“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.

Historian Queries: What Is a ‘Uyghur’?

The LA Review of Books has published an extract of the newly published Sacred Routes of Uyghur History by Professor Rian Thum, entitledSacred Routes of Uyghur History What Is a Uyghur? In the book, Thum “argues that the Uyghurs – and their place in China today – can only be understood in the light of longstanding traditions of local pilgrimage and manuscript culture” (Loyola U biography).

In the piece excerpted in LARB, Thum cites an anonymous 1934 article in Kashgar’s New Life in which the author claims the term “Uyghur” for his people:

The children of Adam living across the whole face of the earth are divided from one another into sects [maẕhab] and also separated into several peoples [qawm] and tribes [urughlar], for example Arab, Turk, English, French, Italian, Russian, Indian, Chinese, and the like. . . . Because most of our people here are in ignorance and unconsciousness we have forgotten what tribe we are from. If someone is asked what tribe we are from, he answers, “We are Muslims.” It is correct to say of us that we are Muslims, but in terms of descent and tribe, it is surely also necessary to know what tribe we are from. Is it not futile for a man’s child, upon forgetting his own father’s name, to ask it of another person? So enough then. We are the children of the Uyghurs. Uyghur means our noble national [milliy] name.15

Cultivating Uyghur Writers and Translators

Uyghur editionAs I’ve reported before (Sessions), the editors at China’s very official Nationalities Literature Magazine (民族文学), which appears in 5 languages plus Mandarin, are heading up a nationwide series of “rewriting/editing training courses” (改稿班). The latest took place in Urumqi in late September, and brought together more than 30 Uyghur writers and their translators, along with editors of the Uyghur edition of the magazine.

Among the participating writers and translators were:

As I tried to research these writers and translators online, I was struck by [Read more…]

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…]

“Daur Epic Narratives”: New Approach Aims to Capture Original Daur Flavor

达斡尔英雄叙事A few years ago, oral epics of non-Han peoples in China — if ever published — tended to be presented in Chinese (translation). To the uninitiated, this implied that these tales existed just in Chinese.

More recently, bilingual versions have occasionally appeared, i.e., with the original language printed in IPA or a script familiar only to scholars, and a fluent translation provided in Chinese.

Daur Epic Narratives (达斡尔英雄叙事) goes a step further by providing the full tale in Daur (written in Latin letters), a word-by-word literal translation in Chinese characters on the facing page, and then a full, fluent translation of the entire text in modern Chinese. This should allow the reader — be s/he Daur or anyone fluent in written Chinese — to get a better feeling of how the original was told, and how Daur idioms differ from Chinese.

Daur is a Mongolic language. According to Wikipedia (Daur), during the Qing Dynasty, it was written with the Manchu alphabet, but currently “There is no written standard in use, although a Pinyin-based orthography has been devised; instead the Daur make use of Mongolian or Chinese, as most speakers know these languages as well.”

Inner Mongolia: Tardy Legal Move to Protect Oroqen Culture it Once Suppressed

Inner Mongolia has just passed a law aimed at protecting the culture of the Elunchun (鄂伦春), also known as the Oroqen, according to an item republished at Chinawriter.com.cn (鄂伦春传统文化).

Like the Evenki portrayed in Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon, the Oroqen speak a Tungusic tongue, and their population has markedly declined since the PRC was founded in 1949.  Similar to the Evenki in Heilongjiang, and other Siberian peoples in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, China’s Oroqen were accused of superstitious beliefs and forced to abandon their Shamanistic rituals. For details, see The Last Oroqen Shaman of Northeast China.  

A few factoids from the article at Chinawriter.com.cn:

  • 1996: Authorities ban Oroqen from hunting within their “Oroqen Autonomous Banner” territory.
  • 2010: Oroqen population estimated at 8,659 persons.
  • 2014: “Regulations regarding protection of traditional folk culture of the Oroqen people of the Oroqen Autonomous Banner,” passed and set for implementation beginning October. It calls for a “traditional folk culture” fund, and the establishment of an “Oroqen Ecology Protection Zone” (鄂伦春生态保护区).

July 2014: Update on Uyghur Writers and Writing as Crackdown Gains Momentum

In the wake of two high-profile and deadly attacks reportedly carried out by Uyghurs outside of their traditional homeland, the Chinese

Signatures of writers and translators on "Open Letter to our Uyghur Compatriots"

Signatures of writers and translators on “Open Letter to our Uyghur Compatriots”

authorities have launched a multi-faceted campaign to crush what they see as a terrorist movement that aims at founding an independent state in the Xinjiang autonomous region covering one-sixth of Chinese territory.

I am referring here to the Beijing “2013 Tian’anmen Square Attack” in which a 4 x 4 crashed into a crowd and burst into flames near Mao’s famous portrait, killing the passengers and two tourists, while injuring 38. And on March 1 this year, eight knife-wielding attackers appeared at the Kunming train station in Yunnan Province, and reportedly slashed 29 people to death while injuring 140 others.

As we enter Ramadan (June 28-July 27), when pious Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, Radio Free Asia (Anti-Terrorism Measures) reports that the authorities in Ürümqi are taking the strictest measures ever to ensure that there are no “incidents” during this, the most important month in the Muslim calendar. They include: newly installed surveillance cameras in mosques; preparation for “sudden-strike” searches of Uyghur households to break up unauthorized gatherings; requiring halal restaurants to remain open during the hours of the fast; and Muslim students at university will attend “patriotic study” classes and eat in the school canteen during the day so that they cannot practice fasting.

It should be noted, however, that some of RFA’s information about the crackdown comes from a spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress, an organization of exiled Uyghur groups that is based outside China.

Alat Asem, Bilingual Uyghur author

Alat Asem, Bilingual Uyghur author

Meanwhile, how is the crackdown impacting the “official” literary scene? Here are a few May-June factoids for your reference: [Read more…]

Manchu Novelists: Storytellers First, and Partial to the Spoken Language

满族小说与中华文化A conference on the unique contribution of Manchu novelists was held in Beijing on June 6, 2014, to celebrate the publication of 满族小说与中华文化 (Manchu novels and Chinese culture). The book is the result of a project sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Fund (社科基金项目).

Editor Guan Jixin (关纪新), a Manchu himself, conceded that not long after the Manchu took power, they applied themselves earnestly to mastering Chinese culture, and as a result, early on most lost the ability—and/or the desire—to  write literature in their own tongue. While that may have been a loss to the Manchu, it was decidedly a plus for Chinese literature as a whole.

The work appears to be a creative and broad-ranging look at Chinese-language fiction by ethnic Manchu from the Qing Dynasty to the present.  A quick summary of a few of the more intriguing topics covered in this book: [Read more…]

“The Mysterious Realm of Lop Nur” and “Curse of Kanas Lake”: Xinjiang’s Answer to Tibetan Fiction Fever?

The phenomenal success of He Ma’s The Tibet Code (《藏地密码》, 何马著)—reportedly over 3m volumes sold—has罗布泊秘境 spawned a host of thrillers and mysteries driven by a similar fascination with Tibetan history, religion and relics. The popular 3-volume Tibetan Mastiff (藏獒) by Yang Zhijun (杨治军), now an animated film co-produced by a Sino-Japanese partnership, is just one example.

But Tibet is certainly not the only area of the People’s Republic rich in non-Han culture and history with strong
potential for such fiction. Two novels by former journalist Jueluo Kanglin (觉罗康林), including the newly launched 罗布泊秘境 (literally, The Mysterious Realm of Lop Nur), are bound to raise Xinjiang’s profile among aficionados of the “exploration thriller” genre.

As a site engendering curiosity and even fascination, Lop Nur’s credentials are impeccable and ancient: archaeologists unearthed the (controversial) Tarim mummies along the lake (Lop Nur means “Lop lake”); explorers such as Marco Polo, Ferdinand von Richthofen, Nikolai Przhevalsky, Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein all set foot in the area; and more recently, Chinese scientist Peng Jiamu disappeared there (1980), and Chinese explorer Yu Chunshun died trying to walk across Lop Nur (1996).

In a recent interview about his new novel (锡伯族作家), Jueluo Kanglin mentioned several international explorers and others such as Japan’s Zuicho Tachibana and France’s Pierre Gabriel Édouard Bonvalot, but the author did not detail which aspects of the Lop Nur “legend” he delves into in his novel. [Read more…]

“Duobukuer River”: Daur Writer Paints Brighter Future of One Who Left the Greater Khingan Range Behind

多布库尔河 萨娜Ever since I completed my translation of Han author Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon, set in the Greater Khingan Range (大兴安岭) that divides the Manchurian plain of northeastern China from the Mongolian Plateau of Inner Mongolia, I’ve been wondering: How would one of the indigenous nomadic peoples, an Evenki, Oroqen or Daur for instance, recount the tale of how they lost their mountains, rivers and shamans, only to face modern life in “fixed settlements,” or even as migrants to big cities where the Han dominate?

With Sa Na’s new untranslated novel 《多布库尔河》 (literally, Duobukuer River), we have one answer, according to a book review that appeared recently on the web site of the China Writers Association (鄂伦春族的心灵秘史).

Sa Na (萨娜) is a Daur (达斡尔族) born in Yakeshi in the northern part of the Greater Khingan Range, although her story’s protagonists are Oroqen (鄂伦春族), a people related to the Evenki (鄂温克族) featured in Chi Zijian’s novel.

I haven’t read Sa Na’s novel, so my impressions are based solely on the review. But the similarities between Duobukuer River and Chi Zijian’s 2006 novel are striking: [Read more…]