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 , 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.
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)
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: