A Resounding “Yes” to Mother-tongue Literature — but for Whom and about What?

Liu Daxian (刘大先, pictured here)  has just published a persuasive call to recognize the great value of “mother-tongue literature” (多民族母语文学) to Chinese literature (中国文学) as a whole. Liu is a member of the editorial staff at the quarterly Studies of Ethnic Literature (民族文学研究) who did a stint in 2009 as a visiting scholar at Columbia U in New York.

Much of what appears in Chinese on the web site of the Ethnic Literature Institute (中国民族文学网) is so full of politically-charged jabberwocky that my eyes occasionally glide off the screen. Liu’s articles are a wonderful exception.

While it may seem self-evident, this viewpoint does need to be elaborated and defended in 21st century China. For one thing, post-1949 China had an entirely state-run economy until Deng Xiaoping opened the door to Sino-foreign joint ventures and private enterprise in the early 80s, and even today China remains a one-party state. Variety has not always been the “spice of life,” and at times official policy has called for minority writers to contribute to New China by painting a sugar-sweet picture of multi-ethnic harmony. Period.

Liu emphasizes that “mother-tongue literature” includes both written and oral forms. He points out that “literature” as defined and promoted via China’s modern education, media and scholarship tends to focus on written forms such as the novel, poetry, essays and drama. Since much mother-tongue literature — by which he basically means “literature in indigenous languages except for Mandarin” throughout the essay — doesn’t easily fit in those categories, it is viewed as a non-mainstream, even subtly inferior class of literature (亚文学).

He argues that the world view, concept of history and values expressed in mother-tongue literature constitute a treasure house that greatly enriches the literature of China, including — but not limited to — that which is written in Mandarin. He cites the “Convention on Biodiversity” signed by 150 heads of government in Brazil in 1992, and reminds us that “biodiversity can bring balance to the eco-system.”

Apparently this is now true for China’s literary scene, but not (yet) for its “political eco-system” — oops, my (politically incorrect) words, not Liu’s!

At any rate, Liu’s well-reasoned argument reminds me of a book by Professor Xie Tianzhen of Shanghai Int’l Studies U that I read six or seven years ago. His point was that there is a large body of widely read translated literature in China today that has effectively become part of China’s literary tradition, and should be treated as such by literary scholars. I doubt most educated foreigners would dispute that point of view, but at times xenophobia in post-1949 China has made such an admission almost unpatriotic.

Liu highlights the role of China’s contemporary bilingual/trilingual authors who he believes are strategically situated to enrich the literary scene, particularly if they speak a language without a script, and manage to express their people’s oral tradition via written Chinese, effectively rendering it accessible to hundreds of millions of readers nationwide.

Bilingual authors, or rather those among them who choose to write in both languages, are naturally a fairly rare breed. See Narrative with a Difference to learn about two of them.

The sincerity and persuasiveness of his essay aside, I find that Liu has neglected two very important — and politically sensitive — questions that are crucial to the future of mother-tongue literature in China.

One is the issue of education in languages other than Mandarin and English. Who is going to write in their native language — or read what is written for that matter — if they cannot receive a decent education in it?

One problem is that many of China’s indigenous languages do not have a script, or the one they have is used only by a small group of intellectuals. An example of the former is the reindeer-herding Evenki of the Greater Khingan Mountains (featured in Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon), and for the latter, Zhuang is a good example.

A different problem is the one encountered by peoples who do have a script, such as the Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongols. They face a form of segregation if they want to educate their children well in their native tongue. Since most mainstream public schools do not provide bilingual education, sometimes their only option is to send their children to special bilingual boarding schools dominated by minority students — depriving them of chances to socialize with Han Chinese — that are often far from their homes.

The price they pay for decent literacy in their own tongue is a much-reduced chance to get into a good university, and only a handful of universities will allow them to continue to use their language in their studies.

As I understand it, the central government continues to employ a variety of means to restrict overall education opportunities in Uyghur and Tibetan. These moves are very sensitive and not normally publicized in China, but some news has surfaced via protests on YouTube, for instance. The driver for these measures seems to be that education in the national language is undeniably more useful for future employment, and because education in Uyghur or Tibetan, in particular, is likely to breed separatist sentiment.

The other sensitive topic that Liu avoids entirely is just what mother-tongue authors—now officially encouraged to contribute — should be writing about.

It cannot be denied that the standards for censorship applicable to minority writers are much tighter than those applied to their Han counterparts. For example, any event, topic or viewpoint that is “taboo” for a Han writer will equally be so for a minority writer. But the minority writer must also avoid a whole series of mundane topics that may well be a daily reality of his or her people. For example, the illegal but common practice — well documented in the foreign press — of running employment advertisements which specify the race of the applicant. Or the impact of the razing of the Old City of Kashgar on thousands of Uyghur families. Or the decision to close or relocate bilingual schools. Or the fact that the authorities in many cities encourage hotel staff and guests to report Uyghur or Tibetan guests to the nearest police station, effectively treating them like foreigners in their own country.

And so forth. Unless mother-tongue authors are able to win more “artistic space” for a realistic portrayal of their lives — as lived, and not as imagined by the Han majority or as permitted by zealous censors — what we are likely to get is a flood of writing about “exotic” ancient traditions. That may fit well into the Chinese authorities’ current obsession with registering World Heritage Sites and Intangible Cultural Heritage items . . . but it’s not a recipe for great literature.

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