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Altaic Peoples & Tales (阿尔泰各民族及其故事)

11th-Century Turkic Classic “Kutadgu Bilig” Recited in Chinese at the Great Hall of the People

Wish I could have been there along with former Minister of Culture Wang Meng — a Han who spent part of the Cultural Revolution in Ili laboring among Uyghurs — and central

Author Yusuf Khass Hajib on Kyrgyz currency: What would he think of the recital at the Great Hall of the People?

government and Xinjiang dignitaries. I was briefly in Beijing but unaware of the event: On January 18, a new Chinese rendition of the 11th-Century Turkic Classic Kutadgu Bilig (福乐智慧) was launched and an excerpt recited at the Great Hall of the People.

The symbolism of this recital should not be underestimated. It took place on Tiananmen Square, the heart of political China, at a time when Xinjiang society is the object of a harsh crackdown that at times appears more “anti-Uyghur” than “anti-terrorist”: Uyghur women wearing the hijab and long-bearded men are being banned from public transport; Uyghurs in some areas of Xinjiang can no longer travel freely with their national ID, but must apply for difficult-to-obtain additional identification such as a “Convenience Card” (便民卡); moderate Uyghur intellectual and spokesman Ilham Tohti has recently been sentenced to life in jail for operating a web site alleged to have incited separatism; and hundreds of writers and translators have reportedly signed an Open letter to our Uyghur Compatriots in which they call for Muslims to “go to mosques under the sunshine instead of illegal teaching sites hidden in underground dens.”

In this context, the re-publication — it was first published in 2003, and nothing in the news item explains if there is any major difference between the two editions — of the Chinese-language Kutadgu Bilig is intriguing. Thus the questions: What is the nature of the work, and why the high-profile relaunch?

Launch ceremony: The Party's poster-boy for Han-Uyghur friendship, Wang Meng, pointed out similarities of Kutadgu Bilig with Confucius' "Analects"
Launch ceremony: The Party’s poster-boy for Han-Uyghur friendship, Wang Meng, pointed out similarities of Kutadgu Bilig with Confucius’ “Analects”

The book was authored by Yusuf Khass Hajib (يۈسۈپ خاس ھاجىپ‎), an 11th-century Turkic poet from the city of Balasaghun, the capital of the Karakhanid Empire in modern-day Kyrgyzstan. He died in Kashgar in 1085 and a mausoleum now stands on his gravesite.

According to Wikipedia, Kutadgu Bilig was written in Uyghur-Karluk language (Middle Turkic), and employed the Arabic mutaqārib metre (couplets of two rhyming 11-syllable lines). The poem is “structured around the relations between four main characters, each representing an abstract principle” (Justice, Forture, Intellect and Man’s Last end). The author presented it to the Prince of Kashgar, and it does “appear to include instruction for how to be a good leader. In addition, the author of the Kutadgu Bilig states in the text that he was trying to make a Turkic version of something like the Shāh-nāmeh.” The latter, also known as The Book of Kings, is considered the “national” epic poem of Greater Iran.

The highly publicized relaunch of this translation of Kutadgu Bilig appears to be aimed at:

  • Confirming and celebrating the historically heterogeneous nature of Chinese society
  • Positioning ancient Uyghur classics as part and parcel of the “multi-ethnic Chinese” — or Zhōnghuá — tradition
  • Drawing parallels between the political philosophies of great thinkers such as Confucius and Yusuf Khass Hajib
  • Highlighting trends in translation of the arts, i.e., that traditional uni-directional (Han-to-minority language) translation is now being replaced by a trend to pro-actively translate between the various languages of the PRC
  • Reminding critics of the anti-terrorist crackdown that their target is separatists and terrorists, not Uyghur culture per se.

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