Definitions of “Chinese” Literary Works in Expansion Mode?

An intriguing picture of what constitutes Chinese literature (中国文学) emerges via an interview with Bai Gengsheng (访中国作协书记处书记白庚胜), a Naxi who has held several senior positions in the state-run ethnic minority literary research apparatus, including his current role as Secretary of the China Writers Association.

In the interview with Chinese Reading Weekly (中华读书报), Bai says:

In ancient times, the myths, epics and narrative poems of minority ethnicities blossomed with éclat in the garden of Chinese — even global — literature . . . Guan Hanqing (关汉卿), Pu Songling (蒲松龄), Nalan Xingde (纳兰性德), Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹), Abay (Ibrahim) Qunanbayuli (阿拜), Tsangyang Gyatso (仓央嘉措), Maḥmūd al-Kāšġarī (喀什噶理), Ali-Shir Nava’i (纳瓦依), Kutadgu Bilig (福乐智慧), The Gate of Wisdom (真理的入门), Compendium of the languages of the Turks (突厥语大辞典), Secret History of the Mongols (蒙古秘史), Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦), Storied Building with a Single Floor (一层楼), Weeping for the Red Pavilion (泣红亭), and The Story of Qing Dynasty History (青史演义) are all world-renowned authors and works.

It is interesting to note that Bai does not mention Life of Jangar (Mongol, 江格尔), King Gesar (Tibetan, 格萨尔王), and Manas (Kyrgyz, 玛纳斯), which are now officially recognized by Beijing as the three great non-Han epics of ancient Chinese literature. Over the last year or so, however, several experts in ethnic literature have pointed out that these works are still not widely introduced in standard textbooks on Chinese literature used in the PRC today.

I recently published a post about how writing in languages native to China — other than Mandarin — has long been relegated to the periphery by Han literary historians. Here’s a passage from that post (Mother-tongue Literature) (the words are mine, my summary of ideas presented in Chinese by Liu Daxian, who is a member of the editorial staff at the quarterly Studies of Ethnic Literature 民族文学研究):

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, and 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).

If anything, Bai’s list of Chinese literary classics by a range of multi-ethnic authors moves in the opposite direction. He concentrates on “written” (as opposed to “oral”) literature, and considers the texts he cites as mainstream. But does his list represent the result of a positive and inclusive view of Chinese literature, or an expansive, even imperialist one in which the Chinese literary establishment is attempting to appropriate classics that rightfully belong to other peoples of Northeast and Central Asia?

On the one hand are works such as The Dream of the Red Chamber, authored by Qing Dynasty Manchu writer Cao Xueqin. Written in Chinese, I assume few would dispute its positioning as a classic of Chinese literature.

In the disputed category would be the works of Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai Lama and a poet whose love songs in Tibetan verse are much beloved among Tibetans and Han alike. Many would consider it ironic that Tsangyang Gyatso’s writing should be considered part and parcel of the Chinese literary tradition, given that he was kidnapped and deposed in a series of murky events, possibly with the consent of Emperor Kang Xi of Qing.

Potentially more controversially, several of the works cited by Bai were written in non-Sinitic languages by authors whose people were simply not a part of the Chinese empire at the time. Secret History of the Mongols, for instance, which is renowned as the “oldest surviving Mongolian-language literary work.” Granted, the only existing text is a Ming Dynasty Chinese transliteration/translation of a text originally in Uyghur script, but this is a history of Genghis Khan written for the Mongol royal family at a time when the Mongols had not been incorporated into China — the Mongols ruled the Han, not vice-versa.

Perhaps an even more striking example of Bai’s “appropriation” are two famous works by Turkic authors. Mahmud al-Kashgari, an 11th-century Muslim Uyghur scholar and lexicographer of Turkic languages from Kashgar, was the author of Compendium of the Languages of the Turks (Diwan Lughat al-Turk). According to Unesco, it “is a cultural treasure for the Turks of Turkey as well as for the Uzbeks, Uygurs and other Turkic peoples. It is the richest source for the language and the ethnography of the Turks at a time (the eleventh century) when they were becoming the dominant military and political force in the Muslim world.”

In fact, at the time of Mahmud al-Kashgari’s birth, Kashgar — located in China’s modern-day Xinjiang — had not been under Chinese control for centuries. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (Kashgar), “After 752 the Chinese were again forced to withdraw, and Kashgar was successively occupied by the Turks, the Uighurs (in the 10th and 11th centuries), the Karakitai (12th century), and the Mongols (in 1219).”

Slightly further afield is another of the works cited by Bai Gengsheng, Wisdom Which Brings Good Fortune (Kutadgu Bilig). It is thought to have been penned by Yūsuf Khāṣṣ Ḥājib, a native of Balasagun (modern-day Kyrgyzstan), which was then the winter capital of the Karakhanid empire. According to Wikipedia (Kutagdu Bilig), the work was completed in about 1069 AD and presented to Tavghach Bughra Khan, the prince of Kashgar. It was written in the Uyghur-Karluk (Khaqaniye) language of the Karakhanids.

In summary, it’s a bit difficult to fathom quite how Bai Gengsheng came up with his intriguing list of Chinese classics (above). Significantly, he didn’t use the term zhōnghuá (中华), which implies Chinese in the sense of a “multi-ethnic China”; he simply classified them as part of Chinese literature (中国文学). But it seems that the following are all eligible:

  • Texts written in a language native to any of the 55 minority ethnicities which now populate the PRC;
  • Texts composed by members of a people who are now one of China’s officially recognized minority ethnic groups, regardless of whether that ethnicity had been incorporated into the Chinese empire at the time.

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