China’s Bilingual Writers: Narrative with a Difference

It began back in 2008 with Penguin investing heavily—$100,000 is the rumored price—to purchase Jiang Rong’s tale based in Inner Mongolia, Wolf Totem. In 2013 two newly translated novels joined China’s “borderland fiction” category: Fan Wen’s Une terre de lait et de miel, located in the gateway to Tibet straddling Yunnan and Sichuan, and Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon, which features the reindeer-herding Evenki whose lives revolve around the Argun River that demarcates the Sino-Russian border.

Penned in Chinese, these novels are the creations of Han authors who have consciously chosen to set their tales amongNeige by Pema Tseden non-Han peoples who have historically resided at the fringes of the Middle Kingdom. Ran Ping’s Legend of Mongolia (蒙古往事), a fictionalized biography of Genghis Khan that was short-listed for the Mao Dun Literary Prize in 2008, also falls into this category, but it has not been translated into any European language.

Of course, there are popular novelists of various ethnicities who choose to write about their people using Chinese. Part-Tibetan Alai, author of The Song of Gesar (格萨尔王) and Red Poppies (尘埃落定), comes to mind, for instance.

But what about ethnic writers who not only speak two languages native to China, but write in both? Two have recently come to my attention, one who writes in Tibetan and Chinese, and another who uses both Uyghur and Chinese.

Fortunately for you—if you read French—7 of Pema Tseden’s short stories originally in Tibetan (3) and Chinese (4) have been released in one volume from Editions Philippe Picquier, Neige. Filmmaker and writer Tseden (པད་མ་ཚེ་བརྟན།) is a pioneer in the use of Tibetan, the first mainland director to ever shoot a film entirely in his native tongue (Old Dog).

Translations for Neige were carried out by Brigitte Duzan (from the Chinese) and Françoise Robin (from the Tibetan).

I haven’t read the collection yet, but Creating a Modern Thangka, a video interview touching upon the motivations behind his film-making, suggests that he wants to “reclaim” the popular contemporary narrative of Tibet, one that he considers unauthentic:

“. . . my friends or other acquaintances have all seen many movies on Tibet and Tibetan culture. However, most of the movies do not portray the Tibetan culture and Tibetan way of life and value systems properly. 

So all of us feel saddened. 

We felt that it would be very good to see someone who has lived and experienced that culture himself make a movie representing that real experience. Everyone shared that view. I also feel the same way.”

I’m looking forward to reading Neige. It will be interesting to see just what he means by portraying “the Tibetan culture and Tibetan way of life and value systems properly.”

Another bilingual writer of note is Xinjiang’s Alat Asem (阿拉提·阿斯木). In a revealing interview with Huang Zhenwei (黄振伟), Alat Asem recounts how his identify as a Uyghur was called into question early on in his career because he had been published solely in Chinese (地域化、全球化和双语写作):

“At the time, a lot of people saw this as a serious problem. ‘As a Uyghur writer, how can you use Chinese to write? Aren’t you portraying the lives of Uyghurs? You write in Chinese and we can’t read it, that’s one issue. And another issue is that as a Uyghur, if you don’t use Uyghur to write, are you an author? Author for whom? The Han won’t acknowledge you, nor will the Uyghur.’”

Stunned by this criticism, over the last decade or so he says he has added ten Uyghur novels to his list of Chinese works, something that required putting considerable effort into mastering written Uyghur.

Alat Asem's latest novella
Alat Asem’s latest novella

I’ve read two of his short stories in the Chinese, including one from a collection entitled 蝴蝶时代 (The Butterfly Era). It is indeed a somewhat odd sensation to find yourself in a world peopled solely by Uyghurs whose innermost thoughts are described in a distinctive Mandarin with a Xinjiang feel that occasionally approaches stream-of-consciousness prose.

But that’s not surprising, because Alat Asem is an intellectual whose writing is informed by wide reading, and he consciously plays with language. Among those poets that he tells Huang Zhenwei have caught his eye are Chinese including Ai Qing (艾青), and Guo Xiaochuan (郭小川), Bei Dao (北岛) and Shu Ting (舒婷), as well as Uyghur poets (尼米希依提, 铁伊浦江, and黎·穆塔里夫), Russia’s Pushkin and America’s Walt Whitman. He also cites a host of Uyghur and Kazakh novelists whose writing has influenced him, including Zordun Sabir,艾克拜尔·米吉提,and 穆罕默德·巴格拉希.

Anglophone readers can get a taste of Alat Asem’s style when he writes in Chinese, albeit via . . . a translation. Here’s an excerpt from his Sidik Golden MobOff.

2 thoughts on “China’s Bilingual Writers: Narrative with a Difference

  1. I was trying to find Alat Asem’s Uyghur name and found غەيرەت ئاسىم, which could be transliterated as Gheyret Asim. Do you know if he prefers the Alat spelling or if that is just the conventional use?


    1. Thanks for commenting!

      Yes, I am aware that Alat Asem is perhaps not the most accurate spelling of his name as it is pronounced in Uyghur. I have never asked him how he would like it spelled, though we have corresponded and he could certainly tell me. But since I began writing about “non-Han peoples” in my blog in 2009, I’ve noticed how difficult it can be to find minority writers on the web, be they Tibetan, Mongolian, etc. Since this is the spelling used by Chutzpah magazine (that published my translation of his Sidik Golden MobOff), I’ve tried to use the same spelling since.


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