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Chinese Fiction by & about Ethnic Minorities (中国少数民族文学) My Literary Translations (本人的译著)

“Funeral of a Muslim” (穆斯林的葬礼): Tale of Three Generations of a 20th Century Hui Family

With sales of several million copies, Funeral of a Muslim, Huo Da’s tale about three generations of a Hui family in Beijing, is quite possibly the most popular ethnic-themed novel ever published in China. It spans the turbulent years of the Japanese invasion, World War II and part of the Cultural Revolution.

If the novel is not well known in the West, neither are the Hui, the “other” dominant Muslim people in China who actually number over ten million. Unlike the Turkic-speaking Uyghur of Xinjiang, the Hui are descendants of Muslim Silk Road travelers — Arab, Persian and Central Asians — who married Han Chinese and converted to Islam, itself introduced during the Tang Dynasty by Arab traders.

This is the opening portion of a translated excerpt that was commissioned at the behest of the China publisher of the original, October Arts & Literature Publishing House. As I understand it, the full novel is currently being translated by Rachel Henson.

Funeral of a Muslim (穆斯林的葬礼)

(Excerpted from Chapter 1)

Translated by Bruce Humes

Edited by Paper Republic

The Jade Demon

A standard four-sided siheyüan residential compound.

A grey wall of finely rubbed, seamless brickwork masses under the double-sloped roof that overhangs the Entrance Gatehouse, and plainly adorned guardian dragonheads, one at either end of the roof ridge, glower from on high. Mounted on the roof above the rafters is a row of evenly spaced triangular “drip tiles.”

Under the eaves, the main gate is painted dark red. Attached to the weighty wooden gate are a pair of brass door cymbals the size of rice bowls, from which dangle round knockers. A couplet, engraved in gilded “hollowcharacter” calligraphy, runs down the center of the two gate leaves:

Lustrous pearl, raw jade.

Crisp breeze, luminous moon.

Two hexagonal decorative cylinders extend slightly from the door lintel, each inlaid with one character: “Erudition” and “Elegance.” These words differ from the proverbs usually found there, such as “Long Life and Prosperity” or “A sun-drenched mansion is the permanent abode of Spring; A free-handed household enjoys everlasting plentitude.” This choice subtly conveys the distinctive aspirations of the residence’s owner. Flanking the gate is a pair of decorative stone drums; five limestone steps lead to the raised threshold.

This entrance is normally tightly closed. When the returning owner or a visitor sounds the knocker, an elderly housemaid emerges from the southern wing to open the gate and greet him. At the end of a long passageway sits a “Spirit Screen,” which deters negative energy and blocks prying eyes. Atop it are roof tile shards, and the foundation consists of en- graved bricks; the whitewashed center space, free of calligraphy or painting, resembles a patch of limpid moonlight.

At the bottom of the screen wall, twisted roots and gnarled vines of wisteria bend and wind skywards like the legendary small-horned dragon, clambering up bamboo stalks and insinuating their copious stems around them; their green leaves blot out the sky and hang down in clusters that touch the earth. Every spring and summer they blossom madly, their racemes dangling like countless strings of purple gems.

Between the main entrance and the Spirit Screen lies a long, narrow forecourt. This five-room southern wing, hous- ing the servants’ quarters and the Outer Reception Room, is known as the “Opposite Quarters” because it faces north toward the Main House.

Rather than occupying its center, the Entrance Gatehouse is wedged into the southeastern corner of the compound wall, as is customary fengshui for a siheyüan. “Seat the Main House in the north. Open the Entrance Gatehouse toward the southeast” – this will ensure good fortune.

The Pendant Flower Gate, diagonally opposite the main entrance, falls on the central axis of the compound’s layout. This is the passage between the Inner and Outer Courtyards, a pivotal role, for it ensures the privacy of the residents. Unlike the simple and dignified style of the Entrance Gatehouse, this gate is elaborately adorned in fine detail.

In contrast to the dark red of the entrance to the compound, the gate is painted in vermilion and decorated with brush strokes embossed and covered with gold foil. From the eaves hang canopy-style pierced wooden carvings as richly ornamented as a sedan chair. The detailed carving and colored drawings testify to the superb techniques of the artisans who decorated this venerable structure.

Past the Pendant Flower Gate stands another Spirit Screen, but it differs from the one in the inner courtyard. Free of brick or tile, it is carved from yellow boxwood and consists of four panels similar to a folding parlor screen. Four scenes have been engraved on it in relief: Half-moon over O’mei Mountain, inspired by Li Po’s poem; Suchou Night Moon; Dawn Moon at Marco Polo Bridge, a famous Peking vista; and Moon Rising above the Deep Blue Sea. They all feature the moonlight, but each appeals in a distinctive manner that inspires the imagination to soar.

Once past the Spirit Screen, you arrive in the Inner Courtyard. There are three rooms each in the Eastern and Western Wings, and five south-facing rooms in the Main House to the north. A corridor with a wooden balustrade links all the rooms, forming a square that converges at the Pendant Flower Gate. In the middle of the courtyard, a cross-shaped, brick-paved path connects all the doorways.

At either side of the Main House, from spring through autumn grow crab apples and pomegranates, their branches and leaves twirling, a joy to the eye.

Among Peking’s siheyüan this one ranks as middling in size. There are larger ones, compounds encompassing three or even five courtyards, those with smaller enclosed spaces outside the Side Houses located to the east and west of the Main House, those with gardens, and countless variations thereupon.

But in terms of architectural design, this residence reaches a certain level of sophistication, and because the owner took part in its design, it exhibits a unique sense of elegance and tranquility. Furthermore, its location is ideal: not too near the noisy markets nor too far from the main boulevards, so when shut inside it is possible to isolate oneself from the material world, but when exiting, access to all directions is convenient. It meets the demands of tranquility and dynamism in a dwelling, particularly for someone who wants to be out and about in society, yet also longs for inner peace.

The couplet on the Entrance Gateway, the moonlight scenes gracing the four-leaved Spirit Screen and the greenery in the courtyard – none is there by chance.

Yet the master here is a detective captain, a man possessing neither great learning nor elegance. Outfitted in a black police uniform with his “piece” hanging at his hip, he deals strictly in handcuffs and shackles.

It is said that before the manor fell into his hands, it was occupied by a frustrated Ch’ing Dynasty scholar who, destined never to secure an official position, retreated from society and devoted his energies to reading, painting connois- seurship, and the appreciation of ancient tiles and relics. He adored jade items from every dynasty and era, and consoled himself with the Confucian adage: The virtues of the True Gentleman resemble the qualities of jade.

He normally remained behind closed doors and shunned company, the rare exception being an occasional stroll to a handful of jade dealers and craftsmen. When he discovered a treasure, he’d empty his purse for the pleasure of possessing it. But if the price was beyond his means, he still insisted on getting an eyeful, savoring it to the fullest before retreating.

Whenever he heard someone had acquired a piece of fine jade, no matter if he’d previously made their acquaintance, he’d unabashedly call on the collector to satisfy his desire to lay eyes on it. Already in his old age yet often so possessed, he was dubbed “The Jade Demon” in ridicule. But the old man wasn’t angry when he heard of this; he was proud of his sobriquet.

In his eighth decade he passed away of old age at home. His male heirs were unworthy of their inheritance and went bankrupt. The house changed owners, coming into the hands of the captain. But the old man’s legacy still cast a shadow over it.

One spring day in 1935, the 24th year of the Republic of China, the captain suddenly decided to sell the house and move elsewhere. Just why, outsiders could only surmise: perhaps because he had amassed such wealth and power, the site no longer befitted him and he must establish a new residence; or perhaps he had expenses due to some intrigue in official cir- cles that required quick cash. But in fact, his absolute need to move had a different cause.

One night, a strange cry roused him from his deep sleep: “I threw it down! I threw it down!”

His lawman’s intuition made him get out of bed, wrap a garment around his shoulders, go to the courtyard and listen intently for a moment.

No sound anywhere. It was a fine, cool night under a full moon and the courtyard was bathed in its brightness. There was no suspicious movement of any sort. Wondering if he hadn’t been dreaming, he turned around and returned to his bedroom.

But no sooner had he lay down then that cry sounded again: “I threw it down! I threw it down!”

The captain hastily woke his wife. “Listen! What’s that commotion outside?”

“I threw it down! I threw it down!”

His wife rubbed her drowsy eyes. “You’re a bundle of nerves! What do you want me to listen for?”

It was passing strange. Such a loud noise, but she hadn’t heard anything! Puzzled, the captain lay back down. But he didn’t catch a wink of sleep.

Several nights in succession he heard the strange cry clearly, as if it were the voice of “The Jade Demon,” the old gentleman who had passed away years ago. As a detective captain, it was within his remit to take the lives of others, and he shouldn’t have feared a ghost’s long-decomposed corpse roaming in the wee hours.

But when he recalled how he had taken crafty advantage of the manor’s disadvantaged owner to wrest his valuable property from him, and how his own wife joked that “Only someone with a bad conscience fears the ghost’s knock,” he couldn’t help but shudder. He lived in fear that one day that “voice” might really toss a grenade his way.

He couldn’t believe his mind would play tricks on him, nor could he explain this bizarre affair.

If he revealed it to others, no one would believe him, but he felt ill at ease hiding it in his heart. Of the thirty-six strategies, departure is the wisest, assures the proverb, and he grew anxious to abandon this siheyüan and its lustrous pearl, raw jade / crisp breeze, luminous moon.

*************

News that the Residence of Erudition and Elegance was to change hands traveled quickly through the alleyways, tea- houses and taverns, and everyone debated the topic intently. Some listened to gauge the market price and assess their own buying power, but more numerous were those just keen to join in the fun and discover who, in the end, could afford to buy it.

Some brokers who specialized in acting as a go-between mustered up the courage to visit the captain in the hopes of “plucking a hair from the tiger’s mouth.” He despised this sort of riff-raff. Did he really need to have his profits shaved by some usurious middleman?

So he let it be known: “Whoever wishes to buy my mansion, come see me in person! As for errand boys and go-betweens, keep your distance!”

Having frightened the nosy public off the property, the captain simply sat at home awaiting genuine buyers, instead of visiting the real estate market and fatiguing his tongue with explanations. He firmly believed that property of this class couldn’t fail to sell, for there would always be a buyer who knew his goods and had the ready cash.

One day someone knocked at the door. The house maid led the guest in and seated him in the dimly lit, north-facing Outer Reception Room, and then led the master of the house out from the inner compartment.

The captain threw his visitor a glance. The fellow was about thirty, wearing a grey ch’angshan gown, a fedora, and dark blue cloth shoes, but despite a tall frame, he appeared thin and infirm. With a swarthy complexion, wide forehead, hair parted down the middle, high eyebrows, and eyes that were slightly sunken but dark, shiny and full of spirit, he had a shrewd, canny look to him.

After years of experience in dealing with human beings of varying ilk, the captain could often see through a person at a single glance. With looks like this, the visitor must be a clerk or a petty schoolmaster – a bean-counter at most. He certainly wouldn’t be there to buy the house, and had probably come in the hopes of facilitating a favorable resolution to some legal matter.

With this in mind, the captain was already peeved. “What do you want to see me about?” he asked icily, not bothering to employ a polite form of address.

“I’ve heard that your esteemed residence is no longer big enough for your family, and you’d like a change of scenery,” explained the visitor. By “change” he was alluding to a sale, but putting it like this showed respect for the owner.

“Uh,” grunted the captain. But he was a tad surprised. “Tea!” he ordered the maid.

“You needn’t bother,” protested the visitor. “We’d best first talk about the manor.”

The captain’s heart jumped again. This fellow didn’t beat around the bush – he was very anxious to buy! In reality, the captain was anxious too. With a wave of his hand he dismissed the maid, and cut straight to the chase. “Fine. Without further ado, then let’s get down to business. On whose behalf have you come? Why isn’t he here himself?”

The visitor smiled faintly. “Aren’t I here in person?”

“Oh?” The captain was at a loss for an instant. How could he have missed this a moment ago? This man didn’t appear at all qualified to make such a purchase, did he? But since he said he intended to do so, the captain had to view him in another light.

“You . . . may I inquire the gentleman’s surname?” Only then did it occur to inquire about his surname, and drop “you” in place of a polite form.

“Han is my humble family name,” replied the visitor, bowing.

“Mister Han,” said the detective captain courteously. But his moneyed, condescending attitude remained largely unaltered. “Would you like to tour the house now, or would you prefer to hear the price first?”

