Coronavirus (武汉肺炎) Other (其他)

China’s First 20th-century Epidemic: Brief Excerpts from Reportage and Fiction

For those of you who would like to learn a bit about China’s pre-21st century experience in dealing with epidemics, I’ve woven together three topical items, all of which center around an epidemic that took place in early 1900s China. They include news about the upcoming launch of a French translation of a “plague” novel — 《白雪乌鸦》by a Chinese author — and an English excerpt (in case your French isn’t quite up to par). 


According to Iain Meiklejohn at, the Manchurian Plague of 1910-11 was a deadly pneumonic plague that likely originated among tarbagan marmot hunted for their fur in Manchuria (modern-day Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang and northeastern Inner Mongolia). He writes (italics are mine): 

The spread of the plague was exacerbated by the bitter cold of the northern winter, which caused the hunters to huddle together in huts, quickly spreading the airborne pneumonic plague. Manchuria’s extensive railway network [the Beijing-Hankou railway line] further aided the rapid transmission of the disease by facilitating the movement of large numbers of migrant workers returning home for the New Year Festival.

Note that Hankou is one of the three cities that merged to create today’s Wuhan. 

Just a few days ago, What History Teaches about the Coronavirus Emergency in The Diplomat also looked back at the Manchurian epidemic, and reminds us that some current anti-coronavirus measures  — labeled “authoritarian” by some observers — were also employed then (again, italics are mine): 

Accounts about the disease started sporadically. Somewhere in China people were getting sick in unusual numbers. Then press reports started appearing. Large numbers of people were getting seriously ill along main transport axes. News of deaths soon followed. In a few months 60,000 people would die before the disease came under control. This was not Wuhan in December 2019 and January 2020; it was northeastern China from late 1910 to early 1911. The Manchurian Plague, as the incident came to be known, was the first instance of modern techniques being applied to a public health crisis in China. Lessons of transparency and transnational cooperation from that event more than a century ago are still relevant to China and the world today.
In 1910 and 1911, Manchuria was nominally under Chinese control, but years of foreign incursion saw Japan, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, the United States, and others jostling for power in the region. These foreign actors blamed the Qing government, then running China, for not doing enough to stem the spread of plague. The disease was allegedly transmitted from marmots to humans and later evolved to rapid human-to-human transmission. In response, the Qing court-appointed Wu Lien-teh (伍連德), an ethnically Chinese, Cambridge-trained doctor and public health expert who was born and raised in the British colony of Penang, to fight the plague.
Wu, together with his colleagues in China and abroad, implemented several familiar measures. They came to an early consensus that quarantine and isolation were the best ways to solve the problems and developed a a variety of methods,some highly authoritarian, to stem the plague. They insisted on mask-wearing among medical personnel, demanded the cremation of infected bodies, imposed travel restrictions on affected regions, built up quarantine facilities, and imposed strict home-quarantine. Officials rounded up locals using wagons, holding them until they were no longer symptomatic, disinfected houses that held suspected patients (against their owner’s wills), and forcibly quarantined people in hospitals.


Meanwhile, it just so happens that in early March France’s Éditions Philippe Picquier will be launching a novel, Neige et Courbeaux, in which the Manchurian plague has the starring role. Penned by Chi Zijian (迟子建) and translated from the Chinese by François Sastourné, it is set in 1910 Harbin. The city incorporated the “Chinese Eastern Railway Zone,” a concession from which the Russians operated their portion of the Trans-Manchurian Railway. The Japanese, who inherited the South Manchuria Railway as a result of the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5), were also there in force. The novel dramatically juxtaposes the different anti-plague measures taken by their respective leaders, and the resulting fates of the three peoples.


Here is a disturbing vignette set in the early days of 1910, excerpted from Chapter 3 of Chi Zijian’s timely novel, 《白雪乌鸦》, literally “white snow, black crow(s).” 

Fujiadian is a district within Harbin, populated by Chinese, and distinct from the Wharf District, and “New Town,” the latter being administered by the Russians. Xi Sui, now a newspaper hawker, once studied Peking Opera and loves the role of the chou or buffoon, so he is familiar with the lantern titles (riddles, actually) that feature in the opera traditionally performed on the last day of the lunar new year, the Lantern Festival. 

