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-lifeauthor 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.
A few years back I read a longish, semi-autobiographical novel by Guo Xuebo (郭雪波), who was raised in the Horchin Grasslands of Inner Mongolia (科尔沁草原) and is a native speaker of Mongolian. Entitled 《蒙古里亚》— an attempt to replicate the sound of “Mongolia” in Chinese, I assume — it comprises three distinct narratives that are intricately intertwined as the novel progresses: A spiritual journey, in which the narrator/author seeks his Shaman roots; various “scenes” from the journey of a real-life, early 20th-century Scandinavian explorer among the Mongols; and the tribulations of Teelee Yesu (特勒约苏), a modern-day Mongolian herdsman, considered by many to be the village idiot, whose very survival is threatened by desertification and the machinations of a greedy coal mining company. I just finished my draft translation of an excerpt from the novel (The Mongol Would-be Self-immolator), in which Teelee is jailed for threatening to self-immolate (自焚). The excerpt all takes place in jail, as a bevy of reporters, Banner honchos and a mysterious security official alternately congratulate, chide and interrogate him, the latter out of fear that — heaven forbid! — he has been inspired by Tibet’s self-immolating Buddhist monks.
I’ve just started reading Manas Resurrected, a short story by Xi’an’s Hong Ke (《复活的玛纳斯》红柯 著). As far as I know, it has not been translated yet. I’m intrigued for two reasons: The reference to the ancient Kyrgyz epic Manas, and the fact that it is set in the early 60s when the Soviet Union’s Kazakhstan did its best to lure Xinjiang residents (mainly Kazakhs and Uyghurs) across the border. Apparently as many as 60,000+ did actually leave China. I don’t know much about this mass movement or the politics behind it, but it has not been forgotten in the PRC. The exodus came up in a short story (Sidik Golden MobOff) and again in a novel (Zuilian) by the Xinjiang-based Uyghur author Alat Asem, both of which I translated. He repeatedly refers to the attraction a new life in Kazakhstan exercised on many Uyghurs during that period, and at times his protagonists speak of the émigrés with great disdain.
Two poets have collaborated to publish a book containing 29 renditions of songs of praise traditionally chanted by shaman. The original odes in Mongolian were first translated into Mandarin by Mongolian scholar Ni Ma (尼玛), and then polished by Xi Murong(席慕蓉), who also knows Mongolian but was educated in Taiwan. The book is published by the Ethnic Publishing House (北京民族出版社), according to a report in Chinawriter(萨满神歌).
Entitled 萨满神歌 (lit., sacred songs of the shaman), they offer praise mainly to mothers, and the spirits of mountains and rivers. Such songs are passed on orally and rarely written down.
Shaman and their lyrics do occasionally appear in 21st-century Chinese fiction, however. For example, here are three novels with key roles for shaman, the first below being Evenki (and a woman), while the latter two are Mongolian:
Mongolia by Guo Xuebo (蒙古里亚, 郭雪波著). This is a powerful new semi-autobiographical work by an author who is the descendent of a line of shaman. I’m working now on an excerpt and hope to post in September.
Protests over land have occurred in several herding communities in Inner Mongolia during May and early June, according to RFA (Grassland Protests Spread). Ethnic Mongolian herders say access to traditional grazing land is increasingly being curtailed or permanently denied in favor of mining and logging projects, or highway construction. Inadequate or total lack of compensation for the land is also an issue.
Among the communities where protests have taken place are Tulee Gachaa, Mingren Som Township, Zaruud Banner and Ar-Horchin Banner. Arrests have been made, cell phones used by onlookers to shoot videos of police actions have been confiscated, and in one instance in Zaruud Banner, one herder was reportedly beaten unconscious by police and is “still receiving emergency medical treatment in the Zaruud Banner People’s Hospital,” according to the RFA report.
Unrest due to government-supported exploitation of Inner Mongolian natural resources is not a new phenomenon. Back in June 2011, a Han truck driver was found guilty of running over a Mongolian herder who was “blocking a road to protest environmental damage by trucks hauling coal,” and — in a move that shows how seriously the authorities viewed the large-scale protests at the time — the driver was sentenced to death (Truck Driver).
