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…]

Stephanie Meyer Red-hot in China: Could it be the Footnotes?

As of early 2010, Meyer’s entire Twilight series—all four translated volumes—now rank among the “Top Ten Fiction Best Sellers” in mainland China. In Taiwan, they took the top four slots on the island’s list of best-selling fiction.

What’s driving the sales: A newly acquired national passion for vampire romance? The image of the photogenic female author from the US?  Integrated marketing of the films + novels that push the right buttons?

I picked up a Chinese copy of Eclipse (月食) here in Shenzhen lately, and I can tell you one thing: the reading “experience” of the Chinese reader is likely to be a bit different than among Twilight’s fervent fěnsī (fans) in the West.

Meyer’s prose seems to average 3.5 lines to a paragraph in the original. Hardly tough going. But many of the footnotes that dot her yuèshí (eclipse) take up a third of a page, and a handful occupy more than half a page. Right there in the text, not at the end of the chapter. In mice type, China style.

And get this—there are a total of 49 footnotes in the entire novel. The lion’s share fall into one of three categories: geography, Greek mythology and what one might call Americana. [Read more…]

“King Gesar” Book Review: Epic Ballad Turned Novel Lacks Poetry

Writes David Yao (姚达兑) in a review of the new best-seller, King Gesar (格萨尔王), by Alai (阿来):

. . . the tale of King Gesar is recited by [the roaming bard] Jin Mei, while the entire novel is recited by Alai; King Gesar recounts his world-weariness and confusion to Jin Mei, while the novelist makes use of Jin Mei to convey to the reader the dilemma of the epic in the modern world. With the advent of modernity, even remote Tibet, this last pure land, cannot escape encroachment by the evils of the modern world. Sgrung no longer roam the four directions singing their ballads, for they have been corralled where they sing instead to microphones and tape recorders . . .

[Read more…]

Hotter than Kimchee: The Korean Wave as Chinese Management Literature

Esoteric Asian herbal recipes. Petty infighting in an ancient court. The travails of a frustrated-imperial-chef-turned-physician serving a Korean empress. This hardly sounds like a prescription for a gripping TV series, let alone for a hard-copy guide to career management success in the 21st century.

Yet Jewel in the Palace (Dae Jang Geum in romanized Korean) has become just that. Named after the intrepid Korean female doctor Da Chang Jin (大长今) who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of even the most obscure herbal-based cuisine, it’s one of the most fantastically popular Korean-made TV series ever aired in China—and has spawned dozens of books in Chinese. Trivia galore it may seem, but devoted fans do get their money’s worth. Everything you wanted to know about the dear doctor is revealed in the untranslated All about Da Chang Jin (细说大长今), a 222-page work that takes itself almost as seriously as a Seoul salaryman. [Read more…]