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:

***************

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…]

African Lit in Chinese Translation: Still Stuck on “Things Fall Apart”?

China’s 21-century investment in Africa is massive, multifaceted and a cause for anxiety to leaders in Washington, London, Paris and among the continent’s other former colonial masters, as well as New Delhi. But China is not just busy building airports and railways in Africa, or inking deals to monopolize the exploitation and export of valuable minerals and fossil fuels for decades to come.

The exercise of “soft power” is not being neglected. China-funded Confucius Institutes—promoting the teaching of Chinese language and culture—are popping up throughout Africa, including Egypt and Morocco in the Arab world, and several sub-Saharan countries, including Benin, Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda.

In return, one might well ask: what is China “importing,” culture-wise, from Africa? If the translation and publication of African writing in Chinese is anything to go by, the continent is hardly a blip on China’s cultural radar in 2011.

Internet research and our interviews with Chinese publishers indicate that the golden age of African literature in Chinese translation may well have been during the 1980s. Foreign Literature Publishing House (外国文学出版社), empowered by Beijing’s policy of promoting solidarity with the Third World back then, translated and published a fair number of African works such as those by Nigerian (Wole Soyinka), Kenyan (James Ngugi), Senegalese (Leopold Sengor) and Algerian (Mouland Mammeri) writers, as well as collections of folk tales for children, etc.

Assuming one is interested, at Douban.com (a popular social media site) the Chinese consumer can purchase works by a dozen or so of the authors who have won or been shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing. They include Leila Aboulela, Binyavanga Wainaina, Laila Lalami, Chika Unigwe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half a Yellow Sun), seen by some as Nigeria’s most talented writer since Chinua Achebe.

The only hitch: they’ll have to read them… in English. Few, if any, have been rendered in Chinese.

So which African writers have managed to get published in Chinese? Take a look at our table below for a sample of more recently published African fiction and poetry.

A quick look suggests that successful contenders for translation into Chinese share several traits: the original text is in English and was published abroad several years (or even decades) ago, and the author is the recipient of at least one globally celebrated literary award.

Four of Chinua Achebe’s best-known works have been published recently by Chongqing Publishing (see table below). I asked Lillian Yin (尹楠), who handles copyright matters for the group out of Beijing, why it has chosen to focus solely on the Nigerian writer. “Because he is representative of African literature, dubbed ‘the father of modern African literature,’ and fairly well known in China. Furthermore, he was a very popular choice for the Nobel Prize of Literature.”

Yilin Press, arguably China’s leading source for translated literature, has published three high-profile African writers: Nigeria’s Ben Okri (see table), and two white South African authors, J. M. Coetzee (see table) and Nadime Gordimer. The latter two are also Nobel Prize winners.

Neither Chongqing Publishing nor Yilin Press has specific plans to publish any new African works in 2011 or 2012, though both are on the lookout for promising new writing from the continent.

Why so?

“Africa is a sprawling continent with numerous authors who use many different languages,” explains Yilin’s Zhou Xuan (周璇), editor responsible for marketing and publicity. “[Their use of] indigenous languages is a real headache. It’s very hard to locate translators who both know the language and can write [Chinese] well.”

But this doesn’t mean that Chinese readers aren’t interested. “Africa is a magical land and its nature and peoples seem to be beckoning to us from afar,” continues Zhou. “But as far as we can see, the themes in current African writing are rather narrow, such as the relationship between whites and people of color in the post-apartheid period, recollections of that era, and so forth.

“This isn’t to say that Chinese readers aren’t interested in such themes, but the key is whether these narratives possess depth, or are particularly moving or infused with new significance. Of course, everyone looks forward to new books that revolve around Africa’s own homegrown motifs.”

In the table below, we have tried to give mainly examples of African writing published in the last two to three years, but some of the dates can be misleading. For instance, the Chinese version of Things Fall Apart was first translated in the 1960s by Gao Zongyu (高宗禹), and Yao Yu’s (尧雨) version of Man of the People was published in the 1980s. Rather than retranslate them, Chongqing Publishing chose to republish them in 2009 and 2008, respectively.

That said, three of the translations noted in the table are fairly new and worthy of mention. <神箭> (Arrow of God) by China Achebe, was launched this year. Co-translator Chen Xiaoli (陈笑黎) studied comparative literature in the US, and translated The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (心是孤独的猎手).

