Quick Guide to China’s Contemporary Ethnic-themed Literature in Translation

Updated: Feb 18, 2017

Quick Guide to China’s Contemporary 

Ethnic-themed Literature in Translation

I’m often too busy to immediately write a well-researched post about contemporary “ethnic-themed” fiction that has been translated and published in a foreign tongue. This is a loose category (民族题材文学) that includes stories — regardless of the author’s ethnicity — in which non-Han culture, motifs or characters play an important role.

In my brief list below, there are entries for fiction (and a bit of poetry) touching on peoples such as the Bai, Evenki, Hui, Kazakh, Korean, Kyrgyz, Manchu, Miao, Mongolian, Lahu, Lisu, Oirat, Seediq, Tibetan, Tujia, Uyghur, Xiongnu and Yi. Unless noted, the original is in Chinese and the translation is in English. But I’ve also included a handful of renditions into French, German, Spanish and Japanese.

I welcome your updates and corrections.

Here is a set of links I hope you’ll find useful:

General

Chinese Fiction in Translation: Novels/Novellas with “Ethnic” Theme 

  • Table with info on ten works translated into English or French during 2009-14, including writing by Alai, Chan Koonchung, Chi Zijian, Fan Wen, Gao Jianqun, Jiang Rong, Li Jinxiang, Pema Tseden, Shi Shuqing, Wang Gang and Wu He.

Chutzpah! Issue 14

  • Dedicated to non-Han authors including Alat Asem, Aydos Amantay, Baoerj Yuanye, Ju Kelzang, Kanglin Gioro, Lhajam Gyel, Muhammedemin Abliz, Na Zhangyuan, Pema Tseden and Ye Fu.

Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and  Popular Culture

  • This collection presents works drawn from the large body of oral literature of many of China’s recognized ethnic groups — including the Han, Yi, Miao, Tu, Daur, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Kazakh — and the selections include a variety of genres such as epics, folktales, folk songs and quyi. Edited by Victor Mair and Mark Bender.

Pathlight Issue Spring 2014

  • Dedicated to non-Han authors including Alat Asem,  Artai, Aydos Amantay, Ayonga, Dan Zeng, Guan Renshan, Jin Renshun, Memtimin Hoshur,  Jidi Majia, Luruodiji, Ma Huan, Nie Le, Patigul, Ye Fu, Ye Guangqin, Ye Mei and Yerkex Hurmanbek.

 

Evenki (鄂温克族)

Balajieyi (芭拉杰依)

  • 驯鹿角上的彩带 (lit., colored ribbon on the reindeer’s horns): To be translated into Swedish by Anna Gustafsson Chen and published within 2017. It features an Evenki narrator telling an Evenki love story that spans the 1900-1950 period. The author is a 74-year-old Evenki woman whose mother was Aoluguya’s last practicing shaman. She explains her motivation for writing the book:  “Since mother departed, no one has donned that Shaman Spirit Robe made of metal and leather, or struck the Spirit drum to pray for the Evenki . . . There are some things that, if I don’t record them, will truly be forgotten. I began collecting and collating our traditional handicrafts and legends. I want to use words to leave a record of everything about us Evenki. This is our people’s collective memory . . . I want to leave this for the children who love the forest.”

Chi Zijian (迟子建)

Gerelchimig Blackcrane (格日勒其木格・黒鶴)

Hui (回族)

Huo Da (霍达)

  • Funeral of a Muslim (穆斯林的葬礼): With sales of some 2.5 million copies, Huo Da’s tale about three generations of a Hui family in Beijing is quite possibly the most popular ethnic-themed novel ever published in China. It spans the turbulent years of the Japanese invasion, World War II and part of the Cultural Revolution.

Li Jinxiang and Shi Shuqing (李进祥、石舒清 )

La rivière des femmes: Nouvelles huiStories set among the Muslim Hui along the banks of Qingshui River in Ningxia.

