Literary Shamanism in
Liu Qing’s Fiction of Northeast China

By Qi Wang

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February 2022)

Reading History through Words (唇典), Liu Qing’s 刘庆 ( b. 1968) ambitious novel from 2017 that recounts the major historical vicissitudes in northeast China throughout the twentieth century, is an intriguing experience.[1] On the one hand, despite winning the 7th Dream of the Red Chamber Award: The World’s Distinguished Novel in Chinese, one feels rather surprised by the novel’s apparent lack of sophistication in style across a total of 485 pages.[2] The prose is verbose and feels frequently like a somewhat crude draft in need of more work. Its broad range of characters—shamans, villagers, independence fighters, bandits, and communists—demonstrates an excessive repetition in expression and predictability in emotion. Few of the characters in the novel’s vast cast display a truly distinct personality, unique speech, or particular forms of behavior or reaction—of which highly accomplished examples can be found in Shaanxi Opera (秦腔, by Jia Pingwa 贾平凹) and certainly Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦, by Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹).[3] In History through Words, the characters tend to feel like one person who assumes assigned roles by merely wearing different masks; there is little effort to craft convincing diversity through speech patterns, personal habits, or reactions emerging organically from a personality rather than imposed by situations from without. Regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, or a specific scenario at hand, most characters tend to speak in the same impassioned and urgent tone.[4]

On the other hand, these complaints of mine are accompanied by an equally persistent sense of fascination that propels me to read on. The novel possesses, or seems possessed by, a strange charm, a pulsating vital force enabled by a plenitude of elements from nature: animals, birds, and plants are all indefatigably addressed by their proper names in the text, and they coexist with the human characters in a literary imagination permeated with vivid metaphors that are inspired by these nonhuman life forms as well as by the physical environment. The piling upon each other of nature and nature-inspired metaphors gives rise to a literary universe whose layered uniformity and emphatic homogeneity become tantamount to a passionately elegiac statement about the loss of nature and innocence in the process of modernization. Despite what might be lamented as a lack of modernist sophistication in character building, the novel succeeds in creating a unique literary style and performing an urgent voice, both of which, as we shall see, are shot through with inspirations from traditional shamanism of the region. This essay focuses on the significance of that employment of an apparently outmoded cultural form, not only in the story but also in the structure of the writerly imagination. The novel, however crude in execution at times, exemplifies a thought-provoking strategy of multitude and plenitude, exercising ecological consciousness and enabling tradition and nature to play a role more central than mere atmospheric backdrop on the stage of modernity. When considered within the lineage of northeastern writers such as Duanmu Hongliang 端木蕻良, Xiao Hong 萧红, and, more recently, Chi Zijian 迟子建, whose works have invoked shamanistic elements, Liu’s novel marks impressive progress in experimenting with traditional cultural legacy by internalizing it to produce a peculiar literary form that becomes a book-long ritual of literary shamanism. Tradition and ecology, shorthanded in this case as shamanic vision, are mobilized in an attempt to reframe the structure of looking and narrating.

In the following discussion, I offer a close look at a few related strategies of this traditionally and ecologically inspired narrative and discuss how textual turns to the fantastic, the lyrical, and the bodily help transform a somewhat predictable story about the dire cost of modernization into a haunting performance of shamanic lamentation about that loss. Toward the end of the essay, I contemplate the affinities between such literary shamanism and Latin American magical realism, and reflect on how Liu’s strategy of multitude and plenitude seems only partially successful, which leads to a question: How might the ethno-cultural strand of Chinese literature go beyond the enchanting colorfulness of ethnic content so as to engender a full poetics of literary shamanism for a truly profound reassessment and creative derailment of modernity?

