Backgrounder: Contemporary Ethnic-themed Fiction out of China

For several years after I arrived in China, I was treated like the “Other,” constantly quizzed on my nationality, what my compatriots ate for breakfast and my impressions of China. When visiting small towns or the countryside, at times I was ogled, which made me feel I was somehow, well, odd. That was a new experience for me!

One day it occurred to me that foreigners weren’t the only “Other” on the scene. What about those persons who didn’t claim to belong to the Han, China’s mainstream ethnic group? Estimates are that one out of ten citizens are of a different ethnicity, such as Zhuang, Miao or Uyghur, and that information appears on their ID card.

I began to wonder: How do they view their “Other,” i.e., the Han? How do their writers portray the effects on their people as they inevitably come into more frequent contact with the outside world, attend school taught in Chinese, or migrate to the city? And how do Han authors use ethnic motifs and depict minority characters in their contemporary fiction? I decided to explore these questions via new literature appearing in Chinese . . . (click here for full text)

Quick Guide to China’s Contemporary Ethnic-themed Literature in Translation

Updated: Feb 18, 2017

Quick Guide to China’s Contemporary 

Ethnic-themed Literature in Translation

I’m often too busy to immediately write a well-researched post about contemporary “ethnic-themed” fiction that has been translated and published in a foreign tongue. This is a loose category (民族题材文学) that includes stories — regardless of the author’s ethnicity — in which non-Han culture, motifs or characters play an important role.

In my brief list below, there are entries for fiction (and a bit of poetry) touching on peoples such as the Bai, Evenki, Hui, Kazakh, Korean, Kyrgyz, Manchu, Miao, Mongolian, Lahu, Lisu, Oirat, Seediq, Tibetan, Tujia, Uyghur, Xiongnu and Yi. Unless noted, the original is in Chinese and the translation is in English. But I’ve also included a handful of renditions into French, German, Spanish and Japanese.

I welcome your updates and corrections.

Here is a set of links I hope you’ll find useful:

General

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

  • Table with info on ten works translated into English or French during 2009-14, including writing by Alai, Chan Koonchung, Chi Zijian, Fan Wen, Gao Jianqun, Jiang Rong, Li Jinxiang, Pema Tseden, Shi Shuqing, Wang Gang and Wu He.

Chutzpah! Issue 14

  • Dedicated to non-Han authors including Alat Asem, Aydos Amantay, Baoerj Yuanye, Ju Kelzang, Kanglin Gioro, Lhajam Gyel, Muhammedemin Abliz, Na Zhangyuan, Pema Tseden and Ye Fu.

Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and  Popular Culture

  • This collection presents works drawn from the large body of oral literature of many of China’s recognized ethnic groups — including the Han, Yi, Miao, Tu, Daur, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Kazakh — and the selections include a variety of genres such as epics, folktales, folk songs and quyi. Edited by Victor Mair and Mark Bender.

Pathlight Issue Spring 2014

  • Dedicated to non-Han authors including Alat Asem,  Artai, Aydos Amantay, Ayonga, Dan Zeng, Guan Renshan, Jin Renshun, Memtimin Hoshur,  Jidi Majia, Luruodiji, Ma Huan, Nie Le, Patigul, Ye Fu, Ye Guangqin, Ye Mei and Yerkex Hurmanbek.

 

Evenki (鄂温克族)

Balajieyi (芭拉杰依)

  • 驯鹿角上的彩带 (lit., colored ribbon on the reindeer’s horns): To be translated into Swedish by Anna Gustafsson Chen and published within 2017. It features an Evenki narrator telling an Evenki love story that spans the 1900-1950 period. The author is a 74-year-old Evenki woman whose mother was Aoluguya’s last practicing shaman. She explains her motivation for writing the book:  “Since mother departed, no one has donned that Shaman Spirit Robe made of metal and leather, or struck the Spirit drum to pray for the Evenki . . . There are some things that, if I don’t record them, will truly be forgotten. I began collecting and collating our traditional handicrafts and legends. I want to use words to leave a record of everything about us Evenki. This is our people’s collective memory . . . I want to leave this for the children who love the forest.”

Chi Zijian (迟子建)

Gerelchimig Blackcrane (格日勒其木格・黒鶴)

Hui (回族)

Huo Da (霍达)

  • Funeral of a Muslim (穆斯林的葬礼): With sales of some 2.5 million copies, 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.

Li Jinxiang and Shi Shuqing (李进祥、石舒清 )

La rivière des femmes: Nouvelles huiStories set among the Muslim Hui along the banks of Qingshui River in Ningxia.

Shi Shuqing (石舒清)

  • 西海固の人々  (西海固的事情): Collection of short stories set in Ningxia’s Xihaigu Prefecture.

[Read more…]

Excerpt: Hong Ke’s Xinjiang novel, “Urho”

Hong Ke’s novel, Urho (乌尔禾, 红柯著), is set during the 1960s in the Zungharian Basin at the edge of the Gurbantünggüt Desert. This remote and rugged area of Xinjiang was once a favored hunting ground for the Mongol Khans when they ruled Cathay. A Han soldier back from the Korean front — dubbed “Hailibu” by the乌尔禾封面 locals after the legendary Mongolian hero graced with the gift of understanding animal speech — runs a sheep ranch for the Xinjiang Construction Corps.

** Excerpt **

It was the tail-end of summer, and Hailibu hadn’t imagined that the boy would grow so intimate with the lambs. This was Hailibu’s error. He had forgotten that Weijiang’s affinity with the animal world was rapidly deepening.

Before the traditional time for setting sheep free — late autumn — had arrived, Weijiang set free a pair on his own.

This caused Hailibu considerable consternation. It was one thing for an old man to perform such a ritual, but perhaps this act of charity was best not performed by a child. Alone deep in the wilderness, Hailibu pounded his head.

Hailibu spoke with Weijiang’s father, suggesting the boy leave the sheep ranch. The man imagined his son must have stirred up some trouble. Yet when Hailibu explained about the boy’s releasing sheep into the wild, Weijiang’s father just laughed.

Freein’ a sheep, is that such a big thing?” said the father. “When that boy’s momma had him in her belly, she let hares go. At our place, they used to come and go whenever they pleased. I don’t know how many hares we freed, me ’n her. Hedgehogs too. Like fresh meat delivered to our door, but we saw ’em off in fine health.”

So somebody let a pair of your sheep go, and you feel bad, right?” he queried Hailibu. “I’ll give you ’nother two to make up for it.”

The hell you will! Let’s have a drink.”

The pair sat down on the kang and finished off a bottle of liquor. Hailibu felt relieved.

* * *

Time passed, but Hailibu remained uneasy. Having made arrangements for the ranch, he mounted his horse and began roaming the steppe. He rode to Toli and Hoboksar in North Xinjiang. He listened wistfully to urtyn duu, the famed Long-Song of the Mongolians, and to folk songs sung by Aken, Kazakh minstrels who play the stringed dongbula.

Hailibu visited the most respected Elder on the steppe. A virtual encyclopedia of the grasslands, the old man could narrate ancient legends for months on end. Among these tales, however, few mentioned a child setting sheep free.

This weighty matter on Hailibu’s conscience didn’t escape notice. “Guest from afar,” said the Elder, “Speak what is on your heart. Otherwise it will freeze over.”

Hailibu explained that a boy at his ranch had freed a pair of sheep on his own.

The old man was unfazed. “How far can they go, sheep released by a youngster?” Before the old man could utter another word, Hailibu began to tremble and prepared to kneel.

They were released by one child, so they shall be taken in by another,” announced the Elder, matter of factly. At which point, Hailibu prostrated himself with a thud.

Fathers are like that,” chuckled the Elder. Two young Kazakhs lifted the visitor off the ground. Hailibu clambered into his saddle like a drunkard.

Can he ride that way?” asked one of the young men as Hailibu’s horse departed. “He’s falling asleep. Better bring him back!”

A horseman doesn’t sleep in a tent or on a prairie,” said the Elder. “For him, the steadiest bed is a saddle.”

Hong Ke wrote "Urho" in Chinese, but it has been translated into Uyghur (see cover, above)

Hong Ke wrote “Urho” in Chinese, but it has been translated into Uyghur (see cover, above)

Hailibu was indeed exhausted. On the steppe, there is a custom: When a man reaches the limits of his fatigue, in his stupor he climbs into his saddle, releases the reins and lets his steed take charge. Dreams know no boundaries, nor does sleep. This carefree, directionless rambling is a gift from the Heavens, when a Spirit takes brief possession of the body.

Like a bird, a gazelle, a deer or a wild stallion,” said the Elder to the young men. “That’s a life worthy of envy.” [end]

Like to read the full Chapter 3 from Hong Ke’s Xinjiang-based novel? Contact Ms. Wang Ting (wangting904@163.com) at Beijing October Arts & Literature Publishing House.

Ethnic ChinaLit Excerpt of the Week: The Nightjar at Dusk (黄昏夜莺)

So now the escapee nightjar and I were conspirators. I had to stay patient and play my part in its plot.

We stood a while longer, though of course the urgent call did not sound.

But the boy stood there motionless, gazing up at the spot where the bird had once perched. He already had what a hunter needs most, patience.

My feet were growing numb and I, at least, knew there was no point in waiting further.

“Maybe it’s gone,” I said, gently breaking the silence.

He murmured assent and lowered his head, then when I said nothing went back to watching. It’s a battle of endurance sometimes, to see who can be most patient. I was happy to lose.

“I didn’t see it fly off,” he said, unwilling to give up.

“Maybe it was too quick. It’s too dark to see.” I had to put it like that, or risk insulting him.

“Can’t have.” He wasn’t happy about it, but knew there was no hope.

“What kind of bird was it, anyway?”

“A jokjok.”

I could tell he had never heard this Evenki word before. He had so little of our traditional knowledge, our language. He spoke even less than I did.

Much of our old ways will be lost forever with the passing away of our old folk.

 

Extract from The Nightjar at Dusk, Pathlight Spring 2015 (p 28), by Gerelchimig Blackcrane (格日勒其木格・黒鶴)

 

Pathlight Spring 2015: A Handful of Pieces by Mongolian and Xinjiang-based Writers

Pathlight Spring 2015The new issue of Pathlight (Spring 2015) Chinese literature in translation is out. Its theme is Nature, and you can download the PDF for free here.A quick look at the contents reveals four pieces that fall at least loosely into the “ethnic-themed” fiction category:Two pieces by Mongolian writers:Wolves Walk Atwain (p 18)

Deng Yiguang (邓一光)

 

The Nightjar at Dusk (p 28)

Gerelchimig Blackcrane (黑鹤)

 

And this from/about a Han writer in Xinjiang:

A Village of One (p 56)

Interview with the Author (p 66)

Liu Liangcheng (刘亮程)

“Funeral of a Muslim”: Sales Top 3m, TV Series in the Pipeline

Sales of Funeral of a Muslim (穆斯林的葬礼, 霍达著), Huo Da’s classic saga of a Hui family in Beijing that spans the turbulent years of the Japanese invasion, World War II and part of the Cultural Revolution, have now topped three million copies, according to a press conference held in the capital on September 11 (突破). 

This arguably makes the tale, which won the Mao Dun Literature Award in 1991, the most popular ethnic-themed novel ever written by a non-Han writer — Huo Da is a Hui, who are principally ethnic Muslims numbering around ten million.

From the synopsis at Paper Republic:

If the novel is not well known in the West, neither are the Hui, the “other” dominant Muslim people in Funeral of a Muslim, by Huo DaChina 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.

Apart from its power as a tale of love and history, Funeral of a Muslim has played a unique role in introducing Islam to Chinese readers, many of whom know little about the Muslim communities that have made up a part of Chinese society for centuries. Apart from descriptions of Muslim customs and rituals, the novel was instrumental in launching public discussion of the essentially multi-cultural nature of China, even stirring up controversy for its direct address of latent ethnic tensions.

It continues to be a favorite with readers for its depiction of the ways in which the strictures of history, culture, and religion influence the courses of individual loves: guiding, shaping, curbing, destroying.

Like to read an English excerpt from the novel? Click here.

Several news items reported that at the news conference, Huo Da revealed she is negotiating the rights for a TV series to be based on her novel. The promotion of her novel and the possibility of a regular TV progam come at a time when China is at pains to highlight the fair treatment of Muslims, given the negative publicity generated by the 2014 Kunming train station attack, reportedly carried out by Uyghur separatists, and the government’s fierce crackdown on Uyghur culture in Xinjiang. By comparison with Uyghur, Hui are widely regarded in China as law-abiding, “good” Muslims who are better integrated into mainstream Chinese society.