Shi Shuqing (石舒清)

  • 西海固の人々  (西海固的事情): Collection of short stories set in Ningxia’s Xihaigu Prefecture.

[Read more…]

Mapping Mongolian Music

In 蒙古音乐地图计划:如何面对外界错位的蒙古文化想象?Thepaper.cn reports on a young Chinese citizen of Mongolian heritage, Odon Tuya (敖登托雅) who has initiated her own “Mongolian Music Map Project” (蒙古音乐地图计划). Her aim: To document the current indie Mongolian music scene – including traditional musicians in Mongolian Music Mapplaces like Xinjiang – via published interviews and, eventually, to capture it on film. A writer and a music critic, she has already interviewed 150 musicians, agents, folk song scholars and fans, according to the report. Here’s an excerpt from the Jan 29 2016 interview conducted in Chinese (translation is mine):

Odon Tuya: Due to regional differences and local cultural history, there are many distinctions between musical categories. Differences in tribal culture exist not only in terms of language and dress; even music has been impacted. When you mention Mongolian music, many people think only of the horse-head fiddle [morin khuur or 马头琴], throat singing [hoomii or 呼麦 ] or long song [urtyn duu or 长调]. In fact, very few people have an understanding of the variety of musical types and instruments involved. Unity evolves and is based upon a foundation of collective characteristics and slight differences. Obscured cultural traditions and the Mongolian spirit [蒙古精神] are what is held in common; regional divergences are what has created such variety and richness . . . be it professional musicians or folk artists, and regardless of the musical genre or the instruments played, they represent the most intuitive manifestation of the Mongolian spirit.

Ethnic ChinaLit Roundup for end January 2016

Multilingual CASS scholar Adili Zhumaturdu (阿地力·朱玛吐尔地) reports that his 4-volume Chinese translation of the Kyrgyz epic, Manas (玛纳斯史诗), has made it onto the list of 86 books for “popularizing multi-ethnic traditional culture” (全国推荐中华优秀传统文化普及图书名单) recommended by China’s very official State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. An ethnic Kyrgyz, he worked closely with Jusup Mamay, China’s last great Xinjiang-based manaschi capable of reciting the classic that counts over 200,000 lines of verse. Zhumaturdu is also the author of a detailed Chinese-language biography of the much-revered storyteller (居素普·玛玛依评传) that I discuss in Jusup Mamay, Manaschi: A Rehabilitated Rightist and his Turkic Epic.

* * *

A typeface that fuses the Tibetan script with Latin letters — referred to as the “China Daily Tibet Font” (see headline China Daily Tibetan Fontat right) – was featured in a report celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Tibet Autonomous Region. It was created as a collaboration between China Daily and Beijing Founder. Details are scant, but no Tibetan names figure among the designers. Interest in things Tibetan among mainstream Chinese and foreigners alike has fueled literary output over the last few years, including the wildly popular Tibet Code (藏地密码) and the controversial Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver.

* * *

Behemoth (悲兮魔兽), a harrowing documentary by Zhao Liang about coal mining in Inner Mongolia, was recently screened in Beijing. Well received at international venues such as the Venice Film Festival, it has been shown to small audiences just three times in China and has reportedly been banned. Watch the trailer here. As I’ve reported before, ethnic Mongolian herders say access to traditional grazing land is increasingly being curtailed or permanently denied in favor of rapacious mining and logging projects, and inadequate or total lack of compensation for the land is also an issue. For more information, see Inner Mongolian Artists Speak Up.

* * *

Tujia folklorist Sun Jiaxiang (孙家香), who documented more than 500 Tujia folk tales and authored 孙家香故事集 (lit, Sun Jiaxiang’s Collected Tales), passed away in January 2016, aged 97. Chinanews.com (土家族首位女性故事家) reports that her collection was officially designated for publication under the Ninth Five-year Plan (1996-2000), and it does appear to have been published (here). Sadly – like so many state-bankrolled publications about China’s ethnicities – I cannot find where it can be purchased online. However, Lin Jifu’s 孙家香故事讲述研究 is available, and it profiles her as a folklorist and a storyteller in her own right.

