“Mosuo Culture Bonfire Parties”: Hamming it up for the Tourists, Attendance Required

Mosuo women on Lugu LakeCanada’s Globe and Mail recently ran a piece on the impact of modernity and tourism on the Mosuo (摩梭族), a matriarchal tribe that resides around Yunnan’s Luguhu Lake (泸沽湖). In China, a Matriarchy under Threat has now been translated, edited and published as 《云南摩梭人遭遇现代化挑战》in the August 17, 2011 edition of Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息).

Cankao 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 into Chinese, and indicate any added copy (normally just for readability’s sake) by putting it [in brackets]. This way one can better see how Cankao’s editors “package” foreign copy for domestic consumption.

To summarize the deletions you’ll find below:

  • All mentions of the Communist Party, and government policy aimed at changing Mosuo behavior, have been deleted
  • References to “male lovers” have been heavily edited
  • Some phrases that imply that Han visitors treat the Mosuo as curiosities have been deleted
  • The writer’s explanation as to why the society evolved into a matriarchal one has been deleted   [Read more…]

Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin: What Makes for “Good Literature” and “Good Language”?

Controversial German Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin was recently in Shenzhen where he spoke at some length on three subjects: What makes for “good literature” (好的文学)? “Good language” (好的语言)? And if a Chinese author writes in a foreign tongue, what sorts of changes occur?   On August 10, China Reading Weekly (中华读书报) published What is Good Chinese Literature (什么是好的中国文学)?, a record of his talk at the He Xiangning Art Museum (何香凝美术馆) which, the article notes, has not been proofed by Kubin. But I assume that he spoke in Chinese and that this represents a fairly accurate transcript.

Over the next few days I’ll translate a few excerpts. Here’s one on so-called popular writers:

Not a few Chinese writers have been very successful in Germany. How can we define this success? That’s a rather thorny issue. I’m talking aboutWolfgang Kubin novelists here, not poets. For example, books by Hong Ying (虹影), Ha Jin (哈金), Mian Mian (棉 棉) and Wei Hui (卫慧) are selling quite well in Germany. Each one of them can publish several tens of thousands of books with each earning $2 to $5 per copy, so after they’ve published a book in Germany, they make a fortune.

Readers of  Hong Ying, Ha Jin, Mian Mian and Wei Hui are quite numerous, but the works of this bunch belongs to the popular literature category. It’s basically not conceivable that professors or writers would read their works, and Germany’s most important newspapers wouldn’t publish reviews of their books. So their works seemingly don’t exist in the German literary world, and can exist only among the common people and general readers. Personally, I feel that Hong Ying and Ha Jin have no future whatsoever, and their works will be quickly forgotten.

Regarding Chinese novelists and their knowledge of foreign tongues:

In the past I’ve said that contemporary Chinese authors don’t generally know a foreign language, and aren’t willing to study them.   [Read more…]

Throat Singing: UNESCO Deems Mongolian Art Form to be Made-in-China

In A Showdown over Traditional Throat Singing, the Washington Post reports:

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — For nearly two decades, Odsuren Baatar [pictured], a master of Mongolian throat singing, has been visiting China to teach his craft — making the human voice soar, quiver and drone, its pitches in eerie unison like a bagpipe.When he first started going there, his students were all beginners, because nobody in China knewOdsuren Baatar much about throat singing [呼麦]. But they were eager to
learn, and, after years of sharing his techniques, Odsuren took pride in having helped promote an art form prized here in Mongolia as a singular national treasure. 
His pride, however, turned to dismay and then anger when he saw a copy of a video that China had quietly submitted to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization: It featured one of his former students pitching a bid by Beijing to have throat singing registered by the United Nations as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity,” with China getting the credit.Visit here to listen to a bit of Tuvan throat singing.

Hani Author Cun Wenxue: Questioning Value of Made-in-China Modernity

In An Author Who Confronts our Demons, Liu Jun (刘浚) highlights the writing of a contemporary Hani (哈尼族) author:

Yunnan writer Cun Wenxue [存文学] grabs readers by the throat and thrusts them into the mountain-locked life of the Lisu people [傈僳族] on page one of his novel Biluo Snow Mountain [碧洛雪山]. No wonder a film based on it won four awards at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2010.

In recent years, more writers with an ethnic background have emerged on the country’s literary scene. Though many of them write in Chinese as opposed to their ethnic language, their narration nonetheless offers a different angle to look at some of the grave issues plaguing contemporary society.

For a backgrounder on Cun Wenxue en français, click here.

 

书评:范稳的《碧色寨》

《碧寨》  

(赵敏:annie.zhao2010@gmail.com)

小小的碧色寨随着火车和洋老咪(洋人)的到来发生了巨大的变化。宁静的生活被打扰、彝人的神灵被激怒,洋人们用火车带来了西方的工业文明、洋火、洋皂、洋布,同时送走了一车有一车的矿产。

刚来昆明时,听范先生介绍滇越铁路感觉在听天方夜谭。读完小说后才知道一直记忆深刻的剪子形状的那座桥叫“戈登桥”,是滇越铁路的一部分。我曾多次感叹:为什么在昆明、大理到处可以见到法国人?云南的咖啡文化如此盛行,昆明、丽江、大理、西双版纳走到哪都能喝到 cappuccino、espresso、cafe latte , 还有正宗的西式点心。法国人真把这当家了,喝杯咖啡、学学中文、泡个吧、交交女朋友,不亦乐乎。

从希腊的克里特岛乘坐“澳大利亚人”号来到碧色寨淘金的大卡洛斯和弟弟小卡洛斯,在碧色寨做了工地主任、哥胪士洋行的主人、各自面对了一段不幸的爱情。印证了:在西方做流浪汉的白人,在碧色寨这样的地方却做上了老爷。

我不知道碧色寨曾经怎样辉煌过,到今天还会不会还有燃烧过的残渣。搜到了一片叫《碧色寨之恋》的小说。简介是这样的:小说讲述了一个十七岁法国少女丽莎和一个三十多岁的中国男人周亦然之间的爱情故事。我倒是对所谓“中国男人第一次获得了全部的主动权”不感兴趣。让我好奇的是:在白人作为上等人的时期,一个法人少女是怎么喜欢上一个中国男性。而这个设定和比杜拉斯的《情人》何其相似。 [Read more…]

“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.”