Rejuvenating the Tujia Language No Easy Feat

A journalist’s recent visit with primary school teacher and Tujia scholar Chu Yongming (储永明在课间与孩子们进行土家与对话) highlights a man with a mission—to ensure that the next generation of Tujia have the tools they need to speak the language of their people.

Working out of a primary school in Hubei’s Feng county, the 59-year-old has taken part in compiling two published works for language instruction (<土家语“原生态”土家语言校本教材> and <土家语言>), and is in the middle of editing a Dictionary of the Tujia Language (土家语辞典).

A few factoids re: the present state of the Tujia language cited in the article:

  • 7.38m: Number of Tujia people in the PRC
  • 50,000:  Number of Tujia who can actually speak the language
  • Distribution: Tujia are concentrated in Hubei, Guizhou, Chongqing and Sichuan

For a 2012 update on Chu Yongming’s activities, see 大山深处的土家语传承与坚守 .

“Butterfly Mother” and “Dragon-Eagles”: Processing Folklore in Southwest China

In the latest edition of Oral Tradition (Processing Epics), Mark Bender explores—via highly readable notes on his field-work—how the Miao myth-epic Mai Bang (Butterfly Mother) and the Nuosu’s creation-epic Dragon-Eagles have gradually been rendered in written form:

My title also contains the word “processing”—and by that I mean the process through which traditional texts are performed and received by local audiences. It also refers to the process by which some versions of stories are recorded, transcribed, translated, edited, and released in print or electronic format—a process the late Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko called the “folklore process.”

The term “processing” also carries, at least for me, a sense of the sorts of compromises and distortions inherent in the manner in which the recorded texts are preserved and communicated to new audiences. Just as natural foods or textiles are processed and marketed into products for consumption by target audiences, so too are items of oral literature. We now have genetically engineered corn, soybeans, and hemp. A box of “heart healthy” oat cereal may contain a whole list of additives, supplements, and fillers—sometimes mimicking original, truly wholesome products and directed at consumers open to healthy, natural, and eco-friendly foods.

But we increasingly know it is necessary to read the fine print—just as Lauri Honko reminded us that it is necessary to understand the process of the “processing” of oral texts that occurs behind the book or website banner.

He notes the tendency for compilers in China to strive for what they term a “complete” (完整), official version that involves “negotiations” and even deletion of “taboo” content:

Although the appreciation of multiple versions gathered in specific performance contexts has a growing place in folklore circles in China, there is still a strong tradition of creating “complete” versions of a given song cycle or story tradition that will serve as part of an ethnic group’s official tradition of oral literature. These versions usually combine several versions collected from a number of singers.

In some cases the participating singers and eldersmay be involved with editors in the negotiations concerning the makeup of the final master version. In theory, such master texts—which might be best described as “collective versions”— are intended to reflect and preserve the richness and completeness of the tradition in a format that can be read and appreciated to its fullest by present or future generations without access to multiple live versions. In the past, much more so than is usual now, this stage of editing also allowed for selection or omission of content deemed crude, backward, divisive, or otherwise taboo.

Manchurian: 10 Million Manchus, A Handful of Native Speakers

The language of the last imperial dynasty to rule China, a Tungusic tongue called Manchurian (满洲话), will soon be accessible only in dictionaries. Verna Yu reports for the South China Morning Post from Sanjiazi village, Heilongjiang, in A Language Lost:

When Ji Jinlu , 66, was a boy, he was unable to speak Putonghua until he went to school at age nine. Today he has hardly anyone to talk to in his native tongue.

Ji is an ethnic Manchu – a descendant of a nomadic tribe from northeastern China that became the imperial rulers of the country for more than 250 years. He is one of fewer than 100 remaining Manchus with a working grasp of the language. 

Like most remaining speakers, Ji’s native tongue has become rather rusty over the years as most people in his village, including his children and grandchildren, are unable to speak it.

“Even if you speak Manchu with them they don’t understand,” said Ji, a farmer born and bred in remote Sanjiazi village in Heilongjiang province, where farmers grow rice and keep dairy cattle. “And they don’t want to learn anyway.”

Although there are more than 10 million people in China who are classified as ethnic Manchus – most of whom live in Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin in the northeast – linguists say that Sanjiazi is the last Manchu-speaking community in China.

[Read more…]

“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.






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。


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.