<这里不平静> (No Serenity Here) is a rare bilingual collection of contemporary African poets published in late 2010. Included are the works of Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Keorapetse Kgositsile (South Africa’s Poet Laureate, whose poem lent the title to the anthology), Kofi Anyodoho and Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana), Makhosazana Xaba and Lebo Mashile (South Africa), Veronique Tadjo (Ivory Coast), Fatima Naoot (Morocco), TJ Dema (Botswana), Shailja Patel (Kenya), Tania Tome (Mozambique), and Amanda Hammar, Chirikure Chirikure and Joyce Chigiya (Zimbabwe).

<人间的事安拉也会出错> (Allah n’est pas obligé) is one of a handful of works translated from the French. Assuming it reads well in Chinese, translator Guan Xiaoming (管筱明) deserves praise, as the original is penned in a stream-of-consciousness style, employing an intriguing—if difficult to follow at times—hodge-podge of standard French, argot and expressions from languages indigenous to Africa.

Author Original Title(s): Chinese Title(s): China Publisher(s): Notes:
Ahmadou Kourouma Allah n’est pas obligé (2011) <人间的事,安拉也会出错> (2011) Hunan Literature & Art Publishing House (湖南文艺出版社) Brutal story of 10-year-old Birahima who leaves the Ivory Coast for Liberia where he serves as a child-soldier. The French-language novel won the Prix Renaudot and Prix Goncourt des lycéens.
Ben Okri The Famished Road <饥饿的路> (2003) Yilin Press (译林出版社) Nigerian writer who has authored 8 novels, and winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa and the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction.
Chinua Achebe 1. Arrow of God;
2. Anthills of the Savannah;
3. Things Fall Apart;
4. Man of the People
1. <神箭> (2011),
2. <荒原蚁丘> (2009),
3. <瓦解> (2009),
4. <人民公仆> (2008)
Chongqing Publishing House (重庆出版社) An Igbo raised in Nigeria, Chinua Achebe is arguably the best known English-language African novelist. His classic, Things Fall Apart, was first published in English in 1958, and 1964 in Chinese.
Wole Soyinka 1. Aké: The Years of Childhood;
2. Death and the King’s Horseman;
3. A Big Airplane Crashed into the Earth (Poems from Prison)
1. <在阿凯同年时光> 》 (2008);
2. <死亡与国王的侍从> (2004);
3. <獄中詩抄 : 索因卡詩選> (2003)
1. Hunan Educational Press (湖南教育出版社);
2. Hunan Literature & Art Publishing House (湖南文艺出版社);
3. Tendancy (傾向)
Nigerian writer, poet and playwright who was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature.
J. M. Coetzee 1. Diary of a Bad Year;
2. Disgrace
3. Waiting for the Barbarians
1. <凶年纪事> (2009);
2. <等待野蛮人> (2010);
3. <耻> (2003)
1 & 2. Zhejiang Art & Literature Press (浙江文艺出版社)
3. Yilin Press (译林出版社).
White South African novelist who grew up speaking both English and Afrikaans, and won the Booker Prize twice and the Nobel Prize in Literature (2003).
Naguib Mahfouz Palace Walk (Arabic) <两宫间> (2003) Shanghai Translation Publishing House (上海译文出版社) First of three volumes in the Cairo Trilogy by the best-known Arabic-language writer in Africa. Naguib Mahfouz published over 50 novels in Arabic and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.
Nadine Gordimer 1. Beethoven Was One-sixteenth Black;
2. Get a Life
1. <贝多芬是1/16黑人> (2008);
2. <新生>(2008)
1. Nanjing University Press (南京大学出版社);
2. People’s Literature Publishing House (人民文学出版社)
White South African writer renowned for her anti-apartheid activities, Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.
Uwem Akpan Say You’re One of Them <就说你和他们一样> (2010) Phoenix Publishing and Media (凤凰出版传媒集团) US-based, Nigerian-raised writer whose book of pan-African short stories—about the Rwandan genocide, religious conflict in Ethiopia and more—was a 2009 Oprah Book Club Selection.
Edited by Phillippa Yaa De Villiers, Isabel Ferrin-Aguirre and Kaiyu Xiao. No Serenity Here <这里不平静> (2010) World Knowledge Publishers (世界知识出版社) Various poets translated from the English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Amharic.

“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

**********

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…]

The Unsavory Side of Translated Fiction Publishing in China

In Book Publishers Scramble for Chinese Readers at the NY Times today, one China publisher in particular—Horizon Media—is featured as particularly savvy in recognizing early on the huge demand of Chinese readers for fiction from the West, and for picking winners that it brought to the market efficiently:

Wang Ling, Horizon’s chief literature editor, cites as a turning point the company’s publishing of “The Da Vinci Code” in 2003, of which two million copies have been printed here, followed by the huge success of “The Kite Runner,” with 800,000 in print — astronomical numbers in a country where, Ms. Wang says, only “super-best sellers” reach half a million copies.

The quality of a translation plays a major role in a foreign title’s success in China, so Horizon takes great care to hire someone with an ear for language and a contemporary voice that readers will enjoy. “A good translator is not just fluent in the source language but must also know how to write an eloquent Chinese sentence,” Ms. Wang said.

Impressive stuff. But what Dan Levin’s article doesn’t tell you is how Horizon Media treats those talented translators. Like Li Jihong (李继宏), who rendered The Kite Runner in Chinese (追风筝的人). He earned a one-time payment of just US$2,250 for his efforts, and will collect no royalties for this best seller. [Read more…]

Mini-review: Gao Ping’s “Tsangyang Gyatso, The Sixth Dalai Lama “

Leave me to myself. Go away.

I have had enough of your demands on me. I didn’t ask for it.

What right do you have to make me your Dalai Lama? What right do you have

to make me a eunuch, while still leaving my body and passions intact?

(From Paul Williams’ The Erotic Verse of the Sixth Dalai Lama)

This particular Dalai Lama (1683-1706) is more renowned for his love life and poetry—and his violent death at a young age—than for his role as a spiritual mentor. I came upon a fictionalized Chinese-language biography of him by Gao Ping (高平) not long ago, Tsangyang Gyatso, The Sixth Dalai Lama (六世达赖喇嘛仓央嘉措), but didn’t read it yet.

But it turns out that this (to me) unassuming book was, at one time at least, rather controversial. According to a report in the China Library Weekly on August 10, 2010 (出版过程可以写一部小说), Gao Ping originally found a publisher for the book in 1983, but “unfortunately there were Tibetan compatriots who held different views [about it] who, by means of several anonymous letters, hampered its publication.” So it wasn’t until 2007 that the novel was finally published by China Tibet Publishing (中国西藏出版社). It would be interesting to know what issues caused publication to be delayed for more than two decades. According to the report, Gao Ping is an accomplished Han poet who first entered Tibet as a PLA soldier in 1951 when he was just 19.

I am happy to report that a Chinese friend has read the book in its entirety, and has kindly written some brief thoughts on it, which I have translated and lightly edited below. [Read more…]

《蒙古往事》及其汉化的蒙古语

我正在读冉平写的《蒙古往事》,也发现了经常出现蒙古人的一些有意思的说法。至少,作者在故事里告诉读者这些说法是来自蒙古语。

我在琢磨:作者会蒙古语吗?“拼法” 标准吗?科学吗?哪些是音译?如果蒙古语为母语的人看到了,认得出来吗?

无论如何,这些说法增加了《蒙古往事》的色彩和可读性,也值得去欣赏和研究。在这里先做点笔记,然后慢慢地加上一些想法和链接。下面的页数以新星出版社的 2010 版为参考。

长生天 (5)

蒙古人将腾格里称为 “Mongke Tengri”,意为 “长生天”,作为最高信仰 。(维基百科)

巴特(6)

《蒙古往事》编辑注释:“巴特,也称把阿秃,即蒙古语中勇士、英雄之意”。其实,好像 “巴特尔” 更正确,因为网上许多地方指 bataar 为蒙古语 “英雄” 之意。“乌兰巴托” (Ulan Bator)的意思是 “红色的英雄”。

苏鲁锭(7)

苏鲁锭的蒙语意思是“长矛”,也就是战旗。安答(20)《蒙古往事》编辑注释:“安答,即结拜的盟兄弟,生死之交”。 [Read more…]