Coming to China in 2015: A Facebook Free of Unpleasantness?

Just a few weeks ago Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg showed up in China and blew people’s minds by delivering a speech in pǔtōnghuà. Well .Meng Huang arrested in Stockholm . . something like pǔtōnghuà (mouth full of marbles).

The next phase in Facebook’s Long March to appear in the Forbidden City? Ensure that account holders get with the agenda, and post only politically correct stuff. Pictures like this definitely don’t meet the social media web site’s tough standards, apparently.

Nor do real-life pictures of Tibetan Buddhists sacrificing themselves in order to show their discontent with Chinese rule. After all, it’s quite unpleasant to see that sort of thing, isn’t it?

Read about how Facebook has begun censoring the accounts of Chinese activists: Facebook Blocks Account of Liao Yiwu, Exiled Chinese Writer, and Facebook Deletes Post on Tibetan Monk’s Self-immolation.

Note to “The Diplomat” and Shannon Tiezzi: Uyghur is Not a Dialect of Chinese

In her Dec 24 analysis of a document designed to guide China’s future ethnic policies, China’s Prescription for ‘Improving Ethnic Work’, Shannon Tiezzi makes a reference to “local dialects”:

The document attempts to address governance and policy issues as well, starting with the sensitive topic of language. Beijing reiterates that all officials, including those from minority groups, must learn Mandarin. However, the document also urges Han officials to learn the local dialects in use where they are stationed. As James Palmer noted for Foreign Policy, though, such well-meaning directives are often disregarded by local officials. “Han officials are encouraged by official directives to learn Uyghur, but, despite the availability of excellent Uyghur-Chinese textbooks, it is rare for any of them to make it past the level of ‘Hello,’” Palmer writes.

No doubt Palmer’s observation is correct. But Tiezzi’s use of Uyghur as an example, and use of the term “local dialects,” are both very unfortunate.

First of all, Uyghur is not a Sinitic language or a dialect of Mandarin. It is a member of the Turkic language family. [Read more…]

2014: Year of the Chinese Literary Prize (Scandal)?

“If 2013 was ‘Mo Yan Year’, then 2014 was ‘Year of the Literary Prize’ ” writes Chen Mengxi (陈梦溪) at the Beijing Evening News.

“I hope that no one will come to blows, or bite anyone. It’s precisely because everyone’s aesthetic preferences are different, so we need a variety of awards in order to express the breadth and variety of literature today.”

“I hope that no one will come to blows, or bite anyone,” opined literary critic Li Jingze. “It’s precisely because everyone’s aesthetic preferences are different, so we need a variety of awards in order to express the breadth and variety of literature today.”

Indeed. It’s got the makings of a good scandal: transparency and fairness of the voting were loudly questioned in social media, new-fangled prizes not sponsored by the state — or even registered with it — popped up like mushrooms after a spring rain, and the powers-that-be even stepped in to forbid one long-running competition from presenting its (traditionally rather hefty) cash award this year.

At one point, a heavyweight in China’s literary world, Alai, nearly went ballistic when his new work didn’t receive the recognition he thought it deserved. Reports The Shenzhen Daily (National Literature Prize Raises Questions):

His [Alai’s] nonfiction novel, “The 200 Year Legend of Kangba [瞻对],” gained zero votes in the category of “reportage.” He is now planning to launch an investigation into the prize’s selection process.

    “I was very shocked by the news. I could not say that I was the best, but it was impossible for me to get zero votes. I very much doubt the fairness of the selection,” he said. “If it was some other prize, I would not care that much. However, the Lu Xun Literature Prize is a national award. As a taxpayer, I have the right to check the result.”

Even literary critic and editor-in-chief of People’s Literature magazine, Li Jingze (above right), recently weighed in concerning this year’s awards controversy (评奖). “I hope that no one will come to blows, or bite anyone. It’s precisely because everyone’s aesthetic preferences are different, so we need a variety of awards in order to express the breadth and variety of literature today.”

Sounds like good fun, eh? It reminds me a bit of those vignettes of fisticuffs that take place occasionally in Taiwan’s often-less-than-civil Legislative Yuan. Democracy is messy, of course, and while China’s literary scene is hardly suffering from a bout of mínzhǔ zhǔyì, the masses are beginning to make themselves heard.

And it’s about time. Three years ago, in 2011 Mao Dun Literature Prize: Recognizing Fine Literature or Rewarding Writer-Officials?, I reported on the hubbub over the fact that, according to the China Daily, “eight of the top 10 on the [winner’s] list are chairpersons or vice-chairpersons of provincial Writers’ Associations.” Here’s what the Guangzhou Daily had to say about such shenanigans:

Official status cannot and should not be a criterion for literary excellence. That’s why people doubt the authenticity of prizes that are awarded to officials for their literary achievements. According to some media reports, even some national literary awards have been awarded to officials.

Fast-forward to the present. If you can read Chinese, check out Chen Mengxi’s article taking stock of this year’s awards, 盘点 2014 年文学奖 . Otherwise, keep reading for my summary below. [Read more…]

Critics Diss List of “Most Influential” Translated Chinese Fiction, Caution Authors to Target their Compatriots

If the headline had read “Overworked Foreign Librairians Opt for Mai Jia’s Popular ‘Decoded’ Over Chinese Classics” probably no one would have noticed.

But the table was captioned “Globally Most Influential Contemporary Chinese Literature in Translation in 2014” (2014 年世界影响力最大的中国当代文学译作). In China, perhaps nothing strikes a nerve more sharply than foreign perceptions — and ranking — of Things Chinese.

In fact, the “2014 Most Influential” ranking (see here) is little more than a list of the number of overseas librairies that have purchased at least one copy of a modern Chinese work of fiction in translation. Never mind that only English translations are included, and it’s not clear if the purchases were made this year.

Not surprisingly, popular novels by Mai Jia, Yu Hua and Mo Yan figure prominently. Some critics — and perhaps not a few authors who didn’t make the list — are outraged.

Hong Kong’s influential daily Wen Wei Po has responded (图书馆收藏) with a lengthy if somewhat xenophobic rebuttal of the value of the ranking, and closes with this cautionary note:

Not a few commentators hold the opinion that every writer should actually address the readership in his own land that speaks his language, and with whom he shares a common history and destiny. In other words, the fundamental question is: For whom is the work written, who shall be its premier reader? Only when this is the case, then if our writers become aware of the existence of others readers in the world, this will not be a bad thing.

What’s the thinking behind this call for Chinese writers to prioritize their compatriots? Here are the main points buttressing this argument:

The list is hardly authoritative

  • Mai Jia’s Decoded is an example of “genre fiction.” But says Peng Lun, editor at 99read.com, “genre fiction does not represent all fiction.” And, he adds, market-wide sales — not just library purchases — are a more reliable indicator of influence.

Issues of Translator Nationality, Outdated Foreign Tastes

  • “Behind a series of Chinese contemporary works that have elicited attention overseas in recent years . . . there is always a foreign translator.” (See Foreign Devil Translators for background on this touchy topic.)
  • Foreigners’ preferences for Chinese literature are still “back in the era of Lin Qinnan,” says the article. It’s not clear if this is the opinion of reporter Shao Ling (邵岭) or one of his interviewees. Anyhow, it’s a bizarre reference. Lin Qinnan, better known as Lin Shu (林紓), lived during 1852-1924, and according to Wikipedia, he collaborated with others to render more than 170 English and French titles in literary Chinese. The only catch: he didn’t speak any foreign language.

Dangers of over-emphasizing foreign readership

  • Luo Gang, professor in the Chinese Department at East China Normal University, points out that authors worldwide don’t write to be translated, and today’s Chinese writers should be no exception. If they single-mindedly strive for recognition from foreign readers — and this becomes a trend — their writing will lack “cultural awareness and confidence.”

Karamay Taxi Dashboard: Bearded Men, Women in Hijab “Fēi zhèngcháng”

In Taxi Ride in Xinjiang Reveals Ethnic Strains, Jonah Kessel features a picture of a sign on the driver’s dashboard that he took in the city of Karamay, a Xinjiang oil boom town where Han account for 80 percent of the population.

The left of the sign features pictures of women in acceptable “traditional Uyghur” dress, while the right side is labeled “These abnormal ‘five types’ of people are forbidden to access public places,” and shows bearded men, and women in various forms of Muslim headdress from the head-to-toe burqa to hijab which merely covers the hair and neck, while the face remains fully visible. This sort of hijab is widely donned in moderate Muslim societies such as Turkey and by Muslims in Malaysia, and — to the best of my knowledge — has not been banned in any country in the West. France has, however, banned full-face veils such as the burqa and niqab. See here for an all-in-one infographic.

