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.
The phenomenal success of He Ma’s The Tibet Code (《葬地密码》, 何马著)—reportedly over 3m volumes sold—has 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. Curse of Kanas Lake (喀纳斯湖咒), published in January this year, highlights legends of the Tuvan people (图瓦) surrounding this beautiful lake (now a nature reserve) which is located in Altay Prefecture where Xinjiang borders on Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia.
Curse of Kanas Lake takes place in modern Kanas. A petroglyph uncovered by a flood is taken away by an anthropologist—ostensibly for research—but eventually treated as money-making exotica through exhibition in a museum. The local elders are very disturbed by this and want to retrieve it, and their Shamaness believes that the petroglyph is inhabited by the spirit of an ancient folk hero. Removing the stone slab from its natural environment disturbs the natural order of things, and presages a series of disasters.
Unlike He Ma and Yang Zhijun who are Han writing about “mysterious” Tibet, Zhao Kanglin (赵康林), the author of Curse of Kanas Lake, was born in Xinjiang’s Yili (伊利) and is a member of the Xibe (锡伯) ethnicity. The Xibe’s roots lie in the Nonni and Songhua river valleys in central Manchuria, but they were garrisoned by Qing Emperor Qianlong in 1764 in recently conquered areas of then eastern Turkestan (today’s Xinjiang) to protect the new border. The Xibe spoke a Tungusic tongue which is a dialect of Manchu, though it is almost extinct today.
Am just starting an as-yet untranslated collection of Chinese short stories, <额尔齐斯波浪> (Waves on the Irtysh River) by Hong Ke (红柯). The author is a Han, a native of Shaanxi Province who relocated to Xinjiang for a decade and has written extensively on northwest China themes, including a novela, <哈纳斯湖> (Kanas Lake), that recounts the legend of how the Mongolian Tuva migrated from their plains to this beautiful mountainous region in Xinjiang.
In his afterword, The Advantages of Hybrid Literature, he writes amusingly of discovering the shadows of traditional Shaanxi or Qin opera (秦腔)—which he despised as a youth keen to escape his rural background—in far-off Xinjiang. “I would never have imagined that when I heard the Uighur Twelve Muqam [十二木卡姆] on the streets of Yili [伊犁], I would be so struck by its ancient Qin opera melody.”
In A Showdown over Traditional Throat Singing, the Washington Post reports:
ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — For nearly two decades, Odsuren Baatar [pictured], a master of Mongolian throat singing, has been visiting China to teach his craft — making the human voice soar, quiver and drone, its pitches in eerie unison like a bagpipe.When he first started going there, his students were all beginners, because nobody in China knew much about throat singing [呼麦]. But they were eager to learn, and, after years of sharing his techniques, Odsuren took pride in having helped promote an art form prized here in Mongolia as a singular national treasure. His pride, however, turned to dismay and then anger when he saw a copy of a video that China had quietly submitted to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization: It featured one of his former students pitching a bid by Beijing to have throat singing registered by the United Nations as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity,” with China getting the credit.Visit here to listen to a bit of Tuvan throat singing.