, 记住曾被遮掩的民族历史文化 (Reading Lao She and Keeping in Mind Once-obscured Ethnic History and Culture). Nothing in the article or elsewhere on the web that I found mentions fluency in Manchu, so I assume that her research has been done in Mandarin.

Because I read and enjoyed the published text of her presentation, I’ve translated it below, albeit with a light edit. I found it a bit difficult to translate and welcome your comments and corrections. Note that the use of Manchu below never means writing in the Manchu language; it refers to the Manchu people and their culture. Or you can download the audio file — truly a pleasure to listen to her crystal-clear Chinese! — of her presentation here. (Note: Never mind the estimated download time. I downloaded in less than 5 minutes)

How Should One Write Chinese Literary History?

The manner in which Chinese literary history should be written is a very big question. At present, I believe that there exist remnants of a hegemonic mindset [霸权思想] among academics concerning the writing of Chinese literary history, and research into ethnic literature [民族文学] is still very deficient. Therefore, ethnic literature researchers have the responsibility to continue working on this question.

The Chinese people have never consisted of a sole ethnicity. During the Yuan, Ming and Qing for instance, Mongols, Han and Manchu ruled China, respectively. Each made its own contribution to the development of Chinese civilization and to the formation of a heterogeneous culture of China [多元的中华文化]. [Read more…]

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).

11th-Century Turkic Classic “Kutadgu Bilig” Recited in Chinese at the Great Hall of the People

Wish I could have been there along with former Minister of Culture Wang Meng — a Han who spent part of the Cultural Revolution in Ili laboring

Author Yusuf Khass Hajib on Kyrgyz currency:  What would he think of the recital at the Great Hall of the People?

Author Yusuf Khass Hajib on Kyrgyz currency: What would he think of the recital at the Great Hall of the People?

among Uyghurs — and central government and Xinjiang dignitaries. I was briefly in Beijing but unaware of the event: On January 18, a new Chinese rendition of the 11th-Century Turkic Classic Kutadgu Bilig (福乐智慧) was launched and an excerpt recited at the Great Hall of the People.

The symbolism of this recital should not be underestimated. It took place on Tiananmen Square, the heart of political China, at a time when Xinjiang society is the object of a harsh crackdown that at times appears more “anti-Uyghur” than “anti-terrorist”: Uyghur women wearing the hijab and long-bearded men are being banned from public transport; Uyghurs in some areas of Xinjiang can no longer travel freely with their national ID, but must apply for difficult-to-obtain additional identification such as a “Convenience Card” (便民卡); moderate Uyghur intellectual and spokesman Ilham Tohti has recently been sentenced to life in jail for operating a web site alleged to have incited separatism; and hundreds of writers and translators have reportedly signed an Open letter to our Uyghur Compatriots in which they call for Muslims to “go to mosques under the sunshine instead of illegal teaching sites hidden in underground dens.”

In this context, the re-publication — it was first published in 2003, and nothing in the news item explains if there is any major difference between the two editions — of the Chinese-language Kutadgu Bilig is intriguing. Thus the questions: What is the nature of the work, and why the high-profile relaunch?

Launch ceremony: The Party's poster-boy for Han-Uyghur friendship, Wang Meng, pointed out similarities of Kutadgu Bilig with Confucius' "Analects"

Launch ceremony: The Party’s poster-boy for Han-Uyghur friendship, Wang Meng, pointed out similarities of Kutadgu Bilig with Confucius’ “Analects”

The book was authored by Yusuf Khass Hajib (يۈسۈپ خاس ھاجىپ‎), an 11th-century Turkic poet from the city of Balasaghun, the capital of the Karakhanid Empire in modern-day Kyrgyzstan. He died in Kashgar in 1085 and a mausoleum now stands on his gravesite.

According to Wikipedia, Kutadgu Bilig was written in Uyghur-Karluk language (Middle Turkic), and employed the Arabic mutaqārib metre (couplets of two rhyming 11-syllable lines). [Read more…]

Launched: Collection of Contemporary Kazakh Poetry & Fiction in Chinese Translation

哈萨克族卷Readers can now purchase the 374-page volume featuring 41 pieces of fiction, most translated from the original Kazakh into Chinese (中国当代少数民族文学翻译作品选萃 - 哈萨克族卷).

This is part of the Chinese government’s official translation project (“民译汉”), initiated in 2013, which aims to make writing by ethnic minority writers available to Chinese readers nationwide. This represents a change in orientation from earlier times when most translation was unidirectional, i.e., from Mandarin into a given minority language.

According to a brief review of the collection (民译汉工程) by 艾克拜尔·米吉提, it includes poetry, short stories and excerpts from novels from the 50s right up to today.

Featured Kazakh poets include:

  • 库尔班阿里, 尼合迈德·蒙加尼, 夏侃·沃阿勒拜, 玛哈孜·热孜旦

Featured Kazakh writers, some writing directly in Chinese, include:

Featured Kazakh-to-Chinese translators, mainly female, include:

  • 常世杰, 姚成勋, 张森棠, 焦沙耶, 张孝华, 哈依霞·塔巴热克, 阿里, 韩玉文, 金炳喆, 丽娜·夏侃, 哈那提古丽·木哈什, 库拉西汉·木哈买提汉, 波拉提·巴德力汗, 星星, 吉恩斯古丽

For readers fluent in Chinese, these other volumes — translations from the Uyghur, Tibetan and Mongolian into Chinese — in the same collection may be of interest:

“Life of a Mimic”: Xinjiang Writer Addresses Sensitive Question of Self-identity

The latest session of the Lu Xun Literary Institute’s training in creative writing for minority writers recently convened (第15 期少数民族创作培训), and I found myself sifting through the names of the trainees. That’s because participation is a milestone of sorts that presages future stardom: You join the state-run China Writers Association, get published in a prestigious state-run Chinese-language literary magazine like People’s Literature (Renmin Wenxue), take part in the Lu Xun Institute’s training, and then if you’re lucky, get a shot at winning an overseas readership via publication in a state-run magazine like Pathlight, which specializes in Chinese literature in English translation.

One of the new batch of trainees, Patigul (帕蒂古丽), has jumped the gun by appearing first in the 2014 spring issue of Pathlight. Although the issue was dedicated to several pieces of fiction by non-Han authors, her piece Life of a Mimic (translated by Jim Weldon) is one of the few I found immediately rang true for me.

It appears to be partly autobiographical. Patigul is listed on Baidu as Uyghur, but the first-person narrator in Life of a Mimic is obviously from a mixed Han-Uyghur background, and like Patigul in real life grew up in Xinjiang, now works in “South China.” Patigul is a journalist in Zhejiang, which is of course traditionally referred to as “south of the Yangtse” (Jiāngnán).

The entire piece is devoted to the narator’s “precocious capacity for mimicry,” and how her early delight in it — specifically mimicry of “Han people” — becomes something more disturbing as she moves into adulthood and even motherhood.

Eventually, even something as basic as eating becomes a joyless performance for this Xinjiang native who has become a “replica” of herself:

The way I eat when in the south is entirely a matter of mimicking an essential procedure for sustenance, with no enjoyment of my food whatsoever. Perhaps the stomach is the most sensitive of all the organs of the body, and things that don’t taste right will never be any use in your mimicking of happiness. There was a time when I tried very hard to copy the trick by which people from the coast could peel a shrimp in their mouths, but in the end I had to fall back on the way you eat polo rice, grabbing them off the plate with my hands. You could say I was hanging on to one last bit of ethnic minority essence, but eating with my hands also brought along a kind of pleasure. Required to pick either the agonies of mimicry or becoming the subject of mockery, I chose to be laughed at. That at least meant even as they laughed, people admitted my ethnic otherness. There was a difference between me and anyone else eating in the room, and even if I was getting laughed at, at least I had the sense of security derived from an identity I felt comfortable with. When invited to important meals, my only recourse that preserved my sorry self-respect was to eschew any crab or shrimp or other odd-shaped shellfish that would require setting my Xinjiang hands to work.

I have cooked polo rice for my colleagues a number of times. I wanted these folk, well-used in the south to coping with crab and shrimp, to have at least one go at mimicking my eating habits. Maybe they’d get some glimpse of the lived experience of their Hemudu culture Neolithic ancestors. But even though I’d hidden all the chopsticks, no one wanted to eat rice with their hands.

Forced mimicry is a game of power and the rules oblige the minority to bow to the habits of the majority; the weaker party must give way to the customs of the strong.