This review is taken from Stand 216, 15(4) December 2017 - February 2018.

Fang Qi, Elegy of a River Shaman, translated by Norman Harry Rothschild and Meng Fanjun (MerwinAsia, 2016)

This sprawling family saga is set in the Three Gorges region of western China, long famed for its rugged beauty, in the upper regions of the Yangtze River. Like so many post-Mao narratives, this novel covers a substantial span of China’s tumultuous modern history, from roughly the 1930s through the Cultural Revolution, that is, the decades of the Anti-Japanese war, the emphatic conclusion of the civil war and the formative period of Communist rule. Yet, to begin with, this historical backdrop remains at a distance while the foreground is preoccupied with following the narrative strands of an array of protagonists and a progressively accelerating mesh of interweaving and unravelling stories.  

The ultimate protagonist, however, is the setting itself, representative of a massive area in south and west China of lushly forested mountains predominately inhabited, at least until recently, by a variety of non-Han ethnicities. Throughout Chinese history these people have often been in conflict with while nominally part of the greater empire, and culturally they have asserted more than a mere marginal exotic influence on mainstream Chinese society. This is manifest in the twin fountainheads of Chinese literature in which the Confucian Book of Songs, with its folksongs and ritual and dynastic hymns, is counterpointed by the Songs of Chu (South) with their strange shamanistic journeys and enigmatic allegorical visions deeply steeped in natural, especially botanical, lore. In the decades before 1949, one of China’s finest modern ...
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