Literary ties between Sri Lanka and China


By Sena Thoradeniya

(Extracts from a Speech delivered at the BMICH Banquet Hall on 15 September 2014 at the Sri Lanka-China Writers’ Forum)

It gives me a great pleasure to make a presentation at this august forum attended by some distinguished visitors from the Peoples’ Republic of China, including Ms. Mo Ying of Beijing International Book Fair Management Office, writers such as Mr. Alai and Mr. Xu Zechen, who had visited Sri Lanka in conjunction with the state visit of President Xi Jinping. I thank Mr. Ananda Goonetilleke, President of the Sri Lanka-China Friendship Association and Ms. Mo Ying for according this opportunity to me.

In this presentation I do not intend to discuss about the political, historical, diplomatic, economic and religious ties between Sri Lanka and China which have a long history well-known and well-documented supported by extensive research. Instead I will limit my presentation to literary ties in printed form between Sri Lanka and China which have a history of nearly a century. Therefore my presentation will be confined to translation of Chinese literary works into Sinhala.

In my studies I have collected a lot of data with regard to translations of Chinese works into Sinhala which have a great historical significance. I have identified twelve genres of Chinese literature which have been translated into Sinhala. They are: (i) Travel Writings or Travel Accounts (ii) Buddhist Literature and Buddhist Tales (iii) Chinese Folklore including Chinese Folk Tales and Parables (iv) Books on Chinese Warfare (V)Political Literature (vi) Literary Theory and Literary Criticism (vii)Short Stories (viii) Drama (ix) Poetry (x) Children’s Literature (xi) Literature for the Youth and (xii) Novels.

Of these twelve genres I have devoted my studies to make a detailed analysis of the Chinese novels translated into Sinhala highlighting their economic, political and socio-cultural factors in a historical and thematic context. In addition to these translations various studies on Chinese Literature are found in several journals and other publications. To name a few, "Pragathiya" or "Progress", the organ of the Sri Lanka- China Friendship Association had published several articles on Chinese Literature. Similarly, "Sahayogitha" or "Solidarity", the journal of the then Afro-Asian Writers’ Forum carried articles and Chinese Literature and drama. "Samskruthi", a leading journal in Arts and Culture carried a two part article written by me on Chinese Literature. In that I have traced the history of Chinese Literature from the "Book of Songs" and "The Classic of Poetry" and Literature during the dynasties of Tang, Song, Yuen and Ming, Literature after the May Fourth Movement, Literature after the Liberation , up to present day "Wound Literature" and "Introspection Literature". Other than that I have discussed about (i) Literary Theory expounded by Mao Zedong, Lu Xun, Mao Dun and others (ii) Modern Chinese Literature and Drama (iii) Chinese Poetic Tradition and Chinese Poets.

As China, Sri Lanka has a long history of writing which dates back to more than 2500 years. Our ancient writers wrote on Ola leaf, which were mainly Buddhist religious writings in both prose and verse. In these ancient literary works there are many references to Chinese language, Chinese clothes and Chinese cotton and silk. There is a motif in Sinhalese decorative art called "Sina Mala", used as a flower-spray or in jewellery. It is said that the origins of it goes to a plant in China.

With this brief introduction, now I will discuss about the Chinese literary works translated into Sinhala. As I have mentioned earlier Sinhala translations of Chinese books have a history of exactly 93 years. The first Chinese book that has been translated into Sinhala is Fa Hsian’s "Buddhist Kingdoms and Travels", translated by W. Charles de Silva in 1921. The same work was translated into Sinhala again in 1958 by Prof. Wilmal Balagalle. Hsuan Tsang’s travel account was translated into Sinhala by Ven. Polwatte Buddhadatta Thero, an erudite monk of Sri Lanka in 1938. Rev. Balangoda Ananda Maithreeya Thero, another erudite monk of Sri Lanka had translated the above travel accounts and published them in abridged form as an omnibus collection in 1958.

Prof. Lakshman S. Perera in University of Ceylon, History of Ceylon, Volume I (1959) gives an interesting account of Chinese Sources of Sri Lanka’s history. "Monks and nuns from these areas went to China braving the dangers of the ocean. The record of this intercourse is to be found in a large number of Chinese works from very early times till the close of our period. ….. There are well-known travel accounts of Fa-Hsien, in the fifth century and Hsien Tsang and I Tsing in the seventh century." He further mentions about the Indian monks who went to China passing Sri Lanka on the way there. Chinese accounts of their lives mention these visits.

In to the genre of Buddhist Literature I have included various works related to Mahayanism, Buddhism in Tibet, Tantric Buddhism and Zen Teachings. Original works of these translations are mostly written by Buddhist religious leaders themselves and some are translations of their biographies or autobiographies. Few examples are: The Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Third Eye: the Autobiography of a Tibetan Lama and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. The first Buddhist Tale in translation appeared as "Karunika Thara" in 1959 by Rev. Ananda Maithreeya Thero. "History of Buddhism in China" writt6en by a Chinese historian was translated into Sinhala in 1986.

Nearly twenty collections of Chinese Folk Tales and Parables are translated into Sinhala. The first of its kind was translated by E.S. Ratnaweera, a friend of China in 1958. You will be surprised to learn that Sun Tzu’s "Art of War" was also translated into Sinhala.

In the late 1960s we saw a surge of translations of Chinese Political Writings, especially the works of Chairman Mao Zedong. His Collected Works as well as his Military Writings were translated into Sinhala and Tamil. For this purpose we had two publishing houses, namely Worker Publishers and Praja Publishers respectively.

Chinese publications which included novels and magazines such as Peking (later Beijing) Review, China Pictorial, China Reconstructs, Women of China, Sports in China, China’s Screen were very popular among Sri Lankan readers and we had book publishers who were importing directly from China who had their business establishments even in faraway places in Sri Lanka such as Kandy and Gampola. On a personal note I would add that I have subscribed to all these magazines. The magazine "Chinese Literature" published monthly under the chief editorship of the eminent Chinese writer and critic Mao Dun was our gateway to understand ancient and modern Chinese Literature and polemics in literature and great debates in the cultural front. I am the proud owner of such publications which give me immense inspiration and still I use those as my source materials. It was the time that we read such novels as "Keep the Red Flag Flying". "Kindling Flames", "Seeds of Flame", "The Song of Youth" , "Railway Guerillas", "Red Sun", "Daughters and Sons", "Red Crag", "The Hurricane", "The Builders", "Steeled and Tempered"," The Song of Ouyang Hai", and Mao Dun’s "Midnight". Of the above list I have translated into Sinhala "The Song of Ouyang Hai" and "Railway Guerillas", which were lost during turbulent times.

Many political and cultural activists in the 1960s were inspired by Chairman Mao’s "Talks at the Yannan Forum on Art and Literature" and the Essay "Correct Handling of Contradictions among People" which contains the sub-section "Let Hundred Flowers Blossom and Hundred Schools of Thought Contend". We have several translations of that monumental work. As early as 1967 I have translated into Sinhala two Chinese plays titled "War Drums of the Equator" depicting the struggle of the People of Congo and "Letters from the South", portraying the struggle of the Vietnamese people respectively with a lengthy account about Modern Chinese Literature and Drama. A few more Chinese plays were translated by others that include the famous "The White-haired Girl" and "Red Lantern". Two ancient Chinese plays titled "A Palace of Eternal Love" and "Peony Pavilion" were re-created as two Sinhala novels. Texts of twenty Chinese dramas in prose form had appeared as one collection.

