Xinjiang has become a very controversial topic in contemporary international politics, not because it borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, but more due to the internal ethnic conflicts in the region. But I will focus on the literary scene there this time.
Geographically, Xinjiang is the largest administrative region in China, occupying one-sixth of the entire country, situated in the northwest corner. It’s naturally divided by the Tian Shan mountain range into Northern Xinjiang, inhabited by multi-ethnic groups, and Southern Xinjiang, inhabited primarily by Uyghurs plus Kyrgyz and Tajik people. The official language, Chinese, has been taught in schools since the 1950s and bilingual education started in the 1980s.
1979, the year China started economic reform and open-door policy, is usually considered the beginning of contemporary literature in Xinjiang. Misty Uyghur Poetry marked the beginning of modernism (free verse) in Xinjiang, which started in 1985, influenced by the poetry of Today group in Beijing. Bilingual writing started to flourish in the 1980s and went into full bloom in the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Sadaite Jiamali (Shadette Gamarie) 萨黛特·加马力 (b. 1968) is generally considered the first modernist Kyrgyz poet in China. She started publishing poetry in Chinese language in 1985. She has compiled an anthology of Literature from Kyrgyz and translated authors of several languages such as Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Uyghur into Chinese.
“I grew up in the mixed Aksu area in Xinjiang. My neighbors were mostly Uyghur and Han Chinese. I was speaking Kyrgyz before going to school. There was no Kyrgyz school at that time. My brother went to a Uyghur school and I went to a Chinese school. I also picked up several other languages and functioned as a translator for my grand-parents who could only speak Kyrgyz. ”
“I became aware of my ethnic identity at age 8 when my father took me to our hometown, a remote village far away in the beautiful prairie of Big Dragon Pond. My father taught me how to ride on a horse, how to shoot arrows and how to identify herbal medicines.”
“Kyrgyz people live in this prairie along with Kazakh and Mongolian people. I was climbing up mountains with other children and picked up their languages.”
“I went to Xi’an City and became a dancer at age 13. After I got sick with anemia, I started training as a cello player. I went to Xi’an Conservatory of Music and Northwest Ethnicity Collage in Lanzhou. I spent a total of eight years in the inland of China for education before I returned to Xinjiang.”
“I read many books while in the hospital for severe anemia and I started keeping a diary which paved the way to writing poetry later.”
“I met Professor Tang Qi, one of the famous Nine-Leaf poets. I started writing poems under his guidance. I published in national journals while attending college in Lanzhou.”
“It was in college that I learned more about the Kyrgyz literature. I realized it’s my responsibility as a poet to continue that tradition.”
“Epic of Manas from our Kyrgyz oral literature is one of the three major epics in China. I feel I have inherited literary genes from my ancestors when I listened to the Epic of Manas as a teenager growing up on the grassland.”
“But I learned more of Chinese literature because I attended Chinese school and Chinese college. I write poems primarily in Chinese even though I’m multilingual.”
“I’ve been a professional cello player in Urumqi since I graduated from college. I write poems in my spare time. I can write the new Kyrgyz and new Uyghur scripts. I understand Uzbek.”
Here is my poem “Cello” in the new Kyrgyz script in China:
ساادات جامال قىزى
جىلدار ۇچۇپ قولدوردۇن سالاسىنان،
جوموق ايتات قاچانقى جاراتىلعان…
تۉشۉنۉكسۉز تىك تۇرعان ال چوڭ قىياق،
تۅرۅلۉپتۉر ۇشۇنداي قاباتىردان.
جاسىن الىپ قولۇما تارتسام قىلىن،
جان دۉينۅمدۅ كۅپ جوموق سابالاعان.
اي،بىلبەيمىن قانچالىق تارتارىمدى؟
اقىرىنا جوموقتۇن باراجاتام.
Here is the same poem “Cello” in Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan:
Саадат Жамал кызы
Жылдар учуп колдордун саласынан,
Жомок айтат качанкы жаратылган.
Түшүнүксүз тик турган ал чоң кыяк,
Төрөлүптүр ушундай кабатырдан.
Жаасын алып колума тартсам кылын,
Жан дүйнөмдө көп жомок сабалаган.
Ай,билбеймин канчалык тартарымды,
Акырына жомоктун баражатам.
Dilmurat Talat (Delimulati Teleti) 狄力木拉提•泰来提 (b. 1963) is one of the most accomplished Uyghur poets and translators from Xinjiang. Born in Kebokyuzi of Yili City, he worked on the railroad for many years until he became a school teacher. He started writing poetry in 1982 and started a career as a literary translator from Uyghur into Chinese in 1997 and has published 32 books. He has won many awards including the national Galloping Horse Award for translation, Tianshan Mountain Literature and Art Award, Khan Tengri Literature Award, and Khan Tengri Literary Translation Award. He has published two collections of his own poems, All the Way Southward, and The Soul of the Desert. He translates poetry and functions from Uyghur, Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik into Chinese.
“I was born in Yili, Xinjiang. I grew up in a village of Uyghurs only. But Xinjiang is a mixed region with many ethnic groups as indigenous people.”
“I grew up with the Uyghur identity. There are natural expressions of identity in my creative writing.”
“It is the duty of every writer and poet to reflect the cultural background, customs, living conditions, aesthetic trends and spiritual pursuits. But the world is diverse and colorful, there is no need for me to deliberately exaggerate or highlight my ethnic background.”
“The cultural consciousness of a nation is innate, but we live in a social environment where diverse cultures coexist, and everything is developing. Inheritance and development are a dialectical relationship.”
“Many cultural traditions accompany our daily life, especially how we get along with each other, our weddings and funerals, food culture, and styles of architecture. But we are very comfortable accepting the impact of modern civilization, which has a soft landing here and is organically integrated into our culture, and it is also reflected in my literary creation.”
“The so-called modernization, in a sense, is actually the current tense of the traditional culture in stages of development.”
“Many ethnic minorities in Xinjiang like to sing and dance. It is only a superficial phenomenon. There are many subtle differences in diverse cultures.”
“90% of the minority poets of my generation in Xinjiang write in the ethnic mother tongues, I don’t need to increase that number. I write poetry in Chinese. My proficiency in Chinese is my advantage and my uniqueness.”
“Of course I know my native language, Uyghur. But I’m not a bilingual poet. I am a diligent translator though. I have translated many poets and writers in Xinjiang from various languages into Chinese.”
“Oral literature has a long tradition in many nationalities. Written form embodies another art.”
“I know some languages are on the verge of disappearing. Every language or writing script has its own development process, many already annihilated in the long river of history which is inevitable. A dead language can still stay as a cultural symbol.”
There goes Effendi’s donkey, Ice Slab,
while the oil lamp from the legend is still on.
Phantoms of Bayi’s mulberry trees cast shadows
in the moon-lit yard.
Where does the ancient road lead me to?
I think of the old grains, yellow shiny,
my body strong and broad,
mountains fall asleep in my stories.
Asu Sumur 阿苏 (Chinese name Su Zhongming, b. 1962) is one of the few bilingual Xibe poets that blends avant-garde elements into folk poetry. He started publishing poetry in 1984 under the pen name of A Su. He won the prestigious West Region Literary Award in 2020. Xibe people migrated from northeast China to northwest China and have lived in the northwest corner of Xinjiang for almost 300 years. They are considered as indigenous people of Xinjiang along with many other ethnic groups who came much earlier.
“At a very young age, I knew I was Xibe, different from the Han people because I couldn’t understand the Han Chinese at all.”
“The sense of ‘minority’ is actually important to me as a poet. Poetry–Frontier–Me as a Minority Individual-–this is my ecological chain. The combination of these three elements is indispensable. They manifest my emotional world, my expressions and the contents of my poetry. In my poetry writing, I always recall what I experienced in my childhood, the wilderness, the grass beach, the wheat fields, and how I was alone listening to the singing of insects and birds and how the sun was shining above my head. A very warm and cozy feeling. I often look for this kind of tranquility and sense of slowness in poetry. The process of writing fills my heart with joy, peace and gratitude.”
“The images in my poems are the things that have existed in the history of the Xibe people, such as defense structures, carriages, castles, bows and arrows. Mysterious shamans, white foxes and hounds roam in my poems. They are the hallmarks of my poetry and part of my tradition. Individuality and Xibe tradition are important to me.”
“I started learning Chinese at the age of 8 in school. But I learned to speak my mother tongue. Xibe, when I was babbling. And later I learned the writing system of Xibe. I can write poetry in both languages.”
“Chinese is the mainstream language. Most of the time, I write poems in Chinese and translate them into my mother tongue. But sometimes I write poems directly in Xibe and translate them into Chinese.”
“I usually write poems in Chinese so I can publish them in magazines. I can fully express my inner feelings and poetics in Chinese. I think in my mother tongue and convert the ideas into Chinese and then I lay out the lines and stanzas in the Chinese way. When I write poems in my native language, I completely immerse myself in the language, with my original thoughts and my native imagery. I can see the desolation and sorrowfulness of life and I can feel the continuous historical and cultural pulses…”
“As I grow older, I feel anxious and helpless deep in my heart, facing the decline of the Xibe language. Driven by a sense of urgency and a sense of mission, I try to write in my mother tongue with the purpose of maintaining and continuing the fading language.”
“I feel good that I can speak my ethnic language and I can use it in poetry writing. I feel proud. But I don’t like to emphasize my ethnic identity.”
Hazhibek Aidarhan (b. 1979) is a distinguished poet and literary critic of Kazakh language. He has received many awards including the inaugural Aksay Kazakh Literature Award for Emerging Writers, Outstanding Young Writer, and Flying Horse Award.
“I honestly don’t remember when I became aware of my ethnic identity. Nor is it possible to choose my identity. Your destiny is decided at your birth by your parents.”
“I don’t emphasize my identity in my writing, but I hope to highlight the unique culture of my nationality. For example, the concept of the universe, the long history, the mythology, the values and profound wisdom, which are different from other nationalities. And I want to use special rhetorical skills to show the uniqueness of Kazakh literature.”
“I try to use classical and modern images at the same time to resolve any conflicting aesthetics between my traditional cultural imprints and modern/contemporary writing.”
“I have always been writing in Kazakh, which is my native language. Occasionally I write Chinese poetry.”
“I think I can express myself well in both languages. ”
“Kazakh is my mother tongue. It has penetrated into my blood. I can fully express my inner feelings. Since Chinese is my second language, I would need to be more proficient. I need to broaden my literary vocabulary in Chinese.”
“I dare not call myself a bilingual poet.”
“It’s difficult to translate myself from one language to another. So I am in favor of writing in each language directly.”
“Generally speaking, I think in Kazakh. My internal language is Kazakh.”
“I grew up in a village mixed with Han, Mongolian, Uyghur and Hui people. But the languages I was exposed to were Chinese and Kazakh. I went to a Kazakh primary school and a Kazakh junior high school. I think Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn, especially the tones. I feel more comfortable writing poems in Kazakh, but I have recently started writing poems in Chinese, and I hope to become a real bilingual poet in the future.”
“I think it’s the responsibility of every poet to continue his mother tongue with his poetry. I also hope to refresh the Kazakh language with my creative work, injecting new blood into native literature.”
“I believe that Kazakh language will never disappear like some other languages.”
قيساپسىز قار گۇلى قالىقتاپ تۇسۋدە
عارىشتىڭ ەلشىسى — قيساپسىز قار گۇلى قالىقتاپ تۇسۋدە
تىنىشتىق تاپ-تازا سۇلۋلىق الەمىن تۇكپىرلەپ الماققا ۇمتىلعان
قالانى قاق تىلگەن ايشىقتى اق ىزگە
سانامدا ءبىر ارمان وياندى ىلەسىپ كەتسەم دەپ بۇلكىلدەپ
وڭاشا، قالتارىس مۇيىستە
قاراشا جەلىنەن كوز جازعان جاپىراق ۇيقىعا شومۋدا
ۋاقىتتىڭ تاعدىرىن جاستانىپ
ىزعىرىق ەسىكتى قاقتى دا وياندى ءدۇر ەتىپ مورجالار
اناۋ ءبىر مايىسىپ يىلگەن بۇتاقتار
ۇمىتىپ كەتكىسى كەلىپ تۇر كەڭىستىك سالماعىن!
(The interviews were conducted individually over the last two years and translated into English recently by Ming Di)
Listen to their readings in their native tongues: PennSound: Ethnic Poets of China (upenn.edu)