The following translation is by me, Bruce Humes

After the Frost’s Descent in late October, the weather grew colder. Everyone donned their cotton-padded mian’ao and pants. Besides the doctors in their clinics, it was Xi Sui who discovered that people with a bad cough in Fujiadian were becoming more numerous. He also noticed that unlike in years past, they didn’t just clear their throat and continue on their way.  This year, the coughers often had to stop, lean against a nearby shop door or elm tree and gasp frantically for breath, as if they could hardly withstand the virulence of the attack.
Xi Sui, who didn’t know the first thing about epidemics, said to his mother: “There’ll be people dying this winter!”
“Don’t say unlucky things!” his mother reproached him.
Xi Sui unwittingly rubbed his lips with his hand, and at the same time looked at his mother’s slightly protruding belly. “Has the child inside grown a mouth yet?”
Yu Qing-Xiu smiled. “Yes, a sly one. It can already announce the lantern titles.”
Xi Sui realized his mother was poking fun at him. He had a good chortle.

*  *  * * *

That day the clouds hung low over the city. Xi Sui was returning to Fujiadian in the afternoon.  As he walked past the Grand Chinese Opera Theater, he saw a bunch of people forming a circle. Their heads bowed, hands inside their sleeves, they were observing something. He made his way inside for a look: lying there on the ground, spread open-eagle, was Ba Yin, a frequent visitor to Three-Kang Inn. 
Ba Yin was outfitted in a black ankle-length loose coat, a buckskin vest, and a new pair of cotton trousers. His face was deep purple, and there were hints of blood around his mouth and nose. Although his eyes were half closed, his eyeballs weren’t moving at all. He was dead as a doornail!
At the beginning, the onlookers didn’t dare touch him, but when someone took a hankering for his buckskin vest and began to remove it, another man rushed to strip off Ba Yin’s pants, exclaiming that this pair was one of those Wu Fen made for Ba Yin each winter. Neither too light nor heavy, comfortable and warm, and the wadding was all fresh cotton. Since Ba Yin was already stiff, undressing him was a painstaking affair. 
As Xi Sui looked on, Ba Yin’s shoes, ankle-length coat, vest and cotton trousers might as well have been pawned. In a blink of the eye, they were no longer his.
But those who had not got anything were not to be outdone. Quick of eye and deft of hand, they thrust their paws inside the pockets of Ba Yin’s vest and pants that were already in the hands of others. Someone extracted a wad of money from the vest pocket. There was a hubbub, and then some of the crowd dispersed. A few handfuls of melon seeds emerged from Ba Yin’s pant pockets, with the same result.
Seeing Xi Sui standing to the side, someone shared a few melon seeds with him. Xi Sui held them in his palm, but noticing that there was nothing left on Ba Yin’s body except a white tee shirt and brightly colored underpants, he felt nauseous. He let fall the melon seeds, and left, crying. The fallen seeds looked like a troupe of black ants marching along Ba Yin’s corpse. [终]

(Foreign language rights to the novel, including English, are held by the author Chi Zijian. If you are interested in them, write me here and I will pass your inquiry onto her.)

*  *  * * *

Altaic Peoples & Tales (阿尔泰各民族及其故事) China's Ethnic-themed Fiction in Translation (中国民族题材文学的外译) Latest News (最新信息)

Swedish Readers to Get First Glance into World of China’s Marginalized Reindeer Herders

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

“There are some things that, if I don’t record them, will truly be forgotten. I began collecting and collating our traditional handicrafts and legends. I want to use words to leave a record of everything about us Evenki.”

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.

My Literary Translations (本人的译著)

Extract from Chi Zijian’s New Novel, “Peak among the Mountains” (群山之巅)

Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸)

“Le Dernier Quartier de Lune”: French version of Chi Zijian’s ode to the Evenki to launch in September

China's Ethnic-themed Fiction in Translation (中国民族题材文学的外译)

Quick Guide to China’s Contemporary Ethnic-themed Literature in Translation

Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸)

“Last Quarter of the Moon”: Readers Speak Out

An admittedly quirky collection — selected by me — of unedited online reviews of my translation of Chi Zijian’s 额尔古纳河右岸 (Last Quarter of the Moon). Not to worry. They aren’t all glowing recommendations. . .