Among poetry translations are "Ancient Chinese Poetry" by Prof. Wimal Dissanayake and a few versions of Chairman Mao’s Poems. I myself have translated poems of Mao (39), Xhou En-lai (7), Tung Pi-wu (6). Zhu De (9), Ye Jiang-ying (6), Chen Yi (6) and Guo Muruo (5) and published in one collection entitled "Sisira Walakulu" or "Winter Clouds". The title was derived from a poem by Mao. In this collection I have included a 119 paged introduction about Chinese Poetic Tradition.

A Chinese collection of short stories was first published in 1957 by Gunadasa Liyanage entitled "Cheena Pem Katha" (Chinese Love Stories) but it took another eight years to publish a collection of short stories depicting the socialist society. I am delighted to say that there are several collections in translation of Lu Xun’s works. Ba Jin’s "Autumn in the Spring" was translated by Mahinda Senerath Gamage.

According to our records the first Chinese novel translated into Sinhala was "The Pilgrimage to the West" or "Monkey" by A.P. Guneratne in 1959. It is significant that translation of novels begins with an ancient classic of China. Earlier Sinhala readers became familiar with the Chinese countryside with the translation of Pearl S. Buck’s "Good Earth" in 1955. In the 1960s a number of Chinese novels depicting the pre-revolutionary society and socialist construction and transformation were translated into Sinhala. The powerful left movement at that time gave a turbo boost to these translations. Almost all the translators of these works dreamt a socialist society in our country. Their introductions and translator’s notes reflect those ideals as these translations were made as a part of their social responsibility without aiming any financial benefit. It is also interesting to make comparisons between Sinhala translations of Russian works with Chinese works translated into Sinhala. There are many similarities a well as dissimilarities.

"My Childhood Days". "A Thousand Miles of Lovely Land", "Snowflakes", "Lake Weishan", "Before the Dawn". Mao Dun’s "Crescent Moon", Ba Jin’s "Family" and "Garden of Repose", Yang Mo’s "Song of Youth", "Bright Red Star", "Sun of Yaogun", "The Mountain Village" and Mo Yang’s "Red Sorgum" are among the Chinese novels translated into Sinhala. Of the above there are three translations of "My Childhood Days" by three different translators. "Bright Red Star" and "Red Sorgum" were translated by Chulananda Samaranayake. A special tribute should be given to the late Mr. Ananda Kumara, a friend of China who had translated many political works and novels such as "The Song of Youth" and "Family" and Lu Xun’s short stories.

It should be noted that all these translations were made using English translations as the source material and most of the translations in the early days were the works of either political activists or friends of China. Invariably these translations are vulnerable to translation loss as it was a long process of translation first from Chinese into English and then into Sinhala from English.

Of the ancient classics of Chinese Literature "Romance of the Three Kingdoms", "The Strange Tales of Liaozhai", "The Scholars", "A Dream of the Red Mansions" , "A Pilgrimage to West" and "Water Margin" ("Heroes of the Marshes") only the last two novels were translated into Sinhala. The latter which was translated by a Chinese scholar domiciled in Sri Lanka, Dr. Hao Wei Ming did not appear in book form yet. As Mr. Alai hails from Sichuan Province it is noteworthy to mention that a short story written by a writer of a Chinese minority nationality, Malqinhu of Mongolian origin was also translated into Sinhala. There are few more Sinhala translations, about seven in number, of works of Chinese writers who have fled China for political reasons presently domiciled in western countries. "Wild Swans" and "Soul Mountain" are two examples. Deliberately I wish to refrain from discussing about this exercise as it can give a political twist to my presentation. Further I have omitted the translations of works based on China by foreign writers as well as works by Chinese descendents living in foreign countries. But it should be mentioned that Pearl S. Buck’s all works are being translated into Sinhala.

Finally, I would like to add that at present we have no access to Chinese literature translated into English and there is no avenue for us to study modern trends in Chinese Literature and literary theory. I think that this distinguished delegation is in a position to help us to acquire what we need most. Also I would like to reiterate that we have a set of good translators who are willing to collaborate in a future translation project.

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