Categories
Oral Literature (口头文学、史诗)

China’s New Intangible Cultural Heritage Encyclopedia: Celebration of Multi-ethnicity, or Aggressive Cultural Appropriation?

Encyclopedia of Intangible Cultural HeritageChina unveiled its premier Encyclopedia of Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage (中国非物质文化遗产, 史诗卷) on June 12, reports China Daily (Released). This is the first of three volumes, and is dedicated to three great oral epics of the Tibetans, Mongols and Kyrgyz, respectively: King Gesar, Jangar and Manas.

The cover is in Chinese and English, but I do not know if the content itself is bilingual. For a fuller press release in Chinese, see 首发式.

Compiled by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, the volumes will document China’s vast treasure house of ancient culture in the fields of folklore, traditional music, dance, opera and even herbal medicine. I have not seen the book, and it is not clear from the article whether the 1,219 items to be cited will be ones that have been registered with UNESCO, or simply ones that China has unilaterally categorized as its “intangible cultural heritage.”

China has been very pro-active in winning international recognition of its intangible cultural heritage, particularly traditions of its non-Han ethnic minorities, and some of its neighbors are less than pleased about it. For instance, China initially registered the Epic of Manas as an Intangible Cultural Heritage with UNESCO back in 2009. This has since been vigorously contested by Kyrgyzstan officials — who maintain they were not informed about China’s application for recognition — since they consider it “an artifact of Kyrgyz nationhood.” See UN Recognition. 

The larger issue here, of course, is whether this flurry of registrations and publications represents China’s desire to embrace and celebrate its multi-ethnic society, or whether it intends to possess and monopolize — “appropriate,” if you like — the outstanding cultural achievements of peoples such as the Mongols, Tibetans or Kyrgyz, some of whom do not perceive of themselves as “Chinese” no matter which side of the border they live on, and who fear, rightly or wrongly, colonization or a less obvious form of cultural genocide.

Categories
Oral Literature (口头文学、史诗) Tibetan Topics (藏话题)

China & “King Gesar”: Challenges of Putting an Oral Epic to Paper

Gesar Storyteller (格萨尔王说唱艺人)In a Q & A (艺人及其抢救) with Dr. Yang Enhong, Yao Hui of the Institute of Ethnic Literature (China Academy of Social Sciences) succeeds in extracting fascinating details about how Drakpa (གྲགས་པ།,扎巴), a master storyteller (说唱艺人) of the Tibetan oral epic King Gesar was discovered, and his performances preserved in audio recordings and in written form — the first such documentation project in China. Eventually, during 1978-86  he was persuaded to record some 26 parts of the monumental epic, and 17 volumes of his lyrics were subsequently published.

Dr. Yang Enhong (杨恩洪) took part in the project, and is former Director of the National “Gesar” Leading Workgroup (全国《格萨尔》工作领导小组办公室主任).

Here is a brief excerpt from the Q & A that I’ve translated because it highlights a sensitive issue: How to maintain faithfulness to the original narration as dynamic voiced content is “textualized”?

The following is part of  Dr. Yang Enhong’s answer regarding the sort of difficulties that arise when carrying out such a conversion:

The Finnish epics expert [Lauri] Honko once said this, which left me with a deep impression: “The greatest benefit to putting an orally transmitted epic down on paper is that it endows it with a second life — people can access it by reading the written word.”  This is truly important.

During the process of progressing from oral to written transmission, however, I believe there are many issues that we need to consider carefully. How should we undertake textualization?

. . . Some of our scholars, including Tibetan ones, hold the opinion that folk storytellers and renditions by the common people employ a vulgar, unrefined language. So during compilation, all wording deemed rambling, repetitious, inconcise or redundant is changed or deleted, and then adapted according to one’s personal literary standards. They think that by means of such ameliorations a fine work will emerge. To the contrary, this serves to distort the features of genuine folk literature. Such a work may have a certain value when read, but academically, it possesses no research value.

Within China’s academia and among Gesar scholars the phenomena of willful adaptation still exists. Perhaps a certain scholar speaks the Amdo dialect and does not understand the Naqchu or Chamdo dialects, so he changes the text to Amdo. After adaptation, such a version’s academic value will be greatly reduced. And there are even those who merge many elements, massaging them into a pastiche comprising the best parts of each storyteller’s rendition, handwritten libretto, block book or actual lyrics, and edit them into a finished tome. In his estimation, this is a highly refined work. But in fact, I think not. This is equivalent to maltreating the original nature of the epic, which is now neither fish nor fowl.

Once I went abroad to ask the opinion of several respected scholars regarding this phenomenon. France’s [Anne-] Marie Blondeau, for instance, who is a famous Tibetologist. “That’s unacceptable,” she said. “I would definitely not consult such a version. And for research purposes, I absolutely would not use it.”

I personally sought advice from the German Professor Walther Heissig, an expert in Mongolian epics, explaining that there were differences in opinion regarding the version [of King Gesar] we were compiling. Could we proceed with a hybrid version? “No,” he replied. “That’s known as ‘cooking together’.”

Categories
Chinese Fiction by & about Ethnic Minorities (中国少数民族文学) New Silk Road: One Belt, One Road (一带一路)

Definitions of “Chinese” Literary Works in Expansion Mode?

An intriguing picture of what constitutes Chinese literature (中国文学) emerges via an interview with Bai Gengsheng (访中国作协书记处书记白庚胜), a Naxi who has held several senior positions in the state-run ethnic minority literary research apparatus, including his current role as Secretary of the China Writers Association.

In the interview with Chinese Reading Weekly (中华读书报), Bai says:

In ancient times, the myths, epics and narrative poems of minority ethnicities blossomed with éclat in the garden of Chinese — even global — literature . . . Guan Hanqing (关汉卿), Pu Songling (蒲松龄), Nalan Xingde (纳兰性德), Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹), Abay (Ibrahim) Qunanbayuli (阿拜), Tsangyang Gyatso (仓央嘉措), Maḥmūd al-Kāšġarī (喀什噶理), Ali-Shir Nava’i (纳瓦依), Kutadgu Bilig (福乐智慧), The Gate of Wisdom (真理的入门), Compendium of the languages of the Turks (突厥语大辞典), Secret History of the Mongols (蒙古秘史), Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦), Storied Building with a Single Floor (一层楼), Weeping for the Red Pavilion (泣红亭), and The Story of Qing Dynasty History (青史演义) are all world-renowned authors and works.

It is interesting to note that Bai does not mention Life of Jangar (Mongol, 江格尔), King Gesar (Tibetan, 格萨尔王), and Manas (Kyrgyz, 玛纳斯), which are now officially recognized by Beijing as the three great non-Han epics of ancient Chinese literature. Over the last year or so, however, several experts in ethnic literature have pointed out that these works are still not widely introduced in standard textbooks on Chinese literature used in the PRC today.

I recently published a post about how writing in languages native to China — other than Mandarin — has long been relegated to the periphery by Han literary historians. Here’s a passage from that post (Mother-tongue Literature) (the words are mine, my summary of ideas presented in Chinese by Liu Daxian, who is a member of the editorial staff at the quarterly Studies of Ethnic Literature 民族文学研究):

Liu emphasizes that “mother-tongue literature” includes both written and oral forms. He points out that “literature” as defined and promoted via China’s modern education, media and scholarship, tends to focus on written forms such as the novel, poetry, essays and drama, and since much mother-tongue literature — by which he basically means “literature in indigenous languages except for Mandarin” throughout the essay — doesn’t easily fit in those categories, it is viewed as a non-mainstream, even subtly inferior class of literature (亚文学).

If anything, Bai’s list of Chinese literary classics by a range of multi-ethnic authors moves in the opposite direction. He concentrates on “written” (as opposed to “oral”) literature, and considers the texts he cites as mainstream. But does his list represent the result of a positive and inclusive view of Chinese literature, or an expansive, even imperialist one in which the Chinese literary establishment is attempting to appropriate classics that rightfully belong to other peoples of Northeast and Central Asia?