Angered by the news blackout that followed the herder’s violent death, and the way official propaganda has long sought to blame desertification of the grasslands on the Mongol’s traditional way of life, a young Mongolian rapper composed an emotional song in memory of the unfortunate herder — in Chinese — that went viral before it was deleted and/or firewalled by the authorities (献给草原英雄莫日根的歌):
Yo, I am a Mongol even if I sing my rap in Chinese
No matter what you say I am a Mongol
Mongol blood flows in my veins
Awarded every four years to between three and five long works of fiction (at least 130,000 hanzi), they will be handed out again this year (2015). China-based publishers have nominated some 252 works distributed in hard copy form between 2011-2014.
Naturally, there are plenty of works by famous mainstream authors on the list, such as Ge Fei (江南三部曲), Jia Pingwa (古炉, 老生) and Han Shaogong (日夜书).
But here at Ethnic ChinaLit, our focus is on “writing by & about non-Han peoples of China.” And it is my understanding is that there is a tradition — albeit an unwritten rule — that each set of Mao Dun awards include one “ethnic-themed” work (民族题材的作品). In the past, winners included Huo Da’s Funeral of a Muslim(穆斯林的葬礼), Alai’s Red Poppies (尘埃落定), and Chi Zijian’s The Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸).
By my count, there are at least 20 contenders for the prize that fall into the unofficial ethnic-themed category, i.e., the novel has major “non-Han” components in terms of characters and storyline. My impression is that the Chinese literary establishment has also become acutely aware of the need to identify and promote authors who not only write about ethnic minorities, but are themselves “ethnic” writers. That may give certain nominees a bit of an edge this time around — after all, winning titles and authors must definitely meet the prevailing standards of political correctness. Model writers, particularly hailing from restive border regions such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, are likely to be particularly in demand.
The recent brouhaha over Wolf Totem, the movie, is a good example of the pent up frustration among peoples
who are unhappy at seeing their culture commercialized for great profit —and possibly misinterpreted — by Han authors like Jiang Rong. See Breakthrough for Mongolian on the Screen for details of one author’s critique of the very idea that the wolf represents a totem for the Mongolian people.
I’ve gone through the list of 252 novels and done my best to identify non-Han authors and their works. No doubt I’ve missed some, and I welcome your additions and corrections. Interesting to note that this list is dominated by members of ethnicities located in northern China that traditionally speak an Altaic language such as Mongolian, Daur, Uyghur or Kazakh:
《时间悄悄的嘴脸》by Uyghur writer Alat Asem (阿拉提·阿斯木). For an excerpt of his writing, click on his short story Sidek Golden MobOff . I recently read the nominated work (a novella, actually), which I enjoyed. Asem’s fiction is a Uyghur world where Han just don’t figure; his hallmarks are womanizers, insulting monikers and a hybrid Chinese with an odd but appealing Turkic flavor.
It has taken a bit of time, but Chinese authors have begun to publicize their reaction to Xi Jinping’s speech at the Beijing Oct 15 Forum on Literature and Art Work. While slavish praise has been appropriately abundant, a handful of Art Workers do not appear to be singing in unison. We’ll skip the former and focus on the latter because they’re more fun.
Tellingly, some well known authors have chosen to express their views online in op-eds at the New York Times, first in English, then in Chinese. Both sites are blocked in the PRC, ever since the NYT ran its muckraking report on the massive wealth acquired by the family of then-premier Wen Jiabao.
Yan Lianke’s essay (bilingual version) opens with a reference to his childhood, when “China’s efforts to promote socialism in the late 1950s and early 1960s resulted in what is euphemistically known as the three years of natural disasters, during which more than 30 million people starved to death.” This experience, in particular his mother’s stark explanation of what kind of clay and tree bark one should or should not eat in order to survive, led him to recognize that “darkness is not the mere absence of light, but rather it is life itself. Darkness is the Chinese people’s fate.”
In a nod to Xi Jinping’s call for China’s artists to “use light to disperse darkness,” Yan Lianke (阎连科) asserts that it is indeed “a writer’s job to find life within this darkness.” But in his closing sentence, he clearly opposes Xi Jinping’s insistence — consistent with Mao’s — that literature and art “must persist in the fundamental orientation of serving the people and serving Socialism,” and implies that the writer does not need The Party’s guidance to perform his mission:
. . . only the pursuit of true art, unencumbered by anyone, can help us find the delicate light, beauty, warmth and love that are hidden in the darkness.