* * *

History through Words features as its central protagonist a Kuyala 库雅拉 boy named Mandou 满斗 who, born in 1919 and reaching his eighties when the story ends, tells about life and change in and around White-tile Town (白瓦镇). Apparently one of the “new Manchus” that became enrolled in the Manchu banners in the late seventeenth century, the Kuyala people speak Manchu and include in their creation myth a “heaven mother” named Abka hehe 阿布卡赫赫 and an opposing evil deity called Yeluli 耶鲁里 that also appear in Manchu folklore in many parts of Northeast China (47-48, 109).[5] Unique differences existed in the kind of objects selected—a pillow,  men’s robes, a piece of coarse white paper folded diagonally, for example—and the manner in which they were placed in Kuyalan shamanistic rituals.[6] Featuring two villages, a big river, and surrounding mountains thick with forests in which live bandits and independence fighters that include Chinese, Kuyalans, and Koreans, Mandou’s hometown quickly strikes one as a fictional equivalent of perhaps an earlier Shenyang and serves as an obvious synecdoche for all of northeast China.[7] With a chronological storyline readily reminding one of To Live (活着)—Zhang Yimou’s film from 1994—History through Words filters modern Chinese history through intimate individual experience by throwing Mandou’s family and townsfolk into the many eventful tides of the century: the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Japanese invasion and colonization (1931-1945), the Kuomintang-Communist Civil War between 1946 and 1949, Land Reform in the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution from 1966 through 1976, and the reform era inaugurated in the late 1970s, before finally rolling onward to the millennial turn. Specifically, the novel follows the separate trajectories of Mandou and his father Lang Wuchun 郎乌春, who wander about northeast China, participate in and actively witness history. Like To Live, the novel juxtaposes history and experience or event and reaction, in the process steadily—or depressively—confirming the overwhelming power of the former over the latter. The pathos rising out of a narrative structure that embodies the historiographic vision of the artist is one of fated helplessness.

If we look beyond this central storyline, however, Liu Qing’s novel offers something extra and does so in such a massive, even excessive, manner that the largely chronological account manages to avoid repeating a highly familiar mode of representing the past found in Chinese literature, film, and television from the early 1990s on. This something extra has to do with the exceptional emphasis placed on observations and descriptions of nature as well as the ethnically specific culture of Kuyalan, or Manchu, shamanism. Whereas To Live, for example, features shadow puppet theater and the singing of qinqiang (秦腔)—a folk opera form originated centuries ago in today’s Shaanxi—these traditional curiosities make merely sporadic appearances and fulfill a primarily decorative function in the film as a convenient shorthand for a flavor of old China. They could be readily replaced by any other Han folk art without necessarily unsettling the backbone of the story. In History through Words, however, shamanistic culture plays a much more substantial role in shaping the spirit of the storytelling. Without the permeating presence of a shamanic consciousness observable in and beyond Mandou’s perspective, the natural environment in northeast China, as well as its multiform creatures and elemental phenomena, would be reduced to serving as another perfunctory backdrop because their sheer scale, volume, and repetition—an intriguing quality so straightforward yet compelling, as I will illustrate—would completely fail to register.

Alongside its chronicle of the historical and dramatic events that happen to the characters and their land, History through Words employs two types of narration: fantasy accounts and nature descriptions, which divert and protract the human-centered chronicle and in the process enrich our experience of history with an acute ecological awareness. The fantasy accounts include a colorful variety of passages on the creation myth of the Kuyala people, shamanic songs, ritual poems, children’s rhymes, as well as phantasmagoric dreams and hallucinations. It is through this rich variety of genres that the Kuyala or Manchu culture speaks along with the natural environment it worships.[8] Among these, the hallucinatory vision on the supernatural world peopled by ghosts and spirits is directly related to Mandou’s status as someone endowed with congenital clairvoyance and destined to be a shaman. His canine eyes can see through darkness and into people’s dreams. For that reason, he is constantly alerted to the multitudinous abundance of life forms in nature, which in turn gives rise to the other type of ecological narration in the novel—namely, the countless descriptions of nature and weather that are at times realistic, at times fantastic.[9]

