“Bisezhai Village” (碧色寨): Chronicling the Collision of Cultures behind the Building of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railroad

Kunming-based Fan Wen (范稳), author of  a trilogy set on the border of Yunnan and Tibet, has launched a new novel exploring the history of the Yunnan-Vietnam railway that linked Haiphong with Kunming in 1910. Bisezhai Village (碧色寨) portrays the clash of cultures between the French, then colonial masters of Indochina just south of Yunnan and the driving force behind the new railway, and the indigenous Yi people (彝族).The completion of the railway through the mountainous terrain was an incredible engineering feat at the time, and its famous gravity-defying Wishbone Bridge (人字桥) is still firmly intact with nary a repair to date.  Estimates are that the project cost more than ten thousand Chinese laborers their lives.

Annie Zhao, a recent emigrant to Kunming, has written a brief book review of Bisezhai Village. Click here for the review in Chinese (中文书评), and for the English version, see below. [Read more…]

Selling “Shanghai Baby” to the Hungry Masses

Writing in the China Daily (The Slim Years), Chitralekha Basu looks at how translated Chinese fiction has fared since 2000:

The last book to have notched up outstanding sales in the English-speaking market is Shanghai Baby [上海宝贝] by Wei Hui (translated by Bruce Humes/Robinson Publishing UK) in 2001. The somewhat morbid tale of a waitress-turned-writer of erotic novels—torn between an artist who overdoes on heroin and a German businessman who she knows is cheating on her—is thought to have sold over 300,000 copies.

Please note—that sales figure wasn’t provided by me! But if you’d like to know a bit more about that translation project, see Bruce Humes and his Shanghai Baby.

Synopsis: Ran Ping’s “Legend of Mongolia”

Legend of Mongolia (蒙古往事) is a fictionalized biography of Genghis Khan, the leader who united the fiercely independent tribes known today as the Mongols, thanks to his iron resolve, military savvy, shrewd alliances, and willingness to shed blood.

Written mainly in Chinese prose, the book is peppered with original poems by the author, Mongolian words, and citations from an enigmatic 14th-century work, Secret History of the Mongols (蒙古秘史). What emerges is a stark and personal view of Temüjin, the man who became the Khan of Khans, as envisaged by writer Ran Ping (冉平).

A Han Chinese who neither speaks nor reads Mongolian, the author has arguably molded the very image of Genghis Khan among contemporary Chinese through a TV series based on his screenplays (“Genghis Khan,” 26 episodes, 1991), the script for an award-winning movie (“Genghis Khan and his Mother,” 1997), and more recently this popular novel, Legend of Mongolia, short-listed for the Mao Dun Literary Prize in 2008.

For my complete synopsis, click here. If you are interested in the author’s use of Mongolian terminology in the Chinese novel, see also 《蒙古往事》及其汉化的蒙古语.

Hakka and Minnan “tulou”: Former Residents Emigrate, Opt for Indoor Plumbing

The New York Times has just published Monuments to Clan Life Are Losing their Appeal, a marvelous look at the state of tulou (土楼) built by Hakka and Minnan in Fujian. These communal structures, usually but not always round, housed dozens of families from the same clan:

Yongding, China—The gargantuan buildings are so iconic that they appear on a Chinese stamp. The most famous have distinctive round shapes, appearing from a distance like flying saucers that have plopped down in the middle of farm fields. Some were reportedly mistaken for missile silos by American officials poring over satellite images.

But the thousands of “earthern buildings” here, built by the ethnic Hakka and Minnan people of rural Fujian Province, are the ultimate architectural expression of clan existence in China.

For centuries, each building, called a tulou in Mandarin Chinese, would house an entire clan, virtually a village. Everyone living inside would have the same surname, except for those who married into the clan. The tulou usually tower four floors and have up to hundreds of rooms that open out onto a vast central courtyard, like the Colosseum.

The outer walls, made of rammed earth, protected against bandits. The forms vary. Many are square, resembling medieval keeps. With stockpiles of food, people could live for months without setting foot outside the tulou.

But as the clan traditions of China dwindle today, more and more people are moving out of the tulou to live in modern apartments with conveniences absent from the earthen buildings—indoor toilets, for example.

Also of interest is a book by Huang Hanmin (黄汉民) published only in Chinese (I believe), 《福建土楼》(Fújiàn tǔ lóu).

You might think that China’s media minders would be fairly happy with this report, but when it was translated and published in Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息) on March 24 (美报称福建土楼对居民失去吸引力), large chunks of it were deleted.

