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

2015 Mao Dun Prize: Who Will Snare Award for Unofficial “Ethnic-themed” Category?

Hong Ke's longlisted novel 《少女萨吾尔登》 interweaves Xinjiang, Mongolian and Shaanxi motifs
Hong Ke’s long listed novel “The Fleet-footed Sawadeng Dancing Girl”  interweaves Xinjiang, Mongolian and Shaanxi motifs

The longlist for what is arguably China’s most prestigious award for novels has just been published (第九届茅盾文学奖参评作品目录). I write “arguably” because, like virtually every literary competition in the PRC of late, even the reputation of the Mao Dun Literature Prize — sponsored by the very official Chinese Writers Association — has been questioned. See 2014: Year of the Chinese Literary Prize (Scandal)? for a wrap-up.

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

Mongolia: Guo Xuebo's explores the Shamanistic past of his people and his family
“Mongolia”: Guo Xuebo explores the Shamanistic roots of his people . . .  and his family

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.

《艾多斯 · 舒立凡》 by young Kazakh writer Aydos Amantay (艾多斯·阿曼泰) who won the Aksay New Writer’s Award for this work.

《忽必烈大汗》Kublai Khan by Mongolian writer Bagen (巴根)

Altaic Peoples & Tales (阿尔泰各民族及其故事)

“The Mysterious Realm of Lop Nur” and “Curse of Kanas Lake”: Xinjiang’s Answer to Tibetan Fiction Fever?

The phenomenal success of He Ma’s The Tibet Code (《藏地密码》, 何马著)—reportedly over 3m volumes sold—has罗布泊秘境 spawned a host of thrillers and mysteries driven by a similar fascination with Tibetan history, religion and relics. The popular 3-volume Tibetan Mastiff (藏獒) by Yang Zhijun (杨治军), now an animated film co-produced by a Sino-Japanese partnership, is just one example.

But Tibet is certainly not the only area of the People’s Republic rich in non-Han culture and history with strong
potential for such fiction. Two novels by former journalist Jueluo Kanglin (觉罗康林), including the newly launched 罗布泊秘境 (literally, The Mysterious Realm of Lop Nur), are bound to raise Xinjiang’s profile among aficionados of the “exploration thriller” genre.

As a site engendering curiosity and even fascination, Lop Nur’s credentials are impeccable and ancient: archaeologists unearthed the (controversial) Tarim mummies along the lake (Lop Nur means “Lop lake”); explorers such as Marco Polo, Ferdinand von Richthofen, Nikolai Przhevalsky, Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein all set foot in the area; and more recently, Chinese scientist Peng Jiamu disappeared there (1980), and Chinese explorer Yu Chunshun died trying to walk across Lop Nur (1996).

In a recent interview about his new novel (锡伯族作家), Jueluo Kanglin mentioned several international explorers and others such as Japan’s Zuicho Tachibana and France’s Pierre Gabriel Édouard Bonvalot, but the author did not detail which aspects of the Lop Nur “legend” he delves into in his novel.

Tibetan Topics (藏话题)

China’s Richest Authors, the “Tibet Craze” and Silenced Immolations

He Ma (何马) author of the wildly best-selling The Tibet Code (藏地密码), ranks 28th among the Top 30 in the just-released (unofficial) list of China’s Richest Authors (2012 年中国作家富豪榜).


Back in mid-2011, I wrote about He Ma’s 10-volume series for Paper Republic (The Tibetan Factor, Marketing Smarts and Toilet Humor):

It has hit the shelves at last: the last installment—Volume 10 of The Tibet Code (藏地密码 10: 神圣大结局)—is on sale now throughout China. The critics scoffed, but marketing experts acclaimed the way the free online tale transitioned to paying hard copy, and devoted fans reportedly snapped up three million copies during its three-year stay on the best-seller charts.

Chinese-to-English literary translator Joel Martinsen describes it as a “successful pulp adventure series” that “puts its characters in life-threatening situations in a quest for legendary animals and lost civilizations,” in an interview with The Global Times.

The civilization in question is a form of ancient Tibetan Buddhism abolished by the Emperor Langdarma in the ninth century, and Tibetan mastiffs play a starring role in what is essentially a modern-day, wild goose chase for sacred sutras and artifacts hidden away in defiance of the emperor’s ban. Even 20th-century secret missions sent by Hitler and Stalin get in on the game.

Driving the series is the so-called “Tibetan factor”, the use of a mélange of Tibetan motifs, myths and sites that virtually steep the story in representations of a culture that remains exotic even for the great mass of Chinese people. The series is packaged in a cover that is visually similar to traditional Tibetan layered garb.

A RMB millionaire he may now be, but He Ma — a Han from Sichuan who has reportedly spent nearly a decade exploring Tibet, including three years in Lhasa — appears to be one of the unnamed targets of a Nov 27 article by Gao Yujie (高玉洁) in the Tibet Daily (文学作品 “西藏热” 的喜与忧) trashing much of the fiction published during the so-called “Tibet craze” that has swept the popular literary scene over the last few years.

A reporter for the Tibet Daily, Gao argues pointedly that in this “era of fast-food reading,” many books on Tibet utterly fail to fully reflect the “genuine” Tibet. She contrasts this with the 1980s when authors such as Ma Yuan (马原, Ballad of the Himalayas), Tashi  Dawa (扎西达娃, Selected Stories by Tashi Dawa) and Ma Lihua (马丽华, Glimpses of Northern Tibet) were popular. The reason why their literary works have become “classics,” she says, is because they “realistically, objectively reflected the Tibet of that era.”

That’s not to say no one is doing so, explains Gao, but she excludes best-sellers The Tibet Code by He Ma and Tibetan Mastiffs (藏獒) by Yang Zhijun (杨志军) from her brief list. Gao’s favorites include Purple Barley author Nima Panduo (紫青稞,尼玛潘多著), and Tsering Norbu (次仁罗布) whose A Sheep Released to Life (放生羊) won the Lu Xün Literary Award.

One wonders quite how interested writers will manage to “realistically, objectively” reflect Tibetan society in the near future. Just a few days ago another four Tibetans in Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan set themselves on fire in protest against China’s Tibetan policies, bringing the number to 20 in November alone, and — according to the US-based Radio Free Tibet — 85 since 2009.  Rarely mentioned in Chinese media, these tragic immolations are strongly condemned as terrorist acts incited by separatists.

Not having visited Tibet or traditionally Tibetan-dominated regions outside it, I can’t judge whether these suicides are “representative” of opinion in Tibetan society overall. But either way, it’s hard to imagine any PRC resident — especially a Han author like He Ma who made his fortune by exoticizing Tibet’s history and culture for mass entertainment — daring to address this painful and taboo issue in his or her writing within 2013.