Uyghur Folklore

Reviewed by Sandra Unerman. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

Uyghur Folklore & Legend, compiled by Abela Publishing, 2009. 
The Effendi and the Pregnant Pot, Uyghur Folktales from China, translated by Primerose Gigliesi and Robert C. Friend, New World Press, 1982. 

These books both contain collections of Uyghur folktales. Both have their limitations but it is very difficult to find translations of any speculative fiction from the Uyghur community in China. Some basic information about Uyghur history can be found in a few references in The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan (Bloomsbury, 2015). These outline Uyghur origins in Central Asia, their role during the Mongol Empire and their current position in Xinjiang province, but that is all. I know very little about the culture of the Uyghurs, so I hoped to learn something about them from these books.

A young man will only go near his bride in the dark and leaves the house before she can see him by daylight. But this is not the story of Cupid and Psyche and the resolution owes more to the man’s cleverness than an ordeal undergone by the woman. 

A sheep and her lamb travel from a valley in Tibet to a high plateau for the summer grass. On the way, they meet a wolf, who wants to eat them both. The sheep persuades him to wait until they are on their way back down, when they will be much fatter. They return according to their promise but trick the wolf, with the help of a hare, who pretends to be on a mission from the Emperor of China to collect wolfskins.

These examples indicate the range of stories in the 2009 collection and their similarity to folktales from other cultures across the world. There are fifty-eight entries, although some are variants of the same basic tale. The book’s title is somewhat misleading, in that no information is provided about folk customs or legends in the sense of tales about specific places or figures from history. The names of storytellers are given and dates, ranging from the 1870s to the 1920s, so presumably these were oral tales, written down by folktale collectors during that period. However, we are given no information about who the collectors were, the circumstances of collecting or the basis of selection of these particular tales. No editor or translator is identified. The similarities between these tales and those from elsewhere may result from universal human responses, the influence of the collectors or from long-standing historical connections among the people who told the tales. No introduction could have disentangled those strands completely but background information could have helped the reader understand the context and the kind of community to which the stories belong. 

The stories do read as versions authentically collected from oral sources, rather than polished up for literary purposes. This can be seen from the gaps and flaws in some of them. In the first, a fox brings grass for a lamb to eat and is betrayed by a wolf, on whom she takes revenge. It looks as though the fox has taken over the role which ought to belong to a sheep, at least in the opening action. Some of the references are difficult to understand, without further information, especially the figure of the ‘pyhrqan,’ who appears in several tales. This is translated in a footnote as ‘monk’ but the stories suggest a being with supernatural powers. 

The narratives have the terse, direct strength of oral tales. The descriptions of settings are minimal but the background of sheep pastures and mountains evoke a landscape of open spaces and long journeys. A hare plays the trickster in several of the animal fables, reflecting the role of the hare as a significant mythological figure in many cultures, as discussed in Marianne Taylor’s The Way of the Hare (Bloomsbury, 2017). Other stories, set in villages or towns, provide glimpses of the daily life of ordinary people and their concerns, about family relationships, making a living and oppression by the powerful. They are set in what might be described as a timeless past, with a social and religious framework that appears to draw on more than one tradition.

Oppression of the workers by the powerful is the theme of the stories in the 1982 collection, which all feature Nasreddin, the Effendi of the title. As the translators explain in their introduction, he is a legendary figure widely known in traditions from Turkey, North Africa and Asia. They say that stories about him have spread from the Uyghur community to become popular throughout China. They are not themselves folklore collectors, so their versions of the tales are not directly taken from Uyghur oral tradition. Their translation is made from Chinese and was published in Beijing.

Visit to a Prison

One day the padishah took the effendi with him on a visit to the prison. “What crime did you commit?” the padishah asked the prisoners. 

“None!” yelled the men in unison. 

The padisha began questioning each by turn and, it seemed, there was only one guilty person among them.

“Protector of the Universe,” the effendi said to the padisha, “please order this man kicked out of here at once! How could he have gotten himself into this place? It is inadmissible that there are people like him in your prison!” 

The translators claim explicitly that the Nasreddin stories can help to create a new, socialist culture, because they highlight the abuses of rulers, together with the humour and wisdom of the poor. The sixty-five brief stories in their collection reflect these ideas accordingly. Like those in the 2009 collection, they are set in a timeless past but with a social structure more specifically focused on Moslem traditions. In most, the effendi gets the better of an important official, who attempts to insult or bully him. In one typical example, the padishah (the ruler) blames Nasreddin, who has accurately predicted the death of his prime minister. He threatens Nasreddin with death, unless he can say how long the padishah himself will live. The reply is that the padishah will live two days longer than Nasreddin, who is released as a result.

These stories are more polished than those in the 2009 collection and put more emphasis on urban life, although sheep and wolves do appear in several tales. They reflect one strand of the wider tradition about Nasreddin. However, he is a more complex figure than is expressed here, someone who can be stupid as well as clever and whose exploits are not always directed against the ruling classes. (His relationship to the traditional figure of the fool or jester is outlined in Enid Welsford’s The Fool, a social and literary history [Faber & Faber, 1935]). By reducing his ambiguity, this book flattens his character and reduces the implications of the stories to a single, basic message, although that is expressed with humour. 

Taken together, these two collections give an impression of one historical aspect of Uyghur culture, as it shares folk traditions from elsewhere. Both are readable and lively but tell us very little about that community today.

Sandra Unerman is studying for an MA in Folklore at the University of Hertfordshire. Her article about folklore and fiction appeared recently in Focus and she writes for the BSFA Review and the BFS Journal. She is the author of two fantasy novels, Spellhaven and ghosts and exiles, and is a member of london clockhouse writers. 
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