Cankao Xiaoxi is a respected and influential Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history, and in many cities across China it sells out every day before noon. Virtually no English is used and little or no content is added. But references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often “airbrushed.” For earlier coverage of how Cankao Xiaoxi repackages foreign newspaper reportage for domestic eyeballs, check out But where are Pederasty, Passion and the Dalai Lama? or Just Say “No” to Orgasms.

Here is some of the copy that appeared in the New York Times report but was deleted from the Chinese version:

  • “President Hu Jintao visited them [some tulou] during the 2010 Lunar New Year festivities”
  • “One afternoon, they [elderly residents] were moving firewood stacked outside the front entrance of the tulou to nearby storage sheds; the local government had asked them to do this to hide the messy stacks from tourists.”
  • “Chinese officials tried smashing the clan system during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Collectives built more and more tulou and randomly assigned people to live in the buildings, so each clan would have members spread among different collectives. When the Cultural Revolution ended, people drifted back to their clans.”
  • ” ‘People don’t clean it [Huan Xing tulou] anymore,’ said Jiang Qing, 28. . .’As long as people live here, the ecosystem thrives. Once people move out, then it all falls apart.’ “
  • “Mr. Huang, the scholar. . .’What they’ve preserved is just the structure, but the people have all moved out,’ he said. ‘So the living part has died. You’re just preserving a relic.’ “

Phags-pa Script: Tibetan Links to Kublai Khan’s Unified Script for his Empire

A volume devoted to a Yuan Dynasty script inspired by written Tibetan, Collection of Phags-pa Inscriptions and Annotations (八思巴文碑刻文物集释), will soon be launched. Editor Cai Meibiao (蔡美彪) says the book gathers some 60 years of scholarship.

Chinanews.com has published interviews with two scholars who have spent years studying the script.

Kublai Khan commissioned the creation of a unified script for the vast Mongolian-controlled, multilingual Empire of the Great Khan (1271-1368), known in China as the Yuan Dynasty. To do the Khan’s bidding, Tibetan Lama Drogön Chögyal Phagpa extended his native Tibetan script to encompass the sounds of the empire’s disparate languages such as Turkic, Mongol, Chinese and Tibetan. Now dubbed the “Phags-pa script,” it consisted of 38 letters written vertically. Experts classify it an abugida, i.e., a segmental writing system based on consonants wherein vowel notation is obligatory but secondary, in contrast to European languages where vowels and consonants have equal status.

The Phags-pa script (八思巴文, or 蒙古新字) was never widely accepted and fell into disuse with the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368. But scholars such as Gary Ledyard believe that the hangul alphabet, Korea’s national language, may have links to the alphasyllabary. Significantly, the script also provides linguistic clues about the evolution of Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian during the Yuan era.

Perhaps surprisingly, many extant examples of the writing are to be found in traditionally Tibetan regions. “The Phags-pa script was once the official written language of the Yuan Dynasty,” says scholar Wuli Jibaiyila (乌力吉白乙拉), “and for that reason there should be many written records, but they simply haven’t been uncovered yet.

“But there are many Phags-pa relics among the people and in temples in the Tibetan region, particularly variant forms, many of which contain errors. Among temples, inscriptions at the Potala Palace are the best preserved, but they can’t be photographed so I haven’t been able to put them in order. Since Phags-pa [the script’s Tibetan creator] himself was the fifth-generation founder of the Sakya Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Phags-pa script was passed down within Tibetan areas, and continued to be used particularly as a form of Tibetan calligraphy.”

Naxi Script Resource Center: One-stop Resource for Naxi Dongba Script Fans

This new blog is hosted by Duncan Poupard, who studied Chinese and Tibetan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and has studied the Naxi pictographic script at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences (Lijiang). His mission:

This site is designed to be an accessible, one-stop resource and blog for those who wish to learn more about the Naxi Dongba script and the culture of Lijiang (丽江), in China’s Yunnan province.

The first problem for the average Western enthusiast is this: about 98% of all material related to the scripts is in Chinese.  Even the huge research project undertaken by the Dongba Culture Research Institute that translated a large chunk of the Dongba scriptures was conducted in Chinese, save for a few poorly translated abstracts. This is a great shame, especially when you keep in mind that it was in fact a western scholar/explorer, Joseph Rock, who opened the door to Naxi studies.