“This is our Auschwitz”: Introduction to the “The Cowshed”

China: Surviving the Camps, adapted from Zha Jianying’s introduction to The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, just launched in 2016:

Cowshed "struggle session" from Harbin in 1966: The book is by Ji Xianlin, translated by Chenxin Jiang. (Photo: Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images)

Cowshed “struggle session” from Harbin in 1966: The book is by Ji Xianlin, translated by Chenxin Jiang. (Photo: Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images)

At the center of the book is the cowshed [牛棚], the popular term for makeshift detention centers that had sprung up in many Chinese cities at the time [of the Cultural Revolution]. This one was set up at the heart of the Peking University campus, where the author was locked up for nine months with throngs of other fallen professors and school officials, doing manual labor and reciting tracts of Mao’s writing. The inferno atmosphere of the place, the chilling variety of physical and psychological violence the guards daily inflicted on the convicts with sadistic pleasure, the starvation and human degeneration — all are vividly described. Indeed, of all the memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, I cannot think of another one that offers such a devastatingly direct and detailed testimony on the physical and mental abuse an entire imprisoned intellectual community suffered. After reading the book, a Chinese intellectual friend summed it up to me: “This is our Auschwitz.”

The Cowshed: Memories of the Cultural Revolution was translated from the Chinese original 牛棚杂忆.

2016 Awards: Winning Taiwan Aboriginal Works

Taiwan Today reports (Awards):

The winners of Taiwan Aboriginal Literary Awards organized by Taiwan’s Ministry of Education were honored in a ceremony Jan. 20 at Hualien Cultural Creative Industries Park.

The 36 recipients are from the indigenous tribes of Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Kahabu, Paiwan, Pazeh, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Sediq, Truku and Tsou. They finished atop a 99-strong field in the categories of essay, novella, poetry and translation.

Winners include “Words from Elders” by Lowking Nowbucyang of the Truku, the novella “Stories of Fataan and Tafalong” by Sing Olam of the Amis, and the poem “Mourning River” by Rucu Pawan of the Atayal. The biannual awards were founded in 2007.

Behind the Bamboo Curtain: At Last the World Is Paying Attention to How Foreign Works Are Translated into Chinese

Feng Tang's controversial rendition of Tagore's "Stray Birds" has ignited controversy both in Chinese and Indian literary circles

Feng Tang’s controversial rendition of Tagore’s “Stray Birds” has ignited controversy in both Chinese and Indian literary circles

Jan 12 Update: Indiatoday’s Interview with Feng Tang

* * * * *

January 7 Post

Feng Tang, a well known Chinese author — and occasional translator — will reportedly not be among a group of Chinese writers attending the World Book Fair in New Delhi next week (Jan 9-17). He had previously been scheduled to take part. It is not perfectly clear from the report below if he decided to withdraw on his own, or if he was pressured to do so. Reports the online hindustantimes (‘Racy’ Tagore Translation):

Feng Tang, one of China’s most provocative authors, has been pulled out of a delegation of writers slated to participate in a New Delhi book fair next week because of the backlash over his translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems that was deemed vulgar and racy.

The translation of “Stray Birds”, a collection of poems by the Nobel laureate, was published early last year but the controversy erupted last month. One author described it as a “cultural terrorist attack” and the translation was pulled off the shelves by the publisher on December 28.

“It would be unsafe for me in New Delhi, is what my publisher told me in as many words,” Feng told Hindustan Times in Beijing on Wednesday.

He was among nine Chinese authors set to take part in the book fair, and was to speak on Tagore’s contribution to Chinese literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University on January 9.

For bilingual versions of several of Tagore’s poems, and a discussion of the issues raised by Feng Tang’s renditions, see the discussion at Paper Republic: Don’t Touch My Tagore! 