* * *

Beautifully written, but depressing as fuck. (full text)

* * *

It is an atmospheric modern folk-tale, the saga of the Evenki clan of Inner Mongolia – nomadic reindeer herders whose traditional life alongside the Argun river endured unchanged for centuries, only to be driven almost to extinction during the political upheavals of the 20th century. (full text) 

* * *

Don’t let anyone kid you that this is anthropology in fictional guise however. Last Quarter is a real novel and the personalities of each of the herders, their sorrows and their joys, shine through. What I found very moving was their stoicism. And that’s not the same as fatalism. They suffer just like us. (full text)

* * *

Favourite line: “They faced each other like weathered cliffs” (full text)  

* * *

The account of the end of the traditional way of life is sentimental. Chi Zijian has not said anything which is likely to offend the Communist party or the Chinese state, but she has not told the truth for the Evenki. There is a story to be told about the genocide of the foraging people worldwide. The Last Quarter of the Moon isn’t that. (full text) 

* * *

Chinese Fiction by & about Ethnic Minorities (中国少数民族文学)

1982-2015 Mao Dun Prize: 43 Winners — But which Ones Truly Benefited Sales-wise?

Bi Feiyu's "Massage": Major sales bump immediately after 2011 award
Bi Feiyu’s “Massage”: Got major sales bump in China immediately after 2011 award

Over the last few years, the veil has been partially lifted on what has been China’s most coveted literary prize for the novel, the Mao Dun Literature Prize, which is awarded just once every four years. You can bone up on the scandals behind this and other awards here if you like.

The Beijing Daily has just published an interesting article (茅奖销售) which details “before and after” sales figures, queries authors on how winning the award has affected their work, and concludes with a brief overview of 1982-2015 winning titles by literary critic Bai Ye (白烨).

Over the years the competition has evolved, if painfully slowly, with voting becoming more transparent, for instance. Sadly, this didn’t prevent staunch servant of the state Wang Meng from winning this year with his — in my eyes at least — virtually unreadable The Scenery Over Here, which is set in Xinjiang in the 70s.

But the standards are apparently in flux too. Reports the Beijing Daily, citing author Bi Feiyu:

“Beginning with the 8th Mao Dun Prize [2011], this national-level award has undergone a revolutionary change. Most importantly, the aesthetic standards tend to be freer and more inclusive.” In his eyes, it’s precisely because of this change in direction that his Massage [推拿] could win. “After all, in the past only writing such as epics and those with grand themes could get the prize.”

The article, though interesting, isn’t short. So here are the key factoids:

White Deer Plain by Chen Zhongshi (白鹿原, 陈忠实著)

  • Censored as part of tit-for-tat deal behind the awarding of the prize in 1997. See here for a few juicy details.

Funeral of a Muslim by Huo Da (穆斯林的葬礼, 霍达著)

  • Recent news conference reported total sales have topped 3m copies. Awarded in 1991.

Ordinary World by Lu Yao (平凡的世界, 路遥著)

  • Over 3m copies total, including 400,000 in 2014 alone. Awarded in 1991.

Frog by Mo Yan (蛙, 莫言著)

  • Award date: 2011
  • Pre-award sales: 160,000
  • Post-award sales: Now totals 1m+. Probably more due to his winning the Nobel . . . than the Mao Dun prize!

Massage by Bi Feiyu (推拿, 毕飞宇著)

  • Award date: 2011
  • Pre-award sales: 48,000 copies over 4 years.
  • Post-award sales: 150,000+ just in 2011 when awarded, and nearing 400,000 total within 2015.

Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian (额尔古纳河右岸, 迟子建著)

  • Award date: 2008
  • Pre-award sales: 40,000-50,000. Post-award sales: 300,000+ to date.
Altaic Peoples & Tales (阿尔泰各民族及其故事) Oral Literature (口头文学、史诗)

Mongolian Shaman Songs of Praise Rendered in Chinese

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:

  • Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian (额尔古纳河右岸, 迟子建著)
  • Legend of Mongolia (蒙古往事, 冉平著)
  • 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.
China's Ethnic-themed Fiction in Translation (中国民族题材文学的外译) Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸) My Literary Translations (本人的译著)

“Last Quarter of the Moon”: Evenki Odyssey Captured in Chinese Novel Set in the Greater Khingan Mountains

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. 

If you’d like to peruse a book review, choose your language: ChineseEnglish, French, or Spanish. There’s also an in-depth interview with me about the novel in Chinese (中文采访).

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.

Altaic Peoples & Tales (阿尔泰各民族及其故事) Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸)

“Last Quarter of the Moon”: Evenki Place Names behind the Hànzì

I grew up in places with names like “Winnetka” and “Sewickley,” spellings no doubt based on mangled transliterations

1,800+ Evenki place names: many inspired by Russian, Mongolian and Manchu

of old, even ancient Native American words. I vaguely recall that Sewickley meant “sweet water,” but no one seemed sure.

How many cities, mountains and rivers in China, I wondered, hide their non-Han origins?