On the literary translation front that targets international audiences, both Hui and Uyghur writers are getting a helping hand from the authorities. Since 2013, the China Writers Association has subsidized an ongoing project to enable translation and publication of fiction by ethnic writers (当代少数民族文学对外翻译工程), according to Li Jingze, Secretary of the China Writers Association (Export Strategies). Some 54 “projects” were undertaken in 2013-14, and “almost half have been published.”

I requested and received a list of those titles that have been published so far — 26 out the total 54. They include 6 by Hui and 2 by Uyghur writers:

A She (Uyghur): 奔跑的骨头 into Arabic, 阿舍著

Bao Dongni (Hui): 问题非儿 into Korean, 保冬妮著

Chen Cun (Hui): 象 into Farsi, 陈村著

Li Jinxiang (Hui): 换水 into Arabic, 李进祥著

Perhat Ilyas (Uyghur): 楼兰古国奇幻之旅 into English, 帕尔哈提·伊力牙斯著

Shi Shuqing (Hui): 灰袍子 into Arabic and 西海固的事情 into Japanese, 石舒清著

Zha Shun (Hui): 风流云散 into Arabic, 查瞬著

“Wolf Totem” Author Awarded Prize by World Mongol Authors Association

Wolf Totem in MongolianJiang Rong, the Han Chinese author of Wolf Totem (狼图腾, 姜戎著), has been awarded the “Genius Writer Prize” (Bichgiin Mergen Prize) by the World Mongol Authors Association based in Mongolia, according to a news item in Mongolia’s UB Post.  The novel is a semi-autobiographical novel about the experiences of a young student from Beijing “sent down” to the Inner Mongolian countryside 1967 during the Cultural Revolution.

According to a Chinese report (文豪奖) citing D. Boldbaatar, the Mongolian translator, since his translation into the Cyrillic hit the bookshelves in 2010 (left), it has sold 60,000 copies — effectively one copy for every 50 persons residing in Mongolia. An edition printed in the traditional Mongolian script is also to be distributed soon (below).

It is interesting to see how well the novel has apparently been received in Mongolia. Book sales and this new award seem to confirm that the Mongolians outside China find the portrayal of their herding culture as genuine. The much-hyped movie shot in Inner Mongolia by French director Jean-Jacques Anneau, however, proved somewhat controversial in China. According to a report in ChinaDaily Asia (Promoting Aggression): [Read more…]

Aug 2015 Update: Strategies for Exporting More of China’s Ethnic Fiction

I was invited to the “2015 Sino-foreign Literature Translation & Publishing Workshop” (2015 中外文学翻译研修班) that just ended in Beijing, but didn’t make it. It looks like it was a major happening with more than 50 translation and publishing professionals attending from 30+ countries. Check out the site here. Most of it is in Chinese, but the bios of the participants are in English too. Just click on the pix.

I suggested beforehand to the organizers that they discuss how to increase the overseas profile of China’s non-Han authors, and apparently they did. For a full-length news item on the discussion, read 少数民族文学 “走出去”步伐极须加快.

Since 2013, the China Writers Association has subsidized an ongoing project to enable translation and publication of

Adriana Martínez González, Chinese-to-Spanish translator

Adriana Martínez González, Chinese-to-Spanish translator

fiction by ethnic writers (当代少数民族文学对外翻译工程), according to Li Jingze, Secretary of the China Writers Association, who is cited in the news item. Some 54 “projects” were undertaken in 2013-14, and “almost half have been published.”

The report mentioned just a handful of translators and their works, including translations of various books about Muslim culture and literature in China into Arabic by Egyptian Shaimaa Kamal, and a book by Hui writer Ye Duoduo (叶多多), rendered in Spanish by Adriana Martínez González.

Several suggestions on how to better package ethnic fiction for an international readership were summarized in the news item. This included the need for China to cultivate “externally oriented” editors and publishing and sales managers.

Ironically, this is painfully obvious from the marketing of a collection of short pieces about the Lahu, entitled La vida cotidiana de las mujeres Lahu de Lancang (澜沧拉祜女子日常生活) published by Five Continents Press (五洲传播出版社) in 2015. I should note that it’s not clear from the report whether this particular book was financed via a grant from the China Writers Association. [Read more…]

“Last Quarter of the Moon”: Evenki Odyssey Captured in Chinese Novel Set in the Greater Khingan Mountains

My translation of Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸) can be ordered — e-book, hard cover and paperback — online at various places, including Amazon. Read the opening for free here (click on the cover), or the author’s Afterword.

For information on other editions, see: Dutch (Het laatste kwartier van de maan), French,  Italian (Ultimo quarto di Luna), Japanese (アルグン川の右岸), Spanish (A la orilla derecha del Río Argún ), and Turkish. 

If you’d like to peruse a book review, choose your language: ChineseEnglish, French, or Spanish. There’s also an in-depth interview with me about the novel in Chinese (中文采访).

Narrated in the first person by the aged wife of the last chieftain of an Evenki clan, the Right Bank of the Argun—as it is dubbed in Chinese — is a moving tale of the decline of reindeer-herding nomads in the sparsely populated, richly forested mountains that border on Russia.

At the end of the twentieth century an old woman sits among the birch trees and thinks back over her life, her loves, and the joys and tragedies that have befallen her family and her people. She is a member of the Evenki tribe who wander the remote forests of northeastern China with their herds of reindeer, living in close sympathy with nature at its most beautiful and cruel.

Over the last three centuries, three waves of outsiders have encroached upon the Evenki’s isolated way of life: the Russians, whose warring and plundering eventually pushed the Evenki down from Siberia across to the southern (“right”) bank of the Argun River, the tributary of the Amur that defines the Sino-Russian border; the Japanese, who forcibly recruit their men into the ranks of the Manchukuo Army; and the Han Chinese of the People’s Republic, who fell the forests that are crucial to the survival of reindeer, outlaw hunting, and eventually coerce the Evenki to leave the mountains for life in a “civilized” permanent settlement.

For an academic study of the ideologies behind the government’s official policy of resettling the Evenki—and an in-depth look at the psychological impact of divorcing them from their “reindeer lifeworld”— see Forced Relocation amongst the Reindeer Evenki of Inner Mongolia.

Visit Northern Hunting Culture for marvelous pictures of the Aoluguya Evenki, their lifestyle and handicrafts.

For a fascinating look at the etymology of names for rivers, mountains and forests in their homeland on either side of the Sino-Russian border, see Evenki Place Names behind the Hànzì.

Extract: “Back Quarters at Number 7” by Manchu Writer Ye Guangqin

Pathlight 2014 SpringIn Back Quarters at Number 7, Ye Guangqin recreates what it was like growing up Manchu in a traditional Beijing hutong during the early years of the New China. Once part of a prince’s stately residence, the Big Courtyard now belongs to the masses and serves as a venue for collective activities such as neighborhood meetings, or rehearsals for the Rice-Planting Dance performed on National Day.

Traditionally, at the very rear of a Qing Dynasty prince’s mansion one finds a two-floor structure that functioned to “enshroud and anchor the entire quadrangular compound.” These “back quarters” — “Number 7” in the cold military parlance of post-liberation Beijing in this tale — housed females. They were private and not easily accessible to men, even those of noble lineage, residing within the compound.

Herself a member of a Manchu family related to the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi, Ye Guangqin peppers this semi-autobiographical story with references to Manchu culture: the mysterious Zhen Gege, whose title “gege” means princess in Manchu (格格); jangkulembi (撞客), a sudden and inauspicious encounter with a spirit that can engender illness or bad fortune; and of course, the traditional art of story-telling among the Manchu that expressed itself during the Qing Dynasty both orally and through literature (Manchu Novelists).

Ironically, the fascination of two children with Grandpa Zhao’s tall tales ends in tragedy when the Cultural Revolution arrives, and Red Guards target class enemies — including remnants of the Qing ruling class.

The full text of the extract below has been published in Spring 2014 Pathlight, a quarterly featuring Chinese literature in translation. The original short story is entitled 后罩楼 and was written by Ye Guangqin (叶广芩).

* * * * *

Back Quarters at Number 7

(Original by Ye Guangqin, translated by Bruce Humes)

 

Grandpa Zhao was a Manchu Bannerman in one of just three elite Banners – there were eight total – personally commanded by the Emperor.

He said one of his ancestors had served in the Emperor’s personal guard at the Hall of Mental Cultivation in the Forbidden City. This relative had seen His Imperial Majesty as He wrote by a window, and watched Him strolling along palace verandas, so he must have been one of His bodyguards. How else could he have witnessed these details in the life of the True Dragon Emperor? [Read more…]