Xi Jinping’s recent media blitz reminds China’s propaganda workers that — as Chairman Mao told us back at the 1942 Yan’an Forum — art should serve politics. No ifs, ands or buts, Comrades.
To ensure the message gets across to the 55 ethnic minorities that weren’t born Han, “learn from Chairman Xi” study sessions targeting non-Han writers are underway, and one was held on October 29 in Beijing (学习习近平总书记). Jointly organized by China Writers Association and Chinese Minority Writers Society, it featured several speakers who hold important positions in state-run bodies such as Ye Mei (Tujia, editor-in-chief, Nationalities Literature Magazine), Malchinkuu (Mongolian, editor, Inner Mongolia Literature Magazine) and Dan Zeng (Tibetan, former deputy chairman of China Writers Association).
But in the midst of (predictable) lavish praise for Xi Jinping’s recent talk on the role of art, Mongolian author Guo Xuebo (郭雪波) issued this
challenge to those authors who wish to write about China’s ethnic minorities:
It’s permissible to describe the life of other ethnic groups, but it would be best to learn their spoken language, so that we can dialogue with the masses and understand what they are really thinking. And similarly, it’s best to learn to read their written language so that we can dialogue with their history, culture and ethnic consciousness. If these two aspects are not grasped, we often cannot enter deeply into the inner world of that people, and it will be very difficult to pen an excellent work.
That’s a refreshing change in emphasis . . . but perhaps not one that was on the official agenda. Again and again we have heard the authorities urge minorities to learn the national language, but I do not recall having heard anyone in the media call pointedly for others to master a “minority” tongue.
Significantly, several (perhaps most) of the “ethnic-themed” novels now available in European languages were written by Han authors who speak no other language indigenous to China. See Chinese Fiction in Translation for details.
Of course, that’s not to say that China doesn’t possess well-known bilingual writers of fiction. I mention some in Narrative with a Difference.
But take note: these bilingual writers are not ethnic Han, i.e., they are native speakers of Tibetan or Uyghur who learned Mandarin at school. The only high-profile bilingual Han author that comes to mind — I assume there are others — is Wang Meng, who spent most of the Cultural Revolution in Xinjiang living among Uyghurs (Dispatches from Xinjiang). He wrote a long novel featuring Uyghur characters that was recently released to much fanfare, 这边的风景 . Press reports highlighting the book’s launch suggest that he was — and remains — a fluent Uyghur speaker, but I suppose we should take that with a grain (or two) of salt.
Don’t misunderstand me — I certainly don’t feel that learning the language of the people one writes about in a fictional piece is de rigueur. But I also comprehend Guo Xuebo’s concern when a Han writer like Ran Ping, who grew up in Inner Mongolia without learning Mongolian, can turn out a best-selling novel (Legend of Mongolia) and several much-praised TV and movie scripts about Genghis Khan and Mongolian history that have arguably done more to shape 21st-century perceptions of Mongolian culture in China than works by those who can consult Mongolian historians in the original.
Nor is knowledge of minority languages sufficiently emphasized in academic circles. My classical Chinese tutor in Yunnan, a Han, graduated recently with a degree in Ethnic Minority History from one of a handful of Chinese tertiary institutions devoted to related research, Kunming’s Minzu University. A more recent graduate student at a leading university in Beijing whom I know, wrote his dissertation on a traditional Manchu story-teller. Both students told me that they were not required — nor did they choose — to study the language of any China-based ethnic group.