Bill Porter on “Yellow River Odyssey” and the Han

Perhaps better known as Red Pine, Bill Porter lived in Taiwan for several decades where he practiced Buddhism, authored books such as Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China, and famously translated Daoist and Buddhist canons into English. In Journeys, Poets and Best-Sellerdom in China, he speaks with Ian Johnson about his latest book in English, Yellow River Odyssey:

Q. [In Yellow River Odyssey] You also talk a lot about the non-Chinese people — the non-Han.

A. The reason I wanted to focus on the Yellow River is that’s where Chinese civilization began. By going up the river I’d get to its source and the source of Chinese culture. But what you see is that Chinese culture is a great mixture of peoples. Five thousand years ago, north China was not controlled by the Han Chinese. That sort of started with the Yellow Emperor defeating the Miao people at the Battle of Zhuolu. Until then, north China was up for grabs. I felt that traveling there. Even today a lot of north China isn’t entirely Chinese. There are Mongolians, Hui and others. It becomes obvious when you travel the length of the Yellow River that it was a series of accidents that led to the ascendency of the Han.

Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Chatting with Guóbǎo

Murong Xuecun, author of Leave Me Alone Tonight, Chengdu, was in Australia when several intellectuals and activistsMurong Xuecun got together in Beijing this year to commemorate the anniversary of the 1989 “June 4th Incident.” Several of those who were there have since been arrested, such as civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), and in order to call attention to their plight, he turned himself in to the police and admitted that while not present at the gathering, he had contributed an essay for their discussion. Here is his description of the ensuing questioning session with the 国保, or Guóbǎo (Inside a Beijing Interrogation Room): 

Then we discussed the Tiananmen Square incident itself. I argued that under no circumstances should the government have ordered the army to shoot at unarmed civilians, let alone dispatch tanks to roll onto the streets of Beijing. The officers did not agree or disagree with me; they just kept asking questions: Do you know what the overall situation was? Do you know what was happening in international affairs at the time? Do you know how many soldiers were beaten or burned to death?

The conversation turned to whether I had broken the law. I told them that I assumed they thought I did because they arrested my friends who were at the Tiananmen commemoration. The officers didn’t like that I made the law sound capricious. The law is not about what they “think,” one of them said. The police, the officer said, had arrested my friends because they broke the law.

Next we discussed whether citizens “must obey the law.” I said good laws should be obeyed but evil laws must be challenged. They strongly disagreed, insisting that the law must be obeyed whether it’s good or evil.

“And you’re a graduate of the China University of Political Science and Law, eh?” the younger one asked mockingly.

I began to talk about Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience, but quickly felt like a ridiculous pedant. What’s the point of talking about the virtues of civil disobedience in a Beijing police station?

56-year-old “Manas” Libretto Surfaces

Wumir Maoliduo (吾米尔·毛力多), a 76-year-old retired cadre in Xinjiang, has donated his hand-copied Manas (玛纳斯) manuscript to the Writer’s Association of Ulugqat, Kizilsu (手抄本).  It is the epic poem of the Kyrgyz people, a trilogy which “tells the story of Manas, his descendants and his followers. Battles against Khitan and Oirat enemies form a central theme in the epic.”(Wikipedia)

According to the report, he first encountered the original manuscript in 1958 while visiting the Kyrgyz historian 艾尼瓦尔·白吐尔 , but upon realizing that this was the actual libretto — 570,000 lines long — used by the famed manaschi 艾什玛特·玛木别朱素普 when he performed the classic, Wumir Maoliduo decided to copy it by hand.

During the Cultural Revolution, the original and several other copies of Manas manuscripts were destroyed. But Wumir Maoliduo wrapped his hand-copied manuscript in three layers of kraft paper, and hid it in his courtyard until recently.

