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  • Ballad of the Himalayas: Stories of Tibet by Ma Yuan
  • Steven J. Venturino (bio)
Ma Yuan. Ballad of the Himalayas: Stories of Tibet. Translated by Herbert J. Batt. Introduction by Yang Xiaobin. Portland, ME: MerwinAsia, 2011. xiv, 315 pp. Hardcover $50.00, isbn 978-0-9832991-9-6. Paperback $24.95, isbn 978-0-9832991-8-9.

This long overdue collection of stories by a major writer should be read by anyone, China specialist or not, who appreciates good literature. Ma Yuan’s work offers the simple yet detailed observations of Hemingway, the humor and poignancy of [End Page 535] Salinger, the stylistic coherence of Woolf, and the playfully serious and formal irony of Borges or Cortázar.

Ma Yuan is a Chinese writer probably best known for writing about Tibet, although he also wrote fiction set elsewhere.1 He was born in northeast China in 1953, sent to work in a factory and in the country during the Cultural Revolution, and eventually graduated from Liaoning University in 1983. After graduation, Ma moved to Lhasa, where he lived for eight years, worked with Tibetan Radio, and began to write fiction. He published novels and stories from 1984 to 1989; he then moved in new directions as a screenwriter, essayist, and teacher. This volume presents eight of Ma’s Tibetan stories, masterfully translated by Herbert J. Batt. The stories include “Vagabond Spirit,” “The Black Road,” “The Numismatologist,” “The Master,” “A Fiction,” “The Spell of the Gangdise Mountains,” “Three Ways to Fold a Paper Hawk,” and “Ballad of the Himalayas.” The book also includes an introduction by Yang Xiaobin and an afterword by Batt. Unfortunately, the volume does not include the Chinese titles and original publication dates of the stories.2

Ma Yuan’s fiction was central to the busy Chinese literary scene of the 1980s. The middle of that decade has been identified with the predominance of roots-seeking literature, in which writers ambivalently sought to wrestle an authentic and modern Chinese identity from the nation’s turbulent past and its present effects.3 Root-seeking literature was followed by avant-garde writing, with its suspicion of history and culture and its seemingly purposeless narrators. For writers of this type of literature, any new Chinese identity cannot simply be imagined or willed into being from the past because subjectivity itself has been transformed by the complications and contradictions of modern history. Storytelling, therefore, becomes part of an identity, not simply a means of representing an identity that is already present. Narrators and characters are not content to simply rely on representation to tell their stories, but self-consciously exploit the techniques and conventions of literature in order to expose the constructed nature of real life.

For Ma, roots-seeking and avant-garde literature come together in the colonial context of China’s presence in Tibet. In fact, colonial fiction has always blurred the boundary between these two kinds of writing, broadly speaking, combining questions of cultural heritage with critiques of identity. Consider Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kipling’s Kim, Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, or Coetzee’s Foe as examples. All feature characters who experience confusion in their identities, and their uncertainties are intimately linked to the forms their stories take.

Ma’s experiences as a Chinese man in Lhasa — and his imagination as a writer — reflect the colonial encounter on a very human and individually psychological level, as well as any metaphorical levels that readers might identify. The stories showcase a remarkably sensitive observer-creator of and participant in relationships that are simultaneously unequal, symbiotic, exploitative, compassionate, tragic, and life-affirming. Ma’s stories develop new forms for articulating a [End Page 536] consciousness emerging, for good as well as for ill, in a colonial context. Of course, these are not the direct accounts of colonized people or cultures, but of the colonial resident outsider who recognizes that writing about his interactions in China’s Tibet sets in motion any number of powerful metaphors, stereotypes, and prejudices. It is tempting and sometimes well-meaning to reduce the Tibet-China relationship to one in which the component parts map easily onto oppositions between the spiritual and the material...