Original novel in Chinese by Guo Xuebo
Synopsis by Bruce Humes
A tale of ruthless ecological exploitation,
a 20th-century European explorer’s fascination with Altaic culture
& epiphany in today’s Inner Mongolia
This semi-autobiographical novel comprises three parallel narratives that eventually intersect in 21st-century Inner Mongolia: A spiritual journey, in which the author — ostensibly the narrator — seeks his Shamanic roots, long obscured in post-1949, officially atheist China; vignettes from the Xinjiang and Mongolian adventures of Henning Haslund-Christensen, born to a Danish missionary family in 1896, explorer and real-life author of the anthropological masterpiece Men and Gods in Mongolia; and the tribulations of Teelee Yesu, a fictional modern-day Mongolian herdsman, seemingly the village idiot, whose very survival is threatened by the encroaching desert and coal mine truckers running roughshod over his tiny tract of pastureland.
Motifs interwoven throughout the tale include the affinities between the peoples of Europe and the Mongols, despite the sedentary lifestyle of the former and nomadic ways of the latter; the fusion of Shamanism and Buddhism over the centuries; two different quests, the narrator’s for the origins of his soul, and the foreign adventurer’s for the essence of steppe culture; and the exploitation and degradation of the grasslands by political powers over the centuries — first the Manchu, then the Japanese and Han — that is in stark contrast to the Mongolian veneration of Nature as sacred and endowed with sentient spirits.
Now a renowned author based in China’s capital, narrator Guo is back for a visit to the Inner Mongolian village where he grew up speaking the language of his people. One day he finds himself at the summit of Mt. Gahai, the location of an ovoo — a heap of stones marking a sacred site — said to be a Shaman’s altar. Eager for an afternoon siesta, he closes his copy of Men and Gods in Mongolia, pillows his head with it and wonders what has pulled him here like a magnet. Could it be the tufts of slender needlegrass that pepper the mountaintop? Dubbed “the soul’s perch,” it is believed that the soul of a recently deceased person will fix itself atop a strand of needlegrass. When the stalk does not bend, the disembodied spirit realizes that it has shed its mortal coil.
Da Yeye, elder brother of the author’s paternal grandfather and a long-dead Shaman, appears in Guo’s dream. Each human being possesses a tripartite soul, he pronounces: One part inherited from one’s parents, another from one’s ancestors, and a third, a wandering spirit whose reincarnation in the world of the living is pre-destined. The author has recently been consumed by a keen desire to learn about Shamanism, despite repeated campaigns by the Party since the 1950s to eradicate such superstitions. He heard tell there were Shamans among his ancestors. “Where did my ‘third soul’ come from?” he queries anxiously.
This is something Da Yeye will not reveal. The answer must occur through personal revelation. “Return home and ask your mother what happened at your birth.” For now, the author should do his best to look after someone named Teelee Yesu, he says enigmatically. “And never forget: You must not stop simply because the journey is long, nor fail to move a boulder simply because it is heavy.” And with that, the apparition vanishes.
As Guo descends the mountain, he encounters a stranger — named “Teelee Yesu”— searching for three head of missing cattle. Thus begins the saga of the narrator’s involvement with this deceptively simple-minded Mongolian herdsman, who will pop up throughout the tale.
Perceived locally as a writer with influential Beijing connections, Guo frequently intercedes on behalf of his relative, as much out of curiosity as sympathy. Teelee, it emerges, is housing a “crazy” Han woman, already several months pregnant, whom he discovered wandering in the sand dunes. Incoherent and babbling a Chinese dialect no one can decipher, she urgently requires pre-natal care, and Guo, moved by the devotion Teelee and this mysterious woman show one another, arranges hospitalization for her. At one point, in an attempt to obtain compensation from the coal mine for his sheep flattened by one of their trucks, Teelee ingeniously threatens to set himself on fire (see excerpt). When Teelee is briefly jailed, and interrogated in the middle of the night by unidentified agents — self-immolation is treated as a “terrorist” act in today’s PRC — Guo visits and tries to get him released.
Against the backdrop of Teelee’s misadventures in China’s 21st-century Inner Mongolia, the novel occasionally returns to the real-life saga of Haslund, and his wanderings in Xinjiang and greater Mongolia. Three key characters play a crucial role in his Mongolian tutelage: Two Khutuktu, or living Buddhas, and Shaman Da Yeye. The first of these informs the travel writer of his jam mör, his fated path within the Orient, that must always be trodden from East to West; his failure to heed this advice results in his death in Kabul in 1939. The second is Tuoyin, a living Buddha of Torghut extraction, who permits Haslund to record Mongolian folk songs that make his reputation in the West as a pioneering Mongolian musicologist, and charges the Dane with the sacred mission of transporting a precious “portable Buddhist palace” back to Europe. Finally, Haslund encounters Da Yeye, who formally accepts him as his disciple. The Shaman subjects him to a grueling apprenticeship in which he struggles to imitate the calls of various creatures in the wild, and he eventually acquires the art of khoomei, or Mongolian throat-singing.
If parts of the novel read briefly like a Bildungsroman starring a European Mongologist, for Guo himself it is the story of a Beijing-based author in search of his Mongolian roots, diluted by decades of Han-centric policies enforced in China’s northern borderlands since 1949. For much of the time, Guo is fascinated by his reading of Haslund’s works, and this outsider’s affinity for all things Mongolian. But thanks to gradual revelations by laolao, Guo’s maternal grandmother — a gifted Shaman in her own right despite Da Yeye’s unwillingness to acknowledge a woman as his disciple — Guo discovers that he bears a telltale birthmark similar to one under Da Yeye’s knee, and that Teelee is actually Da Yeye’s . . . grandson.
Throughout this quest for his roots, Guo has focused on the intrepid Haslund and Guo’s own connections with the mysterious Shaman. But it is the courage of Teelee, his “half-wit” relative, in attempting to stop a coal mine trucker from taking a shortcut through his tiny plot — and Teelee’s violent end — that ultimately inspires Guo to stand up for his people and their land.
The novel closes almost as enigmatically as it opens, with a touch of the ominous too. Thanks to his mother, Guo learns that on the night of his own birth, Da Yeye performed a traditional Shaman’s “trance dance” to summon the spirits and bring her back from the brink of death. At the very moment Guo entered this world, the Shaman was heard to utter: “Nine long years in coming. Wherefore?” The narrator was born in 1948, and Henning Haslund died in 1939. Could the European be the origin of Guo’s “third soul”?
Meanwhile, our narrator is “invited to take tea” by shadowy security operatives of the State. A common practice in Xi Jinping’s China, such invitations are not lightly refused. It is not perfectly clear to the reader what this is all about. But as in real life, when author Guo Xuebo helped document the death of a Mongolian herdsman — run over while protesting against noise and pollution produced by coal trucks snaking through the grasslands — one suspects that the narrator is being warned to cease highlighting Teelee’s tragic death. Or else. [终]
To read an English extract from the novel, visit The Mongol Would-be Self-immolator at Asia-Pacific Journal.