Asia-Pacific Journal has published an excerpt I selected and translated from Guo Xuebo’s contemporary work, Moŋgoliya《蒙古里亚》:
Set in China’s 21st-century Inner Mongolia, the novel is a semi-autobiographical tale by Guo Xuebo, a Mongol who grew up speaking the language of his people. It comprises three distinct but intertwined narratives: 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 Mongolian adventures of Henning Haslund-Christensen, born to a Danish missionary family in 1896, and real-life author of the anthropological masterpiece Men and Gods in Mongolia; and the tribulations of Teelee Yesu, a modern-day fictional Mongol herdsman, considered by many to be the village idiot, whose very survival is threatened by desertification and coal mine truckers running roughshod over his tiny plot of land.
The excerpt that follows craftily satirizes what might be dubbed “wéiwěn paranoia,” the mania around implementing the central government’s “stability maintenance” policy (维稳), and unexpectedly manages to touch on two taboo topics: the exploitation of traditional Mongolian pasture lands by ruthless coal mining firms, and self-immolation, a horrific yet galvanizing form of protest heretofore largely limited to regions inhabited by Tibetans.
To read the introduction and full excerpt, click here.
The Embassy’s China Bride
(By Bruce Humes & Christopher Cottrell)
She’s an aging Chinese female novelist of cult fame banned for her intimate portrayal of women and their men. Her lover De Niro is a wild Italian hell-bent on motorcycles. Her other lover is the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Spain to China. This is the tale of their trysts and catkins in the heart of Beijing.
“I’m a writer, a novelist. I specialize in the study of pain,” she says.
“Enchanté, novelist,” he replies. “I’m a painter.”
Welcome to a true life inspired account of passions set largely in the luxurious and exclusive confines behind the embassy of Spain’s steel gate in Beijing’s Sanlitun district. This is not merely the stark diary of the carnality and spirit of a blacklisted female writer in China. It also delves into the minds of the over-sexed, conflicted European men who populate the booming 21st-century capital, and the dark side of their relations with Chinese women who flock to them like moths to a white-hot light bulb.
Narrated by the love-struck protagonist writer, she speaks at once to her departed Italian beau De Niro while re-living her relationship with the Spanish Ambassador, Manuel.
The embassy, diplomat-artiste and novelist-narrator all feature their own “contradictions.”
Exclusive venue for the duo’s frequent trysts, the Embassy arguably acquires a dual personality of its own as we become intimately acquainted with its faceless sentry, grand ceilings and “solemn” conference hall, which contrast with the scandalous pleasures enjoyed in the Ambassador’s painting studio and his nearby love nest.
The diplomat’s principle contradiction lies in his keen desire to lead two lives simultaneously — that of the scrupulously proper public official, and one deep below the surface of an amorous artist who follows his heart. This duality, plus his marriage and philandering, ultimately unspools the novelist-narrator as she floats aimlessly like a catkin willow, hoping that Manuel will leave his wife and be hers forever. But in her heart she believes that true romance inevitably contains the seeds of pain and mutual hurt.
Fittingly, the no-longer-young female narrator and older Manuel first encounter one another at a painting exhibition, for in the ensuing liaison, the arts are never totally absent. An invitation to the Embassy follows, complete with a garden lunch, catkin viewing, foreplay in the Ambassador’s atelier, and then —after an unclothed, mad dash from the West Wing to the East Wing — a heated session of oral sex.
As pleased as the narrator is with this initial union, she can’t help but wonder: Why doesn’t Manuel don a condom and make love to her? This remains an unanswered and troubling conundrum throughout their 13-month relationship.
Invitations to the Embassy multiply, and via the unnamed narrator we are privy to the ins and outs of the affair, which culminate in the anguished realization that she is not the Ambassador’s sole bride. “It never occurred to me that I was just one among many,” she confides. “Each night he played the groom anew.”
The Embassy’s China Bride succeeds in creating two convincing characters, De Niro and Manuel, who incarnate archetypes of Western males that can easily be found in today’s China. The female protagonist relishes recounting her intimate scenes with Manuel to her cynical Venetian lover, a man she nicknames “De Niro” after the actor because he is similarly handsome. We gradually realize that De Niro met with a gruesome accident on his beloved motorcycle, and she is actually chatting with a dead man.
These scenes are particularly engaging, partly because of what they reveal about the narrator’s personality — she doesn’t love only “successful” men — and partly because we are privy to the thoughts of a European who, in certain aspects, is the very inverse of the highly respected Ambassador. De Niro is a talented architect, long unemployed and intensely disenchanted with China, yet unwilling — or unable? — to abandon the magnetic metropolis of 20m where he once arrogantly flaunted his Italian manhood. Manuel, on the other hand, is an esteemed diplomat at the height of his career who is literally enchanted by his rosy, even naïve perceptions of “China,” its mysterious script, and its alluring women.
Yet it is worth noting that in the midst of Beijing’s bustling Sanlitun, where European men are almost universally welcome and wannabe female partners a dime-a-dozen, both men suffer from a deep-seated loneliness.
The Embassy’s China Bride paints us a picture of a society in the throes of an economic boom that is attracting large numbers of more-than-willing ex-pats from the rich West in search of everything from well-remunerated jobs to romantic adventures with local women. Both parties are magnetically attracted by the other’s “exotic” culture. But behind this veneer of prosperity lie the universal tragedies of union and eventual separation. The solemn and dignified Embassy is no exception. Nor is its China Bride. [終]
For an excerpt from the novel, visit here.
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.
My translation of Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸) can be ordered — e-book, hard cover and paperback — online at various places, including Amazon. Read the opening for free here (click on the cover), or the author’s Afterword.
For information on other editions, see: Dutch (Het laatste kwartier van de maan), French, Italian (Ultimo quarto di Luna), Japanese (アルグン川の右岸), Spanish (A la orilla derecha del Río Argún ), and Turkish.
Narrated in the first person by the aged wife of the last chieftain of an Evenki clan, the Right Bank of the Argun—as it is dubbed in Chinese — is a moving tale of the decline of reindeer-herding nomads in the sparsely populated, richly forested mountains that border on Russia.
At the end of the twentieth century an old woman sits among the birch trees and thinks back over her life, her loves, and the joys and tragedies that have befallen her family and her people. She is a member of the Evenki tribe who wander the remote forests of northeastern China with their herds of reindeer, living in close sympathy with nature at its most beautiful and cruel.
Over the last three centuries, three waves of outsiders have encroached upon the Evenki’s isolated way of life: the Russians, whose warring and plundering eventually pushed the Evenki down from Siberia across to the southern (“right”) bank of the Argun River, the tributary of the Amur that defines the Sino-Russian border; the Japanese, who forcibly recruit their men into the ranks of the Manchukuo Army; and the Han Chinese of the People’s Republic, who fell the forests that are crucial to the survival of reindeer, outlaw hunting, and eventually coerce the Evenki to leave the mountains for life in a “civilized” permanent settlement.
For an academic study of the ideologies behind the government’s official policy of resettling the Evenki—and an in-depth look at the psychological impact of divorcing them from their “reindeer lifeworld”— see Forced Relocation amongst the Reindeer Evenki of Inner Mongolia.
Visit Northern Hunting Culture for marvelous pictures of the Aoluguya Evenki, their lifestyle and handicrafts.
For a fascinating look at the etymology of names for rivers, mountains and forests in their homeland on either side of the Sino-Russian border, see Evenki Place Names behind the Hànzì.
Just finished translating a new semi-autobiographical novella (synopsis), The Embassy’s China Bride (大使先生), by Jiu Dan of Crows fame (乌鸦, 九丹著). This reminded me that at the turn of 21st century, three young Chinese female writers were busy boldly writing about their sexuality, orgasms and all, and being lambasted for it by the critics and Chinese society at large. The trio were Jiu Dan, who chronicled the exploits of “Little Dragon Girls” from China in Singapore; Mian Mian, author of Candy (糖, 棉棉著); and arguably the best known, Wei Hui, who authored the infamous Shanghai Baby (上海宝贝). They were denigrated as “pretty chick-lit authors” (美女作家) who “write with the lower half of their bodies” (下半身写作), as some engagingly put it. This designation conveniently allowed the critics to focus on the writers’ lifestyles rather than the content of their writing.
But that wasn’t the case with Zha Jianying, who holds a Ph D. in Comparative Lit from Columbia. Happily, I have just located my translation of her Analyzing Wei Hui and Mian Mian: Hollywood Ice Cream and Shanghai Lollipop. I don’t recall exactly when it was published, but I think I translated it in 2000.
Given that Jiu Dan — now a forty-something — has just launched The Embassy’s China Bride in Taiwan (potentially controversial in its own right), I thought it might be fun to put my translation of Zha Jianying’s critique up on this blog in order to give readers a taste of how these daring female writers were viewed when they first appeared on China’s literary scene. I should mention that Zha Jianying wrote me and roundly criticized me for a host of errors in my rendition. But since she wasn’t specific, I publish it below, warts and all. For a bilingual version with her original, see 卫慧棉棉.
With sales of some 2.5 million copies, Funeral of a Muslim (穆斯林的葬礼，霍达著), 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.
I was commissioned by Eric Abrahamsen at Paper Republic to translate an English excerpt from this best seller. So I am happy to learn from Beijing October Art and Literature Publishing House that rights have been sold for two foreign-language editions: Wisdomhouse Publishing Co. Ltd has acquired the Korean rights, while Albatros Plus has done so for a Serbian edition.
For an English extract from Funeral of a Muslim and information on overseas rights, contact Mr. Han Jingqun, Chief Editor at Beijing October Art and Literature Publishing House, at email@example.com
Here is a backgrounder on the novel: