Tim Cope’s account of his 6,000-mile ride across the lands of the nomads, reviewed by Joanna Kavenna (In the Steppes of a Warlord):
In the present day the steppe is a complicated, melancholy place, full of half-abandoned towns, desperate alcoholics and people struggling to survive. For a while, Cope rides with a herder named Aset, who sings ‘sorrowful-sounding songs in Kazakh . . . spluttering between verses: “Ah, Tim, when you have vodka, you have a voice. No vodka, no voice!” ’ Later, Cope’s horses are stolen and he is threatened with violence:
How dare you camp here . . . you foreigner! If I tell my friends about it, they will come in the night, take your horses to the meat factory, and drown you in the river for the crayfish to eat!
The Turkish soap Magnificent Century (Muhteşem Yüzyıl), a period drama about Ottoman ruler Süleyman the Magnificent (1494-1566), continues to make inroads overseas, and even China plans to broadcast it (CCTV Buys Rights). But it appears that Mera Sultan, literally “My Sultan” as it is known in Pakistan where it is already very popular, has upset both Islamic conservatives and the TV industry:
The Ottoman Turks did not expand their empire as far as today’s Pakistan, but some here fear their descendants are now launching a cultural invasion via popular soap operas, which Pakistani artists and politicians say threaten the local TV industry and the country’s conservative Islamic values. Some of the Turkish shows feature actresses wearing miniskirts and showing cleavage, a far cry from the billowing shalwar kameez garments worn by most Pakistani women that hardly reveal skin. The shows, which have taken Pakistan by storm over the last year, are attractive to local TV operators because they are much cheaper to buy than Pakistani dramas are to produce, and also feature more elaborate costumes and sets.
See Turkish TV Invasion for full text.
Jan 13 Update:
统万城 (Tongwan City)
Launched and Available online in Chinese
Eighteen years after he penned his best-selling Last of the Huns (最后一个匈奴), Gao Jianqun (below right) has announced his new Chinese novel Tongwan City (统万城，高建群著) will be published by year-end 2012 (封笔之作). It is based on his screenplay for Tongwan City whose filming is scheduled to begin March 2013. It will be directed by Jin Tiemu (金铁木) with scenes shot in both Hungary and northern Shaanxi.
The storyline consists of two parallel narratives: the reign of Helian Bobo (赫连勃勃), founder of the Xiongnu state of Xia (407-431), and his decision to build his heavily fortified capital at Tongwan (modern Yulin, Shaanxi), a city that remained difficult to siege even hundreds of years later; and the life of the Kuchean Buddhist monk and scholar, Kumārajīva (344-413), renowned for efforts to propagate Mahāyāna Buddhism and his Sanskrit-to-Chinese translations such as the Diamond Sutra.
Gao has long been fascinated by the Xiongnu—considered by some historians as the Huns—and their “nomadic culture. . .that helped sustain the Chinese civilization by periodically pumping fresh blood and energy into the Han culture whenever it began to show signs of decline,” writes Li-Hua Ying in the Historical Dictionary of Modern Chinese Literature. In this sense, there are parallels with the more recent Wolf Totem (狼图腾，姜绒著) that finds inspiration for the sedentary Han in traditional Mongolian culture.
Other historical novels by Gao include Nomad Horses and the Northern Wind (湖马北风与大漠传) and his Trilogy of the Great Northwest: The Last Hun (最后一个匈奴), Last of the Folk World (最后的民间) and Last Long Journey (最后的远行).
Just a few weeks after 40 Uyghur masters of the rhymed epic tales known as dastan gathered in Hami to stage and talk about their threatened art form (Dastan Training Session), some 60-plus performers of traditional Kyrgyz songs have gathered for a similar get-together in Xinjiang’s Akto County (阿克陶县) bordering on Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
According to the article (约隆歌) re-published on the China Ethnic Literature Network, there are a large variety of these songs known as 约隆歌 (Yuēlóng gē in Chinese, and ïr in Kyrgyz, I think), including those reserved just for a man or a woman, satirical ones, or to welcome a guest. Similar renditions can also be found among other nomadic peoples of Central Asia such as the Kazakh, Altai, Tuvan and Khakas.