“No need to look,” said the visitor. “I was familiar with your esteemed residence well before you occupied it. Now that you plan to relocate, it’s the perfect time to take it off your hands. So just quote a figure . . .”

The captain couldn’t help but feel secretly surprised: the man had fallen for this place long ago and would buy it sight unseen.

Marvelous! This raised the status of both buyer and seller. The captain was overjoyed; it seemed his home was indeed a find. If it weren’t for that voice raising such a racket, at that instant he might have been unwilling to let it out of his hands. But he had to escape this cursed place, and couldn’t let such a sincere buyer slip through his fingers.

But first he decided to add twenty percent on to his previously decided figure. “It’s a pleasure to deal with someone so direct,” he said. “I won’t bother inflating my price. I’ll take ten thousand Yüan Shih-k’ai silver dollars for it!”

He watched to see if the other party would accept this figure, and readied himself to bargain.

But the captain hadn’t anticipated his interlocutor’s brevity. “Fine,” he replied crisply.

The captain stared blankly. He thought of raising his price, but that was out of the question now.

“But there is one condition, Mr. Han. I’m just selling the house. The four-leafed boxwood Spirit Screen isn’t part of the package. I’m afraid I’m taking it when I leave.”

“Well . . . the Spirit Screen is part of the house,” said the buyer pensively. “If I buy the house, I’m also buying the screen. But the price is negotiable.”

“That will be an additional two thousand!” Confident that he knew the other’s bottom line, the captain was no longer so courteous.

“Agreed,” said the buyer. “Then please make preparations for relocating to your new abode!”

The buyer and seller were agreed, and that was that. But the captain hadn’t expected it would all happen so fast. “You’ll have to wait until I’ve vacated before moving in,” he cautioned. “Don’t you need a bit of time to ready your payment? If you want to wait a few days, that’s no problem. Take your time.”

“Ah, yes, the cash,” said the buyer. “You can dispatch someone to accompany me to my bank where I’ll withdraw ten thousand, that should do for the deposit. As for the balance, once you’ve completed your move I’ll pay in full. How does that suit you?”

The captain was simply stunned. Who had ever seen the likes of such a buyer? He’d cited a price and not only had the fellow not quibbled, he was set to pay ten thousand silver dollars that very day. Was there any commercial precedent for this? A deposit of thirty percent was typically considered adequate! This fellow . . . how much money did he have? Who was he?

“The gentleman’s surname?” In his rush to conclude the deal, the captain repeated his earlier question.

“Han is my humble family name.”

“May I inquire as to your honorable given name?”

“Tzu-ch’i.”

“Oh!” When the captain heard this weighty name, he could hardly conceal his surprise. “So, you’re Mister Han, proprietor of the Jade Treasure Shop? I’ve long heard of you. No wonder . . .” he didn’t complete his sentence, but both parties understood.

He had a hearty laugh, and went on: “The house is passing into the hands of a genuine connoisseur!”

“Connoisseur.” The term was an honor of sorts for both buyer and seller. The transaction agreed, both parties were pleased.

In his heart, the captain was secretly happy that he had finally managed to rid himself of the specter of “The Jade Demon.” As for the disturbances Boss Han might have to deal with henceforth, that was not his concern.

For his part, Han Tzu-ch’i secretly celebrated having disposed of this “Plague God” masquerading as a lawman. The siheyüan of which he had so long been enamored was now in proper hands.

In a few days the grounds were vacated, and the Residence of Erudition and Elegance became the mansion of the Jade Treasure Shop’s proprietor. [终]

2 replies on ““Funeral of a Muslim” (穆斯林的葬礼): Tale of Three Generations of a 20th Century Hui Family”

Thx for your encouragement, Jasmine! The first step to translating the novel in full has been taken by 北京十月文艺出版社, when they commissioned me to translate an excerpt. What I’ve put here on my blog is a passage from that excerpt. I assume they are now using the excerpt to market the book to publishers in the West. But even if they find a “buyer,” there is no guarantee that the Western publisher will contract me to render the whole book.

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Actually, the novel was published back in the 90s as The Jade King:

I haven’t read it, but it didn’t sell well and the author is convinced that a new English-language rendition is needed. I recently had the chance to translate the novel, but I turned it down. I am concerned that it’s too big (450,000 hanzi) for me to undertake on my own, and I haven’t been able to recruit the right collaborator.

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