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.
A children’s literature exhibition and copyright exchange for countries along the Silk Road were two of the major focuses of the just-ended Beijing Int’l Book Fair, reports the Global Times (Book Fair):
Children’s book publishers from 15 Arab countries and 18 domestic publishers signed deals that will see the best of children’s literature from China and the Middle East be shared between the two regions.
Given the increasing number of culture exchanges between China and Arabian countries, the China
Publishing Group, China’s largest publishing company, has worked on expanding cooperation with over 20 countries in the Middle East. At the fair, the publisher announced it closed a deal with Middle Eastern publishers to bring Maodun Literature Prize winner Zhou Daxin’s Requiem [安魂] to the region. The publishing house’s Mottos of Modern Chinese previously sold more than 10,000 copies in the region — a record for Chinese books sold in the Middle East.
This will come as no surprise to you, assuming you’ve been following the developments about China’s far-reaching One Belt, One Road campaign (一带一路), a development strategy and framework that seeks to foster connectivity and cooperation between China and the countries along the ancient Silk Road.
At the moment, the Silk Road Economic Belt is getting a lot of press coverage for its grandiose proposed infrastructure projects, and the fact that it is making Moscow and Washington rather jittery. But there’s a more subtle side to it. The “Silk Road Fragrant Books Project” (丝路书香工程) is effectively the cultural component of the campaign. Given the stamp of approval by China’s Ministry of Propaganda, it is designed to stimulate the translation and publication of great literary, historical and cultural works that are grounded in the cultures of peoples along the ancient Silk Road.
The project plan for 2014-20 includes translation subsidies, translations between Chinese and various foreign languages, international exhibitions, and a database of Silk Road publications. The definition of “silk road” is quite broad, including both the original land-based caravan routes from Xi’an through Central and West Asia, the Middle East and Europe, as well as the so-called Maritime Silk Road that linked the South China Sea, South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
As I reported in Slice of the Pie, the Silk Road Fragrant Books Project already claims a number of achievements. Agreements were inked in 2014 to set up “mechanisms” to facilitate mutual silk road translation projects with countries such as Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Nationalities Publishing House (民族出版社) has reportedly undertaken to publish 17 books in Kazakh, including Three Hundred Tang Dynasty Poems (唐诗三百首) and the contemporary classic The Governance of China (习近平谈治国理政) by none other than President Xi Jinping.
China 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.
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?