With the upcoming launch of Ett brokigt band om renens horn, we have a rare instance of a member of China’s dwindling reindeer-herding Evenki telling her people’s story in a European language. Given the historic
marginalization of Scandinavia’s own semi-nomadic reindeer-herders, the Sami, it is particularly significant to see that the first translation of the novel will appear in Swedish.
Translator and co-publisher Anna Gustaffsson Chen tells me that the book is being printed right now, and should be available “within a few weeks.” It is translated direct from the novel in Chinese, 驯鹿角上的彩带 (lit., colored ribbon on the reindeer’s horns), authored by Keradam Balajieyi, the daughter of the Evenki’s last Shamaness. See here for more about the novel.
The unique lifestyle and gradual 20th-century demise of the Evenki, particularly the Aoluguya Evenki in the Greater Khingan Mountains on the China side of the Amur, has actually been fairly well documented, but usually by outsiders. One of the first written records was penned by Gu Deqing (顾德清), a Han with an intense interest in the Evenki, who — despite efforts by the authorities to protect the isolated Evenki from contact with the outside world — hunted with them in 80s and wrote (the as yet untranslated) 猎民生活日记 (lit., Diary of a Hunting People’s Life). Gu Tao (顾桃), his son by his Manchu wife, has since gone on to shoot several renowned documentaries about them. See Gu Tao’s Northern Hunting People for dozens of still photos featuring the Evenki lifestyle, handicrafts and their beloved reindeer.
Nor has the plight of the Evenki been neglected by foreign anthropologists. See Forced Relocation amongst the Reindeer-Evenki of Inner Mongolia, by Richard Fraser.
But perhaps the best known tale of the Aoluguya Evenki is the one told in Chi Zijian’s much-translated novel, 额尔古纳河右岸, now available in Dutch, English (The Last Quarter of the Moon), French, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish. See here for a multilingual list of related links.
In fact, Chinese-to-Swedish translator Chen is also slated to translate The Last Quarter of the Moon from the Chinese, but has apparently chosen to do Ett brokigt band om renens horn first. It will be interesting to compare the two, because Chi Zijian is a monolingual Han writer imagining herself as an Evenki woman in her 90s, while Balajieyi is writing about her own people.
- 水乳大地 (Shuǐ rǔ dàdì) has been rendered in full in French, as Terre de lait et de miel
- 大地雅歌 (Dàdì yǎ gē) in an excerpt entitled The Creation Story
- 悲悯大地 (Bēimǐn dàdì) in full in English, as Land of Mercy: A Tale of the Three Jewels of Tibet
My favorite so far was the first novel in the trilogy, Shuǐ rǔ dàdì, which I described thusly in my interview with the author (A Century of Cultural Collisions in Shangri-la):
[Shuǐ rǔ dàdì] . . . tells the tale of a multi-ethnic settlement in Lancangjiang Canyon — Gateway to Tibet — beset by battles between arrogant French Catholic missionaries, incompetent Han officials and their marauding troops, Naxi Dongba Shamanists, and the dominant Tibetans, not all of whom lead pacific, vegetarian lives in the local lamasery.
But the newest of the novels to be published (translated by Shelly Bryant), is Land of Mercy. Marcia Johnson in Shanghai has written to mention that she bought the Kindle version, is enjoying it, and notes that several of the chapters include “Field Notes” by the author about how he — a devout Catholic convert raised in Sichuan — came to “learn about some of the seemingly magical elements he weaves into his tale.”
See here for an interview in French with the translator of Terre de lait et de miel.
For several years after I arrived in China, I was treated like the “Other,” constantly quizzed on my nationality, what my compatriots ate for breakfast and my impressions of China. When visiting small towns or the countryside, at times I was ogled, which made me feel I was somehow, well, odd. That was a new experience for me!
One day it occurred to me that foreigners weren’t the only “Other” on the scene. What about those persons who didn’t claim to belong to the Han, China’s mainstream ethnic group? Estimates are that one out of ten citizens are of a different ethnicity, such as Zhuang, Miao or Uyghur, and that information appears on their ID card.
I began to wonder: How do they view their “Other,” i.e., the Han? How do their writers portray the effects on their people as they inevitably come into more frequent contact with the outside world, attend school taught in Chinese, or migrate to the city? And how do Han authors use ethnic motifs and depict minority characters in their contemporary fiction? I decided to explore these questions via new literature appearing in Chinese . . . (click here for full text)
Hong Ke’s novel, Urho (乌尔禾, 红柯著), is set during the 1960s in the Zungharian Basin at the edge of the Gurbantünggüt Desert. This remote and rugged area of Xinjiang was once a favored hunting ground for the Mongol Khans when they ruled Cathay. A Han soldier back from the Korean front — dubbed “Hailibu” by the locals after the legendary Mongolian hero graced with the gift of understanding animal speech — runs a sheep ranch for the Xinjiang Construction Corps.