This traditional Kyrgyz musical form was designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by China in 2008, and more than 800 songs have reportedly been collected in the Pamir region to date.
Xinhuanet reports (Minority Language Translation Software) that the China Ethnic Languages Translation Bureau has announced the development of several software programs for non-Han languages in China:
These programs include electronic dictionaries for the characters of the Yi and Zhuang ethnic groups [彝文电子词典及辅助翻译软件 and 壮文电子词典及辅助翻译软件], a proofreading tool for the Zhuang ethnic language [壮文校对软件], and transcoding applications [编码转换软件] for the languages of the Tibetan, Uygur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnicities, according to a statement released Friday by the State Ethnic Affairs Commission.
China-based Jusup Mamay (居素普·玛玛依) is the only living manaschi—a singer of the Kirghiz classic Manas (吉尔吉斯史诗 “玛纳斯”)—capable of performing all 8 parts which amount to over 200,000 lines of verse. A biography of the master singer has been published in Chinese (<居素普·玛玛依评传>, 阿地里·居玛吐尔地/托汗·依莎著).
Manas statue in Bishkek
In a fascinating article (The Bard Jusup Mamay) by Lang Ying (朗樱, Deputy Director of the Institute of Ethnic Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences), Jusup Mamay—like many Central Asian itinerant storytellers before him—claims inspiration for his mastery of the epic came to him in a dream:
One morning when I was thirteen, I slept and dreamt that five mounted men appeared with their backs to me.I went up to the last of them and saw he was riding without a saddle. He told me that the hero Manas was first and that he was followed by Old Man Bakay, who in turn was was followed by the hero Almaibet, who was closely followed by great general Chuwak. Behind Chuwak was Ajbay, the man speaking to me. Without finishing his speech he disappeared. I awoke from the dream feeling restless. My parents asked me whether I had had a dream, and I told them everything. They instructed me to remain silent about the dream and not mention it before reaching the age of forty. Since that dream I have been able to remember the lines of Manas upon my first reading of them.
For a 10-minute video from Unesco introducing traditions surrounding the recitation of the Epic of Manas on the ground in Xinjiang, and a cameo appearance by Jusup Mamay, click here.
The very comprehensive Turkic Oral Epic Poetry: Tradition, Forms, Poetic Structures by the respected scholar Karl Reichl (at left) was published in the US in English in 1992.
Translated by Adil Zhumaturdu (阿地里·居玛吐尔地), the premier Chinese edition (突厥语民族口头史诗：传统、形式河诗歌结构) has now been published by China Social Sciences Press (中国社会科学出版社). It is based on the 2009 Russian version.
The latest entry in Canongate’s Myth Series, King Gesar, has been launched in China (格萨尔王), and the firm has confirmed to me that it hopes to publish it in English within 2011. When it makes its appearance, it will join other creatively re-told tales commissioned by the UK publisher, including The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood’s take on Penelope of The Odyssey), Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (Baba Yaga as per Dubravka Ugresic), and Binu and the Great Wall (by China’s Su Tong).
I have just begun reading King Gesar in Chinese, and I wonder: Who is the author, Alai, and why was he commissioned to write the novel? Having grown up in Tibet under Chinese rule, has he had access to traditional Tibetan literature and the minstrels who transmitted the epic ballad down through the ages? How well does the book capture the spirit of this epic that is still deeply revered among Tibetans, Mongolians and various peoples of Central Asia?
To help answer these questions, I’ve translated the first two of the new items below and provide links to an interview with Alai, and a scholarly (but easily readable) piece on the roaming King Gesar story-tellers by a Tibetan, Zhambei Gyaltsho: