China Census Time: As 2010 Count Begins, a Look back at how Ethnicity was Recorded in 1953-54

We all know that there are exactly 56 ethnic groups in China, yet in the 1953-54 census Yunnan alone reported more than 200. Over at China Beat, an excerpt from Tom Mullaney’s Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China offers a bit of insight into these mathematics:

In the first census of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), carried out in late 1953 and early 1954, officials tabulated over four hundred different responses to the question of minzu identity. This deluge came in response to the Communist Party’s promise of ethnonational equality, which entailed a commitment to recognizing the existence of ethnonational diversity to a greater extent than their predecessors had ever been willing to do. Over the course of the subsequent three decades, however, only fifty-five of these were officially recognized, which entailed a remarkable level of categorical compression: from four hundred potential categories of minzu identity to under sixty. The most dramatic case, again, was that of Yunnan Province. Out of the four-hundred-plus names recorded in the 1953–54 census, more than half came from Yunnan alone. Over the following years, however, only twenty-five of these were ultimately recognized by the state.

Fan Wen: New Novel to Explore Culture Clash behind Yunnan-Vietnam Railway

Fan Wen (范稳), the Chinese Catholic author who recently completed his fictional trilogy spotlighting cultural and religious collisions in the “multicultural wonderland” of the Yunnan-Tibet border, now has another historical novel in mind.

The first book in the published series, Harmonious Land (水乳大地), recounts the tale of a multi-ethnic settlement in Lancangjiang Canyon (gateway to Tibet), beset by battles between arrogant French Catholic missionaries, incompetent officials and their marauding troops, Naxi Dongba Shamanists, and the dominant Tibetans, not all of whom lead pacific, vegetarian lives in the local lamasery.

Ethnic ChinaLit spoke with Fan Wen about his new work-in-progress:

Q: Word has it that you’re working on a new novel about the rail line linking China’s Kunming and Vietnam’s Haiphong that was constructed during French colonial rule of Indochina. How are you preparing for this project?

A: Yes, it’s about this railroad that’s soon to be completely abandoned. I rather enjoy the ‘history of decline’. It gives one a certain sense of desolation. After the Yunnan-Vietnam railway was completed [1910], it actually brought with it the collision and fusion of two distinct civilizations. The railway passed through the lands of several of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities, whose cultures were more backward than that of the Tibetans, and even more vulnerable. I intend to use several French nationals who were working on the railroad as the main characters. I’ll write about their lives in a foreign land, and their experiences against the backdrop of that alien culture, including the dangers they faced, their loves and their fates.

I’ve already read a lot of background material, conducted interviews along the line, and even stayed in the old train stations. I’m conceptualizing the story right now. [end]

Zhang Ling’s “Aftershock”: The Movie, the Screenwriter and the Part-time Censor

Director Feng Xiaogang’s gaze graces the cover of several publications this week, and indeed, the “disaster movie” genre in China may never be the same again thanks to him.  His adaptation of Zhang Ling’s Aftershock (张翎的 “余震”) is mesmerizing the nation’s moviegoers, and this tale of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake that killed over 200,000 leaves many drenched in tears.

Even Time is writing about the new film, the first IMAX film ever shot outside the US, based on the fictional work by the Chinese-Canadian author. Here’s Time’s synopsis of the plot: [Read more…]

Fan Wen’s Yunnan-Tibetan Trilogy: A Catholic Chinese Author’s Imagination Takes Flight

The China Daily features a piece on the third and final novel in a trilogy exploring the border on either side of Yunnan and Tibet:

At last author Fan Wen (范稳) has his reward for a decade of immersion in the multicultural wonderland along the Yunnan-Tibet border: Canticle to the Land (大地雅歌), the closing novel in his longish trilogy, has just been published in Chinese.

Why locate the tale there? “It’s my own ‘creative paradise’, an inspiration of sorts,” explains Fan, a devout Catholic from Sichuan province. “You can interpret this as a summons from God, or as a writer who has been vanquished by a certain spirituality, the cultures and beliefs of the people of this realm.”

That day in 1999 when he came across the “lonely” grave of a martyred Swiss missionary in Lancangjiang Canyon, Father Maurice Tornay, he realized he had found his “sacred vocation”. Indeed, the area straddling the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan and Tibet autonomous region is an anthropologist’s dream. One finds Tibetans, Han, Naxi, Yi, Lisu and other ethnic groups living together.