Customers matching the “five types” description (非正常 “五类” 形式) can be refused a ride in Karamay.

Says the taxi driver:

“Five years ago, there were a lot of people dressing like that, wearing veils and only exposing their faces,” she said. “Now the government regulates this strictly, so there aren’t so many.”

She welcomed the change. As we pulled up to a crumbling Uighur neighborhood, she said, “When I first came here, I was afraid when I saw people dressing like that.”

For a close-up of widely posted signage illustrating the problematic garb, see here.

Confucius Institutes: Contested by North American Academics but Expanding Fast Worldwide

The numbers are impressive: China’s government-sponsored Confucius Institutes (CIs)— first opened abroad a decade ago — are now located in 126 countries. They comprise 475 institutes and 851 smaller “Confucius Classrooms” (CCs), and in 2014 alone, 35 CIs and 205 CCs opened their doors across the globe (list).

Confucius Institutes are founded primarily to promote Chinese language and culture, and in many ways are similar to Britain’s British Council, France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe-Institut. According to Wikipedia (Confucius Institute), however, unlike these organizations:

. . . Confucius Institutes operate within established universities, colleges, and secondary schools around the world, providing funding, teachers and educational materials. This has raised concerns over their influence on academic freedom, the possibility of industrial espionage, and concerns that the institutes present a selective and politicized view of China as a means of advancing the country’s soft power internationally.

At a time when universities in the West are slashing budgets for humanities and foreign language teaching, such China-sponsored largesse has obvious appeal.

Seen as a “Trojan Horse” by some, the Confucius Institute practice of “embedding” itself in universities has alarmed some academics in the US and Canada in particular.  According to the BBC:

Last December the Canadian Association of University Teachers called on all universities currently hosting Confucius Institutes to cease doing so.

And in June this year the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) made the same call to US universities.

Whatever strengths the Confucius Institutes bring to the table, on-camera PR is apparently not one. You might want to check out Hard Side of China’s Soft Power, which includes a filmed interview by the BBC with the head of Hanban (汉办), the government agency that runs the international network of Confucius Institutes. Some of the questions seem a bit obnoxious, admittedly; but someone needs to send China’s spokespeople back to school to learn about how to deal with ornery Western reporters. Insisting the BBC delete portions of its live interviews, for one, is not a strategy likely to win friends and influence people.

Ah, yes. And the official site: Confucius Institute Online

Pix and English-language Bios of 40 Chinese Poets

Interested in modern Chinese poetry and the people who write it? You might want to visit Poetry International Rotterdam’s web page that features pix of the poets plus lengthy introductions in English:

http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/country/item/14/China

China & “King Gesar”: Challenges of Putting an Oral Epic to Paper

Gesar Storyteller (格萨尔王说唱艺人)In a Q & A (艺人及其抢救) with Dr. Yang Enhong, Yao Hui of the Institute of Ethnic Literature (China Academy of Social Sciences) succeeds in extracting fascinating details about how Drakpa (གྲགས་པ།,扎巴), a master storyteller (说唱艺人) of the Tibetan oral epic King Gesar was discovered, and his performances preserved in audio recordings and in written form — the first such documentation project in China. Eventually, during 1978-86  he was persuaded to record some 26 parts of the monumental epic, and 17 volumes of his lyrics were subsequently published.

Dr. Yang Enhong (杨恩洪) took part in the project, and is former Director of the National “Gesar” Leading Workgroup (全国《格萨尔》工作领导小组办公室主任).

Here is a brief excerpt from the Q & A that I’ve translated because it highlights a sensitive issue: How to maintain faithfulness to the original narration as dynamic voiced content is “textualized”?

The following is part of  Dr. Yang Enhong’s answer regarding the sort of difficulties that arise when carrying out such a conversion:

The Finnish epics expert [Lauri] Honko once said this, which left me with a deep impression: “The greatest benefit to putting an orally transmitted epic down on paper is that it endows it with a second life — people can access it by reading the written word.”  This is truly important.

During the process of progressing from oral to written transmission, however, I believe there are many issues that we need to consider carefully. How should we undertake textualization?

. . . Some of our scholars, including Tibetan ones, hold the opinion that folk storytellers and renditions by the common people employ a vulgar, unrefined language. So during compilation, all wording deemed rambling, repetitious, inconcise or redundant is changed or deleted, and then adapted according to one’s personal literary standards. They think that by means of such ameliorations a fine work will emerge. To the contrary, this serves to distort the features of genuine folk literature. Such a work may have a certain value when read, but academically, it possesses no research value.