** Excerpt **
It was the tail-end of summer, and Hailibu hadn’t imagined that the boy would grow so intimate with the lambs. This was Hailibu’s error. He had forgotten that Weijiang’s affinity with the animal world was rapidly deepening.
Before the traditional time for setting sheep free — late autumn — had arrived, Weijiang set free a pair on his own.
This caused Hailibu considerable consternation. It was one thing for an old man to perform such a ritual, but perhaps this act of charity was best not performed by a child. Alone deep in the wilderness, Hailibu pounded his head.
Hailibu spoke with Weijiang’s father, suggesting the boy leave the sheep ranch. The man imagined his son must have stirred up some trouble. Yet when Hailibu explained about the boy’s releasing sheep into the wild, Weijiang’s father just laughed.
“Freein’ a sheep, is that such a big thing?” said the father. “When that boy’s momma had him in her belly, she let hares go. At our place, they used to come and go whenever they pleased. I don’t know how many hares we freed, me ’n her. Hedgehogs too. Like fresh meat delivered to our door, but we saw ’em off in fine health.”
“So somebody let a pair of your sheep go, and you feel bad, right?” he queried Hailibu. “I’ll give you ’nother two to make up for it.”
“The hell you will! Let’s have a drink.”
The pair sat down on the kang and finished off a bottle of liquor. Hailibu felt relieved.
* * *
Time passed, but Hailibu remained uneasy. Having made arrangements for the ranch, he mounted his horse and began roaming the steppe. He rode to Toli and Hoboksar in North Xinjiang. He listened wistfully to urtyn duu, the famed Long-Song of the Mongolians, and to folk songs sung by Aken, Kazakh minstrels who play the stringed dongbula.
Hailibu visited the most respected Elder on the steppe. A virtual encyclopedia of the grasslands, the old man could narrate ancient legends for months on end. Among these tales, however, few mentioned a child setting sheep free.
This weighty matter on Hailibu’s conscience didn’t escape notice. “Guest from afar,” said the Elder, “Speak what is on your heart. Otherwise it will freeze over.”
Hailibu explained that a boy at his ranch had freed a pair of sheep on his own.
The old man was unfazed. “How far can they go, sheep released by a youngster?” Before the old man could utter another word, Hailibu began to tremble and prepared to kneel.
“They were released by one child, so they shall be taken in by another,” announced the Elder, matter of factly. At which point, Hailibu prostrated himself with a thud.
“Fathers are like that,” chuckled the Elder. Two young Kazakhs lifted the visitor off the ground. Hailibu clambered into his saddle like a drunkard.
“Can he ride that way?” asked one of the young men as Hailibu’s horse departed. “He’s falling asleep. Better bring him back!”
“A horseman doesn’t sleep in a tent or on a prairie,” said the Elder. “For him, the steadiest bed is a saddle.”
Hailibu was indeed exhausted. On the steppe, there is a custom: When a man reaches the limits of his fatigue, in his stupor he climbs into his saddle, releases the reins and lets his steed take charge. Dreams know no boundaries, nor does sleep. This carefree, directionless rambling is a gift from the Heavens, when a Spirit takes brief possession of the body.
“Like a bird, a gazelle, a deer or a wild stallion,” said the Elder to the young men. “That’s a life worthy of envy.” [end]
Like to read the full Chapter 3 from Hong Ke’s Xinjiang-based novel? Contact Ms. Wang Ting (firstname.lastname@example.org) at Beijing October Arts & Literature Publishing House.
So now the escapee nightjar and I were conspirators. I had to stay patient and play my part in its plot.
We stood a while longer, though of course the urgent call did not sound.
But the boy stood there motionless, gazing up at the spot where the bird had once perched. He already had what a hunter needs most, patience.
My feet were growing numb and I, at least, knew there was no point in waiting further.
“Maybe it’s gone,” I said, gently breaking the silence.
He murmured assent and lowered his head, then when I said nothing went back to watching. It’s a battle of endurance sometimes, to see who can be most patient. I was happy to lose.
“I didn’t see it fly off,” he said, unwilling to give up.
“Maybe it was too quick. It’s too dark to see.” I had to put it like that, or risk insulting him.
“Can’t have.” He wasn’t happy about it, but knew there was no hope.
“What kind of bird was it, anyway?”
I could tell he had never heard this Evenki word before. He had so little of our traditional knowledge, our language. He spoke even less than I did.
Much of our old ways will be lost forever with the passing away of our old folk.
Extract from The Nightjar at Dusk, Pathlight Spring 2015 (p 28), by Gerelchimig Blackcrane (格日勒其木格・黒鶴)
Deng Yiguang (邓一光)
The Nightjar at Dusk (p 28)
Gerelchimig Blackcrane (黑鹤)
And this from/about a Han writer in Xinjiang:
A Village of One (p 56)
Interview with the Author (p 66)
Liu Liangcheng (刘亮程)
Sales of Funeral of a Muslim (穆斯林的葬礼, 霍达著), Huo Da’s classic saga of a Hui family in Beijing that spans the turbulent years of the Japanese invasion, World War II and part of the Cultural Revolution, have now topped three million copies, according to a press conference held in the capital on September 11 (突破).
This arguably makes the tale, which won the Mao Dun Literature Award in 1991, the most popular ethnic-themed novel ever written by a non-Han writer — Huo Da is a Hui, who are principally ethnic Muslims numbering around ten million.
From the synopsis at Paper Republic:
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 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.
Apart from its power as a tale of love and history, Funeral of a Muslim has played a unique role in introducing Islam to Chinese readers, many of whom know little about the Muslim communities that have made up a part of Chinese society for
centuries. Apart from descriptions of Muslim customs and rituals, the novel was instrumental in launching public discussion of the essentially multi-cultural nature of China, even stirring up controversy for its direct address of latent ethnic tensions.
It continues to be a favorite with readers for its depiction of the ways in which the strictures of history, culture, and religion influence the courses of individual loves: guiding, shaping, curbing, destroying.
Like to read an English excerpt from the novel? Click here.
Several news items reported that at the news conference, Huo Da revealed she is negotiating the rights for a TV series to be based on her novel. The promotion of her novel and the possibility of a regular TV progam come at a time when China is at pains to highlight the fair treatment of Muslims, given the negative publicity generated by the 2014 Kunming train station attack, reportedly carried out by Uyghur separatists, and the government’s fierce crackdown on Uyghur culture in Xinjiang. By comparison with Uyghur, Hui are widely regarded in China as law-abiding, “good” Muslims who are better integrated into mainstream Chinese society.
On the literary translation front that targets international audiences, both Hui and Uyghur writers are getting a helping hand from the authorities. Since 2013, the China Writers Association has subsidized an ongoing project to enable translation and publication of fiction by ethnic writers (当代少数民族文学对外翻译工程), according to Li Jingze, Secretary of the China Writers Association (Export Strategies). Some 54 “projects” were undertaken in 2013-14, and “almost half have been published.”
I requested and received a list of those titles that have been published so far — 26 out the total 54. They include 6 by Hui and 2 by Uyghur writers:
A She (Uyghur): 奔跑的骨头 into Arabic, 阿舍著
Bao Dongni (Hui): 问题非儿 into Korean, 保冬妮著
Chen Cun (Hui): 象 into Farsi, 陈村著
Li Jinxiang (Hui): 换水 into Arabic, 李进祥著
Perhat Ilyas (Uyghur): 楼兰古国奇幻之旅 into English, 帕尔哈提·伊力牙斯著
Shi Shuqing (Hui): 灰袍子 into Arabic and 西海固的事情 into Japanese, 石舒清著
Zha Shun (Hui): 风流云散 into Arabic, 查瞬著
(2020.4 update: As I understand it, Rachel Hanson has been commissioned to translate the full novel into English)
Jiang Rong, the Han Chinese author of Wolf Totem (狼图腾, 姜戎著), has been awarded the “Genius Writer Prize” (Bichgiin Mergen Prize) by the World Mongol Authors Association based in Mongolia, according to a news item in Mongolia’s UB Post. The novel is a semi-autobiographical novel about the experiences of a young student from Beijing “sent down” to the Inner Mongolian countryside 1967 during the Cultural Revolution.
According to a Chinese report (文豪奖) citing D. Boldbaatar, the Mongolian translator, since his translation into the Cyrillic hit the bookshelves in 2010 (left), it has sold 60,000 copies — effectively one copy for every 50 persons residing in Mongolia. An edition printed in the traditional Mongolian script is also to be distributed soon (below).
It is interesting to see how well the novel has apparently been received in Mongolia. Book sales and this new award seem to confirm that the Mongolians outside China find the portrayal of their herding culture as genuine. The much-hyped movie shot in Inner Mongolia by French director Jean-Jacques Anneau, however, proved somewhat controversial in China. According to a report in ChinaDaily Asia (Promoting Aggression):