The second problem is that unlike more popular scripts, such as Chinese and Tibetan, there are virtually no online resources to aid in the study of the Naxi Dongba script.

These humble pages are an attempt to redress the balance, to provide the English-speaking enthusiast and interested reader with a collection of study aids, book reviews, articles and other items of interest that will hopefully help them to get to grips with this most fascinating of scripts.

Fine-tuning the Spin: Xinjiang’s Awkward Not-so-Chinese Mummies

Uh-oh. Looks like those suspiciously Caucasian mummies from Xinjiang are making trouble again. Or so says an AP report in early January 2011:

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A museum just days away from opening a long-awaited exhibit including two mummies and other historical artifacts from China is gutting the display of all objects at the request of Chinese officials, the museum announced Wednesday.

The artifacts were part of “Secrets of the Silk Road,” which is scheduled to open Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. The exhibit has already traveled to museums in California and Texas without issue. Visitors to the Philadelphia museum will see a pared-down exhibit.

But China’s sensitivities about mummies with Caucasian features unearthed in Xinjiang are long-standing. Here’s a piece I wrote last year showing how foreign news reports about these mummies are translated into Chinese and then edited to ensure political correctness:

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Imagine you work for the China Unity Department: It’s your 24/7 mission to convey that, more or less since Day One, the Middle Kingdom has ruled all the land claimed by the PRC, including Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. [Read more…]

“Canticle to the Land:” Named One of Top Ten Books of the Year by “China Reading Weekly”

The last novel in Fan Wen’s Yunnan-Tibetan trilogy, Canticle to the Land (大地雅歌), has been designated as one of the top ten Chinese books published in 2010 by China Reading Weekly (中华读书报), an influential B2B publication serving China’s publishing industry.

To learn more about this novel, visit:

La langue Shui: Objet de recherche

D’après l’edition française du quotidien China Daily (2010.12.24):

Les Shui constituent une petite minorité ethnique des 400 mille habitants dans la province du Guizhou, dans le Sud-ouest de la Chine.

Comme bon nombre des 55 autres ethnies de la Chine, les Shui ont un passé très ancien et mystérieux. On pense que les ancêtres des Shui vivaient dans les plaines centrales il y a des milliers d’années, avant que les guerres ne les poussent vers le Sud.

Le Shuishu (水书), l’écriture du peuple Shui (水族), est une rare langue pictographique considérée comme un “fossile vivant”. Des livres écrits dans cette langue ont archivé les acquisitions encyclopédiques obtenues par le peuple de la minorité Shui en matière d’astronomie, de géographie, de religion, de coutumes folkloriques, d’éthique, de philosophie, d’esthétique et de lois.

“Chinese Book Publishing Industry Liberalizes”: But Where are Pederasty, Passion and the Dalai Lama?

It’s always good fun to observe how the Chinese media exercises censorship even as it seeks to use the foreign press to trumpet the PRC’s modernity and openness. An article in today’s Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息), China’s Book Publishing Industry Gradually Liberalizes (中国图书产业逐渐变的开放), is a marvelous case in point. It is an edited translation of an article which appeared in the New York Times, “Book Publishers Scramble for Chinese Readers.”

Cankao Xiaoxi is a respected and influential Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history, and in many cities across China it sells out every day before noon. Virtually no English is used and little or no content is added. But references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often “airbrushed.”

As usual in my pieces on Cankao Xiaoxi, I run the original English copy immediately below. For the benefit of English speakers who cannot read the Chinese version published and distributed throughout China, I cross out the English words that were deleted when the article was translated, and indicate any added copy (normally just for readability) by putting it [in brackets]. Highlights:

  • Several phrases and even some quotes referring to love between males have been “harmonized” (i.e., deleted or translated less than accurately)
  • Negative references to the Communist Party are deleted
  • All references to Li Jihong (李继宏), the English-to-Chinese translator whose best-selling version of The Kite Runner was censored before publication, have been omitted
  • The reference to the Dalai Lama as “the [Chinese] government’s arch-nemisis” has been cut

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Book Publishers Scramble for Chinese Readers

By Dan Levin (Dec 21, 2010)   The New York Times

BEIJING —Star-crossed love between Alexander the Great and his teenage male slave. Ferocious battles that defined an empire. The bloodshed and romance of Ancient Greece.

The novel “The Persian Boy,” by Mary Renault, has it all. In the West, the book, which is filled with [homosexual] scenes of pederasty and homosexual passion, raises a few eyebrows nearly four decades [Read more…]