“I find describing the interaction – and collisions – between different cultures a challenging and engaging affair,” Fan says. “Conflicts have taken place due to differences in culture and faith, like wars between Naxi and Tibetans, and Tibetans and Han. Irreconcilable contradictions occurred between Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism when the latter was introduced.”

Turkish Novels, Honor Killing and China’s English-language Complex

Zülfü Livaneli, the Turkish writer, musician, singer, journalist and member of parliament, recently toured China to promote the launch of the mainland Chinese translation of his popular novel, Bliss (Mutluluk), or 伊斯坦布尔的幸福.

Now a movie as well, Bliss is a melodramatic tale of a young village woman who is raped by an elder relative. When she doesn’t hang herself out of shame, as is expected, the task of restoring honor to the family (by ending her life) is assigned to another male relative. The novel takes us from Van in the southeast to Istanbul, touching on most every controversial aspect of “Turkishness,” from honor killing to the Asia-Europe divide represented by schizophrenic Istanbul, and the guerrilla war waged by the Kurds against the Turkish state.

But how many Chinese readers will notice that this quintessentially Turkish novel has been translated from the . . . English?

Not many, I’d wager. The spine of the book features “Turkey” in brackets above the author’s name, implying that the book and its author originated in that country, and cites the translator (贾文浩). The credits page gives the same information without identifying the source language. It should be noted that this is standard procedure in the People’s Republic. Thus the only reference to the fact that this Chinese edition is a translation of the English translation is in the last line of the translator’s Foreword.

I interviewed Shen Zhixing (沈志兴), the Chinese translator of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, several years ago. He studied in Ankara in the 1980s and worked from the Turkish. The earlier Taiwan edition of the book was based on the American, and Pamuk—apparently very displeased with this approach—insisted that Shen translate from the Turkish original.

Shen told me that in his estimation, “only a dozen or so” translators in China had the background in Turkish and literary Chinese to translate a Turkish novel into Mandarin. In a country which has over ten million speakers of Turkic languages living in Xinjiang alone, that’s a bit odd. [Read more…]

Interview: Author Murong Xuecun (慕容雪村) on his Undercover Role Investigating a Chinese Pyramid Scheme

Murong Xuecun has gained a name for himself through his unflattering vignettes of gambling, drinking, whoring and corruption in contemporary China. His best-seller, Leave me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu (成都,今夜请将我遗忘), prompted the authorities to convene a conference solely to critique the novel for sullying the Sichuan city’s image.

But in a change of tack away from fiction writing, early this year the author decided to experience—first hand—just how a “direct selling” operation in Jiangxi’s Shangrao recruits and gains control over its members. His revelations hit the stands as the cover story for Southern Metropolis Weekly’s April 19 edition: “Murong Xuecun—Undercover 23 Days in a Pyramid Selling Organization” (慕容雪村卧底传销23天之一).

Read my interview with Murong Xuecun about how he did it, and why.

Israeli Writers in Chinese: Via Hebrew or English?

A literary agent on selling Israeli fiction overseas:

I can tell you there is no market more challenging than America’s. I sell more books in China and Japan than in America . . .

Could be, and perhaps it’s the quality of the translations into the Chinese. My girlfriend read Roman Russi (蓝山) by Meir Shalev several times, and she’s on her third read of Hatsotsrah ba-Wadi (瓦地的小号) by Sami Michael right now.

Ironically, it could well be that both these novels were translated based on English renditions (Blue Mountain and A Trumpet in the Wadi, respectively), not the original Hebrew. Crafty publishers in China often don’t list the language of the original work; instead, they identify the author by nationality, leaving you to guess which language the Chinese edition is based on. A quick look on the web shows that the translators of Roman Russi (于海江,张颖) and Hatsotsrah-ba-wadi (李慧娟) translate almost exclusively English books, so it’s unlikely that any of the three knows Hebrew well enough to translate it.

Holden Caulfield and the Chinese Shakespeare Scholar

“Chinese youth, growing up in our Socialist Motherland and benefiting from the enthusiastic care and concern of organizations such
as the Communist Party, Youth League and Young Pioneers, possess high-minded Communist ideals, and a rich, colorful and dynamic intellectual life. Therefore, reading a book like Catcher in the Rye, and comparing one’s own fortunate living environment with the odious environment under capitalism, opens one’s horizons and enriches one’s knowledge. Of course, if certain individual youths cannot distinguish the boundary between these two utterly different social systems and do not cherish Socialist Spiritual Civilization, and therefore blindly worship or imitate Holden Caulfield’s thought, actions or behavior, that would be completely erroneous. We should also be on guard against this.”
(Foreword, 1982, Catcher in the Rye, Chinese edition)

Would you recruit a Shakespeare scholar to translate Catcher in the Rye?

