China’s Ethnic-themed Fiction: Mongolian Author Raises the Bar with Call for Bilingual Skills

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

Guo Xuebo: Calling for authors to bone up on minority tongues
Guo Xuebo: Calling for authors to bone up on minority tongues

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.

2 thoughts on “China’s Ethnic-themed Fiction: Mongolian Author Raises the Bar with Call for Bilingual Skills

  1. If a writer decides to learn a new language, it probably will be a foreign language of some sort rather than an ethnic language. Here in America and probably many other parts of the world, you see the same thing happening. When is the last time you see someone trying to learn the language of Native Americans? I don’t know how to make of it, but this is not just a Chinese phenomenon. It probably has more to do with the universal motivation for language learning and the fact that human life is short.


    1. @Berlin No doubt you’re right, Berlin. In China, the odds are high that if a writer wished to learn another language, it would be English. But your comment is irrelevant to what Guo Xuebo was proposing. According to the report, which cites him indirectly and not in quotes, he was suggesting that a writer who wishes to write about another ethnic group in China would be well advised to first familiarize himself or herself with the spoken and written language of that minority. The reason I brought this to readers’ attention is: 1) This is a rare call to promote learning the languages of non-Han ethnicities, rather than the national language, and it is surprising to see it reported in a publication from a state-run organization (republished on the China Writers Association web site); 2) There is a hint here of discontent among ethnic writers that their peoples are being misrepresented in popular Chinese fiction like “The Tibet Code”; and 3) It is interesting to see how a “Chairman Xi” study session, intended as a means of popularizing the policy of putting “art at the service of politics,” can be used to express viewpoints that seem less than harmonious.


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