Categories
Alat Asem's "Confessions of a Jade Lord" (时间悄悄的嘴脸) Chinese Fiction by & about Ethnic Minorities (中国少数民族文学)

China’s Bilingual Writers: Narrative with a Difference

It began back in 2008 with Penguin investing heavily—$100,000 is the rumored price—to purchase Jiang Rong’s tale based in Inner Mongolia, Wolf Totem. In 2013 two newly translated novels joined China’s “borderland fiction” category: Fan Wen’s Une terre de lait et de miel, located in the gateway to Tibet straddling Yunnan and Sichuan, and Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon, which features the reindeer-herding Evenki whose lives revolve around the Argun River that demarcates the Sino-Russian border.

Penned in Chinese, these novels are the creations of Han authors who have consciously chosen to set their tales amongNeige by Pema Tseden non-Han peoples who have historically resided at the fringes of the Middle Kingdom. Ran Ping’s Legend of Mongolia (蒙古往事), a fictionalized biography of Genghis Khan that was short-listed for the Mao Dun Literary Prize in 2008, also falls into this category, but it has not been translated into any European language.

Of course, there are popular novelists of various ethnicities who choose to write about their people using Chinese. Part-Tibetan Alai, author of The Song of Gesar (格萨尔王) and Red Poppies (尘埃落定), comes to mind, for instance.

But what about ethnic writers who not only speak two languages native to China, but write in both? Two have recently come to my attention, one who writes in Tibetan and Chinese, and another who uses both Uyghur and Chinese.

Categories
China's Ethnic-themed Fiction in Translation (中国民族题材文学的外译) Chinese Fiction by & about Ethnic Minorities (中国少数民族文学)

Chinese Fiction in Translation: Novels/Novellas with “Ethnic” Theme

Over the last few months a number of reporters have e-mailed to ask about the state of Chinese literature in translation, particularly in light of Mo Yan’s winning the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. But most cite just a handful of authors and works in their questions— and Shanghai Baby, translated by yours truly over a decade ago!—is often one of them.

My advice to them is simple: do your homework, please! For starters, check out Paper-Republic.  All sorts of goodies over there, including a list of translated Chinese fiction (and poetry) published in 2012, Chinese fiction published in 2013, and a Translator Directory too.

Here at Altaic Storytelling, we focus on writing by & about non-Han peoples, particularly those which speak an Altaic language, but not exclusively. And it is interesting to note that translated fiction with an “ethnic” twist has been building up steam for a while, pre-dating the Mo Yan craze, in fact.

To my mind, the impetus for the increased profile of Chinese literature in the outside world began when China was named “Guest of Honor” at the 2009 Frankfurt Int’l Book Fair. Chinese authors and publishers socialized with their European counterparts—many for the first time—and important contacts and contracts resulted, with the books born of this schmoozing finally hitting the market 2-3 years later.

In China is Focusing on the Fringes published in March this year, literary translator Nicky Harman presciently pointed out that “independent–minded Chinese writers are becoming seriously interested in the geographical fringes of ‘China proper’, drawing on its people, their traditions and conflicts at work.” And as you can see below, foreign publishers are interested. When you consider that over the last few years just 15 or so Chinese novels have appeared in English each year—ethnic or no—this table looks a bit more impressive.

Indeed. So, to show this more graphically—and perhaps even to save myself a bit of hassle in recreating the wheel for the next journalist who wants to pick my brains—I’ve put together this table. If you know something I should add to it, including current projects that will be published in 2014, please let me know!

Categories
China's Ethnic-themed Fiction in Translation (中国民族题材文学的外译) Oral Literature (口头文学、史诗) Tibetan Topics (藏话题)

“The Shepherd’s Dream”: An Excerpt from Alai’s “King Gesar”

Several years ago, UK publisher Canongate commissioned contemporary ethnic Tibetan writer Alai to pen his own creative version of the King Gesar saga. The plan: to launch Alai’s King Gesar (格萨尔王, 阿来著)  as part of its global Myth Series, joining other creatively re-told tales including The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood’s take on Penelope of The Odyssey), Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (Baba Yaga as per Dubravka Ugresic), and Binu and the Great Wall (by China’s Su Tong).