There are several noteworthy things about this brief report:

  • The word “Kyrgyz” is not used to describe the cadre, the epic poem or the language used in the manuscript;
  • No explanation is offered as to why — almost four decades after the Cultural Revolution — the cadre continued hiding the text;
  • China successfully registered the Epic of Manas as an Intangible Cultural Heritage with Unesco back in 2009. This has since been vigorously contested by Kyrgyzstan officials — who maintain they were not informed about China’s application for recognition — since they consider it “an artifact of Kyrgyz nationhood.” (see Kyrgyzstan Protests)

For more information on Manas, see also:

Interview with Director of Xinjiang Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center

Master Manaschi Jusup Mamay Passes from the Scene

Manas Epic Singger Jusup Mamay on “Dream-Teaching”

3 New Books Document Manchu-Tungusic Languages, Feature Multilingual Glossaries

A conference was recently held in Beijing by China Social Sciences Press to celebrate the publication earlier this year of three scholarly works of interest to researchers of Manchu-Tungus languages (研讨会). They are all authored by Dulor Osor Chog (aka Chao Ke, 朝克) an Evenki who holds a Ph D. in Japanese Culture and Language that was earned in Japan. All three are mainly in Chinese but have indexes in various languages including English (English titles below are publisher’s, not mine):

满通古斯语族语言词源研究 (Etymological Research of Manchu-Tungusic Language)

  • Includes references to vocabulary with Mongolian, Altaic and Mandarin roots.

满通古斯语族语言研究史论 (Research History of Manchu-Tungusic Language)

  • Lists and assesses various reference works.

满通古斯语族语言词汇比较 (Comparison of Manchu-Tungusic Basic Vocabulary)

  • Includes 5-language glossary of vocabulary in Manchu, Xibe, Evenki, Oroqen and Hezhen, as well as a limited number of Jurchen words. Indexed in Chinese and English.

Hong Kong Book Fair (Jul 16-22): Seminar Topics Push the Envelope

A glance at the topics for seminars starring Chinese writers seem a tad provocative: “KMT Party Member Mao Zedong”; “Hong Kong and Taiwan Literature in the Era of Resistance”; “Mainland Writers — Luxury and Dilemma”.

Glad I don’t have to sell those topics to my Mainland Minder!

At any rate, the schedule for the book fair’s Famous Chinese Writer Seminar Series (名作家讲座系列) is online now here. It is in Chinese, and these seminars will be in Cantonese/Mandarin.

Here are a few of the writers who will be there:

Wu Ming-yi (吴明益); Yan Lianke (阎连科); Li Ao (李敖); Yan Geling (严歌苓); Chen Xue (陈雪); Jiang Fangzhou (蒋方舟)

徐穆实受访:人民日报海外版转载 “建立驻地翻译基金” 的建议

Humes Proposes Translation-in-Residence Fund莫言获诺贝尔文学奖、麦家小说在海外畅销,外国翻译家功不可没。他们以优美的本国语言、适合西方人阅读的视角进行翻译,将中文图书接引到彼岸并焕发出神秘光彩。

最近,美国中文翻译家徐穆实(Bruce Humes)在个人网站上刊出公开信,就中国有关机构近年来推动的文学外译提出若干具体建议,将中国文学“走出去”的战略落到实处:






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)

Siberia: 21st Century Greater China Territory?

In Why China Will Reclaim Siberia, Frank Jacobs explains how vulnerable Russia’s northeastern territory is to eventual annexation by the awakened dragon to the south. What if China were to—à la Putin in Crimea—”hand out passports to sympathizers in contested areas, then move in militarily to ‘protect its citizens’ “? Certainly, that scenario is still far off, but large numbers of (rather successful) Chinese businesspeople have already emigrated there. An excerpt from Jacobs’ essay:

Siberia – the Asian part of Russia, east of the Ural Mountains – is immense. It takes up three-quarters of Russia’s land mass, the equivalent of the entire U.S. and India put together. It’s hard to imagine such a vast area changing hands. But like love, a border is real only if both sides believe in it. And on both sides of the Sino-Russian border, that belief is wavering.

The border, all 2,738 miles of it, is the legacy of the Convention of Peking of 1860 and other unequal pacts between a strong, expanding Russia and a weakened China after the Second Opium War. (Other European powers similarly encroached upon China, but from the south. Hence the former British foothold in Hong Kong, for example.)

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...]

Altaic Storytelling Quote of the Week: Mathematics of “One Country, Two Systems”

However many people take part in Hong Kong’s illegal public vote, there will never be as many as 1.3 billion

(June 23, 2014 headline in Chinese-language 环球时报 (Global Times), a reference to the unofficial referendum on how the next leader of Hong Kong should be chosen. As of June 25, over 700,000 Hong Kong citizens had already voted.)