(Posted: Feb 2, 2022) This short excerpt from Alat Asem’s Confessions of a Jade Lord (时间悄悄的嘴脸, 阿拉提·阿斯木 著) intriguingly captures several key aspects of Uyghur culture, modern and ancient.
To get his greedy hands on nine hefty chunks of priceless creamy-white, “mutton-fat” jade, Eysa and his gang administer a deadly beating to Xali, a fellow trader. Fearing arrest, Eysa flees Xinjiang for Shanghai where a plastic surgeon fits him with a state-of-the art mask that allows him to return home, initially undetected even by his kin.
Haunted by this misdeed and other behavior unbecoming to a good Muslim — Xali is crippled but not dead, as it turns out — Eysa slips across the border to seek the advice of a diviner, not unlike Altaic peoples who turned for centuries to their shamans for guidance.
Ironically, the necromancer is based in Uzbekistan, one of the ‘stans that held its attractions for Uyghurs even after the 1955 founding of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, originally heralded as offering a level of self-governance. During Soviet times, several waves of Turkophones migrated out of China, lured by the prospect of wealth and greater freedom. In the novel, these emigrants are roundly denounced for betraying their Xinjiang homeland, but this scene suggests that some possess a traditional spirituality no longer available in the Han-dominated People’s Republic.
Oh, and please note: The English version of the novel features a bevy of terms transliterated from the Uyghur, such as pul (money) and aghine (buddy), below.
“After your latest disappearance act, you’ve certainly changed,” says Mouse, looking into Eysa’s eyes.
“Actually, this time I didn’t just go to Shanghai and win that big jade contract, I also went to Almaty in Kazakhstan,” reveals Eysa. “I went there to see Telet the Necromancer.”
Telet, now in his sixties, lived in Xinjiang’s Ili before he fled the country. He often comes back to visit his kin in Xinjiang, so most people know of him. According to the Elders, the necromancer had predicted the coming upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. He was denounced in public struggle sessions, so he contacted other persecution victims and secretly made his way to what was then the Soviet Union. In those years, Soviet agents were sent in to stir up trouble, and instigated people living on the borders to leave China.
“I’ve been to many a banquet with Telet,” recalls Eysa. “He’s a real drinker! Even after indulging for more than half a day, the man is still as cool as a fridge. I went to Almaty specifically to ask Telet about the destiny that hovers about my forehead. He didn’t ask me anything when we met. He just sat there eyeing me for a long, long time.”
Eventually, the diviner sighed long and hard.
“A man’s life is not Time,” he began. “Time is not pul, pul is not popularity, and popularity isn’t everything. Understand and respect decadence and buddy up with leftover victuals. Only then can a man spot gold in trash, and befriend the generous moonlight.
“My dear aghine from the Motherland, you are a man hounded by a bevy of troubles, troubles that are linked with earthy vapor and highly-placed persons with unassailable face. Your fate is besieged by layers of magical rings. If you don’t break free, you shall find that your two faces are still not enough, and your troubles will escalate. That will be a boundless bitter sea, a veritable Godfather of all Troubles.
“To salvage yourself, first of all, repent. Tears must turn to blood, and that means your pul. Return to the Motherland, purchase nine antique kilim, and gift them to nine mosques in nine cities to accumulate merit and atone for your sins. In each of those nine cities, kneel down and kowtow to poverty, and donate nine hundred and ninety-nine yuan to each of nine beggars.
“The second thing you must do is to turn foe into friend — or as the popular saying puts it, ‘Marry your mother to the villain who killed your father.’ There’s so much philosophy in these words that generations of people have still not deciphered them. If a man can tolerate the enmity caused by the murder of his own father, and even marry his own mother to this Sheytan, what kind of a spirit must this man possess? This is the very secret, and foundation, of the entire universe.”
“This necromancer does know a thing or two,” remarks Mouse. [终]
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2 thoughts on “Confessions of a Jade Lord (excerpt): ‘Marry your mother to the villain who killed your father’”
Alat Asem’s Confessions of a Jade Lord (时间悄悄的嘴脸, 阿拉提·阿斯木 著) in Bruce Humes’ extraordinary translation is an opening into Uyghur society, and indeed, to the position of China’s multiple nationalities in contemporary China. It is difficult to think of another translation of Chinese literature that so vividly conveys a sense of immediacy and authenticity.
Great to hear that! I — and my co-translator Jun Liu — put a lot of effort into enriching it with a strong sense of Uyghur-ness. We hired a Uyghur “cultural consultant,” and one of the things he did for us was to translate the meaning of the characters’ names. For the most part, the reader of the original Chinese text experienced those names as mere sounds, since they were phonetic representations. He “reverse-engineered” the names, which provided insight into their actual meanings in Uyghur, and this gave us several options: Merely transliterate the names in Latin letters, translate their meanings, or create related names that were often a bit humorous. I believe the last option perhaps best reflects Uyghur culture, particularly among “real hanzi” — i.e., men who piss standing, not squatting — who often give one another less-than-becoming nicknames while downing large amounts of whole roasted lamb, polo and firewater.