The traditional Epic of King Gesar (Tibetan: གེ་སར་རྒྱལ་པོ), believed to date from the 12th century, relates the heroic deeds of Gesar, the fearless lord of the legendary Kingdom of Ling. It is recorded variously in poetry and prose, and is performed widely throughout Central Asia. According to Wikipedia, besides versions of the tale conserved by PRC-based minorities such as the Bai, Naxi, the Pumi, Lisu and Yugur peoples, other variations are also found among the Burushaski-speaking Burusho of Hunza and Gilgit, the Kalmyk and Ladakhi peoples, in Baltistan, in Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, and among various Tibeto-Burmese, Turkish, and Tunghus tribes. The first printed version was a Mongolian text published in Beijing in 1716.

When I wrote Canongate in 2010, they told me December 2012 was the likely publication date of Alai’s work in English. Now August 2013 is apparently the new target date. Why the delay? I don’t know the inside story. But perhaps it’s because they eventually recruited the hottest duo in the world of Chinese-to-English literary translation—Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Lin—to render King Gesar in English.  It’s public knowledge that Goldblatt and Lin are the first choice of many publishers, and they are so busy that each new Chinese novel they translate has to (patiently) wait its turn. . .

Happily, asymptotejournal.com has now published an excerpt from Song of Gesar entitled The Shephard’s Dream:

‘My dear nephew, with so many people around, sometimes the gods simply cannot take care of us all, and that is why you feel out of sorts. When that happens, think about this syllable.”I don’t know how to carve.’

‘Then treat your heart as the best pear wood and imagine yourself holding a knife carving out this syllable one letter at a time. As long as you think about it and say it, gradually there will be only this syllable flickering in your consciousness, and that will bring you tranquility.’

On his way home, he said to the donkey, ‘I’m thinking about that syllable.’

The syllable was pronounced Om. When that sound is made, everything that turns, water wheels, windmills, spinning wheels and prayer wheels, begins to spin. And when everything is spinning, the world turns.

The donkey did not understand, but ambled along with its head lowered and its eyes cast downward. The road made a sharp turn by a sparse grove of pine trees. Swaying its narrow hips, the donkey disappeared momentarily from his view as it made the turn. So he raised his voice and spoke to two parrots perched on a wild cherry tree: ‘Think about the syllable.’

Startled, the birds fluttered up, clamouring, ‘Syllable! Syllable! Syllable!’ and flew away.

He quickened his steps and found his donkey waiting for him by the side of the road. It gave him a dispassionate look before setting off again, the bell on its neck jingling as it plodded ahead.

For a long time after that, Jigme spoke to all manner of living things that appeared along the way, telling them, in a half serious, half bantering manner, of how he was focusing on that syllable – serious because he hoped it would help him return to his dream world and not forget it upon waking, and bantering because he could not bring himself to believe in it. Mocking it helped him prepare for the inevitable disappointment. But deep down he hoped it would work magic.

Click here to read the full excerpt.

See also a book review of Alai’s Song of Gesar [full book published in 2014], and a marvelous look at how Tibetan epic singers come into being,  Bab Sgrung: Tibetan Epic Singers.

Categories
Oral Literature (口头文学、史诗) Tibetan Topics (藏话题)

“King Gesar” Book Review: Epic Ballad Turned Novel Lacks Poetry

Writes David Yao (姚达兑) in a review of the new best-seller, King Gesar (格萨尔王), by Alai (阿来):

. . . the tale of King Gesar is recited by [the roaming bard] Jin Mei, while the entire novel is recited by Alai; King Gesar recounts his world-weariness and confusion to Jin Mei, while the novelist makes use of Jin Mei to convey to the reader the dilemma of the epic in the modern world. With the advent of modernity, even remote Tibet, this last pure land, cannot escape encroachment by the evils of the modern world. Sgrung no longer roam the four directions singing their ballads, for they have been corralled where they sing instead to microphones and tape recorders . . .