Within China’s academia and among Gesar scholars the phenomena of willful adaptation still exists. Perhaps a certain scholar speaks the Amdo dialect and does not understand the Naqchu or Chamdo dialects, so he changes the text to Amdo. After adaptation, such a version’s academic value will be greatly reduced. And there are even those who merge many elements, massaging them into a pastiche comprising the best parts of each storyteller’s rendition, handwritten libretto, block book or actual lyrics, and edit them into a finished tome. In his estimation, this is a highly refined work. But in fact, I think not. This is equivalent to maltreating the original nature of the epic, which is now neither fish nor fowl.

Once I went abroad to ask the opinion of several respected scholars regarding this phenomenon. France’s [Anne-] Marie Blondeau, for instance, who is a famous Tibetologist. “That’s unacceptable,” she said. “I would definitely not consult such a version. And for research purposes, I absolutely would not use it.”

I personally sought advice from the German Professor Walther Heissig, an expert in Mongolian epics, explaining that there were differences in opinion regarding the version [of King Gesar] we were compiling. Could we proceed with a hybrid version? “No,” he replied. “That’s known as ‘cooking together’.”

Shangrila: The Appeal of Tibetan Buddhism to China’s Spiritually Ailing Nouveaux Riches

In China’s Wealthy Turning to Spiritualism, John Osburg, University of Rochester assistant professor of anthropology, talks about how many of China’s new rich — tired of “courting government officials at night clubs,” a scenario often involving over-drinking and paid sex  — are turning toward Tibetan Buddhism and other forms of spiritual fulfillment:

Q. Why Tibetan Buddhism and not Chinese Buddhism?

A. There’s a sense among Han Chinese that it’s been less corrupted by the cultural and political upheavals of the past 60 years. Their ideas about Tibetan Buddhism also mirror many of their images of Tibet itself as being pre-modern, spiritualistic, happy. I get told that a lot. There’s a perception among Han that Tibetans are “happy” people and that belief in Buddhism is a key enabler of their happiness.

Also, Tibetan Buddhism is seen as more mysterious, powerful and efficacious than Chinese Buddhism. I’m just beginning to research this, but I think the practice draws them in as well. I don’t think Chinese Buddhism puts as much emphasis on practices like repetition of sutras and ritual prostrations for lay followers. Han Chinese often call it their gongke — their homework — this set of rituals and practices to follow in their daily lives.

Yunnan Training Session for Tibetan Writers and Translators

As I’ve reported before (Sessions), the editors at China’s very official Nationalities Literature Magazine (民族文学), which appears in 6 editions — Kazakh, Uyghur, Mongolian, Korean, Tibetan and plus Mandarin — are heading up a nationwide series of “rewriting/editing training courses” (改稿班). The latest took place in Yunnan’s Deqing in late November (藏文改稿班), and brought together more than 30 (mainly) Tibetan writers and their translators, along with editors of the Tibetan edition of the magazine and, inevitably, several highly placed, omnipresent literary apparatchiks.

Why Deqing rather than Tibet proper? According to Hu Xingneng, Deputy Secretary of the Yunnan Branch of the China Writers Association, one reason is the fact that Deqing is home to several “Tibetan-themed” authors, including 查拉独基, 阿布司南, 央金拉姆 and 永吉卓玛 .

A list of trainees at these sessions — curiously, not limited to ethnic Tibetans — tends to read like a Who’s Who in the “ethnic” writing scene, so I note here that among the participating writers and translators were:

任芙康, 黄佩华 (Zhuang), 陈德宏, 吴基伟, Salhinhee (哈森, translator of Ayunga’s 满巴扎仓 from the Mongolian), 鲁若迪基 (Pumi), 扎巴, 阿布斯南, 张国华, 普日科, Tashi Dhondup (扎西东主), Ngawang Tsering (达哇才让), 敖见, 才忠吉, 董圆,  Tsering Tashi (才让扎西,大普琼, 希多才让, Yangchen Lhamo (央今拉姆), 桑巴, Lhagya Tashi (拉加扎西), and Tashi Nyima (扎西尼玛).

An interesting factoid that emerged in the report: the Tibetan edition of Nationalities Literature Magazine (藏文版) is distributed to 3,750+ Buddhist temples and monasteries nationwide.