Oh, and I shouldn’t forget an excerpt from one of Feng Tang’s Beijing-based novels that I did several years ago. You can read my rendition here

“Last Quarter of the Moon”: Readers Speak Out

An admittedly quirky collection — selected by me — of unedited online reviews of my translation of Chi Zijian’s 额尔古纳河右岸 (Last Quarter of the Moon). Not to worry. They aren’t all glowing recommendations. . .

* * *

Beautifully written, but depressing as fuck. (full text)

* * *

It is an atmospheric modern folk-tale, the saga of the Evenki clan of Inner Mongolia – nomadic reindeer herders whose traditional life alongside the Argun river endured unchanged for centuries, only to be driven almost to extinction during the political upheavals of the 20th century. (full text) 

* * *

Don’t let anyone kid you that this is anthropology in fictional guise however. Last Quarter is a real novel and the personalities of each of the herders, their sorrows and their joys, shine through. What I found very moving was their stoicism. And that’s not the same as fatalism. They suffer just like us. (full text)

* * *

Favourite line: “They faced each other like weathered cliffs” (full text)  

* * *

The account of the end of the traditional way of life is sentimental. Chi Zijian has not said anything which is likely to offend the Communist party or the Chinese state, but she has not told the truth for the Evenki. There is a story to be told about the genocide of the foraging people worldwide. The Last Quarter of the Moon isn’t that. (full text) 

* * *

[Read more…]

Excerpt: Hong Ke’s Xinjiang novel, “Urho”

Hong Ke’s novel, Urho (乌尔禾, 红柯著), is set during the 1960s in the Zungharian Basin at the edge of the Gurbantünggüt Desert. This remote and rugged area of Xinjiang was once a favored hunting ground for the Mongol Khans when they ruled Cathay. A Han soldier back from the Korean front — dubbed “Hailibu” by the乌尔禾封面 locals after the legendary Mongolian hero graced with the gift of understanding animal speech — runs a sheep ranch for the Xinjiang Construction Corps.

** Excerpt **

It was the tail-end of summer, and Hailibu hadn’t imagined that the boy would grow so intimate with the lambs. This was Hailibu’s error. He had forgotten that Weijiang’s affinity with the animal world was rapidly deepening.

Before the traditional time for setting sheep free — late autumn — had arrived, Weijiang set free a pair on his own.

This caused Hailibu considerable consternation. It was one thing for an old man to perform such a ritual, but perhaps this act of charity was best not performed by a child. Alone deep in the wilderness, Hailibu pounded his head.

Hailibu spoke with Weijiang’s father, suggesting the boy leave the sheep ranch. The man imagined his son must have stirred up some trouble. Yet when Hailibu explained about the boy’s releasing sheep into the wild, Weijiang’s father just laughed.

Freein’ a sheep, is that such a big thing?” said the father. “When that boy’s momma had him in her belly, she let hares go. At our place, they used to come and go whenever they pleased. I don’t know how many hares we freed, me ’n her. Hedgehogs too. Like fresh meat delivered to our door, but we saw ’em off in fine health.”

So somebody let a pair of your sheep go, and you feel bad, right?” he queried Hailibu. “I’ll give you ’nother two to make up for it.”

The hell you will! Let’s have a drink.”

The pair sat down on the kang and finished off a bottle of liquor. Hailibu felt relieved.

* * *

Time passed, but Hailibu remained uneasy. Having made arrangements for the ranch, he mounted his horse and began roaming the steppe. He rode to Toli and Hoboksar in North Xinjiang. He listened wistfully to urtyn duu, the famed Long-Song of the Mongolians, and to folk songs sung by Aken, Kazakh minstrels who play the stringed dongbula.

Hailibu visited the most respected Elder on the steppe. A virtual encyclopedia of the grasslands, the old man could narrate ancient legends for months on end. Among these tales, however, few mentioned a child setting sheep free.

This weighty matter on Hailibu’s conscience didn’t escape notice. “Guest from afar,” said the Elder, “Speak what is on your heart. Otherwise it will freeze over.”

Hailibu explained that a boy at his ranch had freed a pair of sheep on his own.

The old man was unfazed. “How far can they go, sheep released by a youngster?” Before the old man could utter another word, Hailibu began to tremble and prepared to kneel.

They were released by one child, so they shall be taken in by another,” announced the Elder, matter of factly. At which point, Hailibu prostrated himself with a thud.

Fathers are like that,” chuckled the Elder. Two young Kazakhs lifted the visitor off the ground. Hailibu clambered into his saddle like a drunkard.

Can he ride that way?” asked one of the young men as Hailibu’s horse departed. “He’s falling asleep. Better bring him back!”

A horseman doesn’t sleep in a tent or on a prairie,” said the Elder. “For him, the steadiest bed is a saddle.”

Hong Ke wrote "Urho" in Chinese, but it has been translated into Uyghur (see cover, above)

Hong Ke wrote “Urho” in Chinese, but it has been translated into Uyghur (see cover, above)

Hailibu was indeed exhausted. On the steppe, there is a custom: When a man reaches the limits of his fatigue, in his stupor he climbs into his saddle, releases the reins and lets his steed take charge. Dreams know no boundaries, nor does sleep. This carefree, directionless rambling is a gift from the Heavens, when a Spirit takes brief possession of the body.

Like a bird, a gazelle, a deer or a wild stallion,” said the Elder to the young men. “That’s a life worthy of envy.” [end]

Like to read the full Chapter 3 from Hong Ke’s Xinjiang-based novel? Contact Ms. Wang Ting (wangting904@163.com) at Beijing October Arts & Literature Publishing House.

Korean Script in Mainstream China Media: Kosher at last?

For the first time ever — I’ve been watching such announcements for at least 5 years — official Chinese media has used an indigenous language other than Mandarin to publicize the winners of a major literary prize for writing in a minority language. In this case, the China Writers Association has issued a Chinese press release (檀君文学奖评奖结果揭晓) using Korean to cite the names of the winning titles for the 檀君文学奖 literary prize, a new competition for writing in Korean that will be held every two years hence. It is named after Tangun, the legendary founder of Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom located around present-day Liaoning, Manchuria, and the Korean Peninsula.

In the past, winning titles written in Mongolian or Uyghur, for instance, were announced solely using Chinese characters. This was patently absurd, as many of these books did not even exist in Chinese, and interested readers could not easily use those invented Chinese titles to find the work online or in a bookstore.

There have been some suggestions that this was coming. For instance, the very official Baidu Baike has recently begun using the Uyghur’s Arabic-based script to note the names of some Uyghur artists (see Baidu Encyclopedia First?). Ironically, it refers to such names as “foreign,” but better listed than not, I suppose.

Here’s a partial list of winners (Chinese titles are translations and do not necessarily mean the work has been published in Chinese):

Novel

许莲顺 (허련순) for 누가 나비의 집을 보았을가 (谁见过蝴蝶的巢)

Short Story

张正一 (장정일) for 세모의 설레임 (岁暮随想)

Reportage 

李惠善 (리혜선) for  정률성평전 (郑律成评传)

For the full list that includes children’s books, poetry and other categories, see here.

Altaic Storytelling Quote of the Week: Pu Zhiqiang and the Taboo “C” Word for Xinjiang

說新疆是中國的,就別把它當殖民地,別當征服者和掠奪者。

If Xinjiang belongs to China, then don’t treat it as a colony, don’t act like conquerors and plunderers.

(One of the Weibo messages for which China’s human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志強) is now being prosecuted, charged with “inciting ethnic hatred”. Cited in China’s Case Against a Civil Rights Lawyer, in Seven Social Media Posts)