Yilin Press, long China’s leading publisher of translated fiction, apparently did. And it’s hard to argue with that move, since the Chinese translation reportedly went on to sell almost one million copies, if Big Apple Agency is to be believed. [Read more…]

Ethnic China Chic: “Minority” Theme Parks in the Middle Kingdom

The instant I saw the New York Times’ piece on China’s “minority theme parks”—Disneyland-like affairs highlighting the culture of China’s 55 “ethnic minorities”—I  knew it would soon appear in the Chinese press. But how would it be reshaped to render it politically correct for the masses, I wondered?

Quite differently than I expected, frankly. The report has been quickly translated and published by Cankao Xiaoxi (参 考消息). 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. As noted in past pieces, virtually no English is used and little or no content is added. But references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often “airbrushed.”

Predictably, text alluding to dissatisfaction among non-Han in the neighborhood has been deleted. So has a comment by a Dai bed-n-breakfast owner to the effect that some nearby Dai villages are “primitive.” But I’ve been reading Cankao Xiaoxi for over two decades, and I am surprised at how much of the original—some rather unflattering—has been left untouched this time around. For instance, the translated copy includes the fact that these parks are generally owned and run by Han Chinese, and sometimes Han even “dress up as natives.”

This bald statement from the original also appears faithfully translated in the Chinese:

The parks are money-making ventures. But scholars say they also serve a political purpose — to reinforce the idea that the Chinese nation encompasses 55 fixed ethnic minorities and their territories, all ruled by the Han.

To show you how censorship works in the People’s Republic,  the original article from the New York Times is fully reproduced below. Words that have been crossed out are those that were deleted from the Chinese version published in Cankao Xiaoxi.  Enjoy!

China’s Han Flock to Theme Parks Featuring Minorities

(New York Times, by Edward Wong, Feb 23, 2010)

MANZHA, China — Tucked away in China’s steamy tropical southwest are the villages of the Dai people, famous throughout the country for a raucous annual tradition: a water-splashing festival where the Dai douse one another for three days in the streets using any container they can get their hands on — buckets, wash basins, teacups, balloons, water guns.

But in Manzha and four surrounding villages, the springtime festival has taken on added significance — or insignificance, depending on how you look at it. Imagine a nonstop Mardi Gras with fire hoses: at a site called the Dai Minority Park, water-splashing extravaganzas take place every day. [Read more…]

Newsweek via Cankao Xiaoxi: The Tibetans Have Never Had it So Good

In the run-up to Obama’s White House meeting with the Dalai Lama, Isaac Stone Fish (Newsweek’s Beijing correspondent) penned an interesting piece that argues that China’s rule has indeed brought indisputable benefits to the Tibetans. It’s all part of a grand “bargain”:

It’s true that, so far, all the money has failed to buy Tibetan loyalty. Beijing won’t deal with the Dalai Lama, even though Tibetans revere him, nor will it let his monastic followers build any power or voice any nationalist sympathy. Instead, the government is offering Tibetans the same bargain it has offered the rest of the country: in exchange for an astronomical rise in living standards, the government requires citizens to relinquish the right to free worship and free speech. The Chinese government has kept its end of the deal. Even if Tibetan residents never signed the contract, they have benefited from its enforcement—a fact Obama might keep in mind when he meets the Dalai Lama.

Newsweek’s report has now—just one day after Obama met with the Dalai Lama—been translated by Cankao Xiaoxi (参 考消息). 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. As noted in my past pieces, virtually no English is used and little or no content is added. But references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often deleted or reshaped.

To show you how censorship works in the People’s Republic,  the original article from Newsweek is fully reproduced below. Words that have been crossed out are those that were deleted from the Chinese version published in Cankao Xiaoxi, while words that have been added are noted [in brackets]. Tellingly, the description of the tit-for-tat bargain—economic prosperity in lieu of free speech and worship—has been radically “repackaged” in Cankao Xiaoxi’s version for China’s masses. [Read more…]