If modernization in mainstream imagination tends to simplify the great flowing onward that life is into a forward-looking process called progress, such a linear understanding of time meets with consistent and minute interruptions in History through Words that are enabled by a fantastic mode of observation and a perpetual lyrical attention to nature, both derived from shamanism. Dreams and hallucinations produce whirlpools that ruffle and muddle the chronological flow of modernity, while a ceaseless care for mother nature, as well as all its elemental eruptions and seasonal repetitions, renders palpable an encircling biodiversity that attends human vicissitudes. Fated to be the last shaman of the Kuyala people, Mandou is the perfect person to meet with the challenge of multiplied narration of conflict and contradiction in the modern era. His birth is a mystery lying somewhere between technology and biology. His mother, Zhao Liuzhi 赵柳枝, is unable or simply refuses to identify the biological father of her baby so that Shaman Li Liang 李良萨满, the kind-hearted local shaman who becomes Mandou’s mentor, ascribes the matter to a rooster and shields the young woman from scurrilous rumors. A close inspection of the timing of Mandou’s conception reveals a strong metonymic dimension of the future shaman’s fateful affiliation with modernity: Liuzhi becomes pregnant with him promptly after the arrival of electricity in their village. Providing this technological origin of his birth with a frivolous human dimension is the accident in which Wuchun, who would marry Liuzhi and become Mandou’s nominal although reluctant father, falls from an electricity pole and tumbles into Liuzhi on the very night when the village becomes electrically connected (19). Liuzhi announces to her son that it was after his birth everything began to change (79)—Mandou is destined to a fate of conflict because he needs to experience and observe modernity both with the worldly eye of a human actor in the theater of history and with a transcendental vision nurtured by traditional wisdoms and indigenous beliefs. The narrational mode in the text thus alternates—albeit a bit crudely and sometimes doing so in the same chapter or even the same paragraph—between first and third persons (e.g., 238, 254).  Overruling the usual expectation that first person narration is more subjective and limited than third person, the two perspectives in History through Words appear largely interchangeable, sometimes whimsically so and to a mixed effect where confusion might temporarily flare up as revelation. As a character, Mandou is a thin disguise of the writer Liu Qing who, obviously motivated by an extremely passionate love of his native land, turns a historical epic into a book-long shamanistic performance to textually conjure up spirits and creatures that once impregnated twentieth-century northeast China. Alongside a fairly lucid chronicle of events indicating what happened in which year, the author seems ready to suspend this realist account and send it into a lyrical or poetic flight under the pretext of Mandou’s shamanic clairvoyance.[10]

The novel opens in medias res with a passage narrated from the point of view of Mandou who, as a small kid, is already able to observe in great detail a phenomenal world alive with elms, siskins, flies, katydids, bees, dragonflies, ladybirds, butterflies, poplars, morning glories, hens, and even two ghosts, one of which, a lady ghost, has a voice resembling “two strings of milky-scented skunkvine” (1-2). This intimate and microscopic overture places nature and the supernatural before history, and the rest of the novel follows suit. Shamanistic rituals such as those practiced by Shaman Li Liang, who would pass on the folk religious legacy to Mandou, are never accounted for in factual or scientific terms but always presented with the hyperbolic language characterizing mythology:

The shawl wrapped around Shaman Li Liang’s shoulders features a divine tree. Hung on this tree are three hundred and sixty seashells that were collected ten thousand years ago; inside the three hundred and sixty seashells hides the moonlight of three hundred and sixty days. (39)

When Shaman Li Liang prays for the life of Wuchun and another young man who are caught in the springtime ice melt of the local river, he wraps around his naked torso “a red-burnt metal chain,” holds a “fiery red plowshare” between his teeth, and lets two thick iron drills penetrate through his cheeks like fangs (57). As an extraordinary being equipped with such demi-godly capacities, the shaman not only expands the earthbound world of the humans by pointing toward “one-thousand-year-old pines, ten-thousand-year-old birches …… [and] heaven-penetrating trees” or by brandishing “a mountain cleaver,” he also accelerates the narration by enabling lyrical or poetic leaps within a few words or sentences (8, 57). Usually using extremely brief temporal shifts, such as “in the blink of an eye” (瞬间), “instantly” (刹那), “suddenly” (忽然), “abruptly” (骤然), “impetuously” (猛地), and “immediately” (一下子), the shaman is able to animate ageless dimensions of existence by penetrating “the remote depths of the world” with a deep singing voice, gazing into “a fathomless lake of rusty chilly water,” or bringing to a boil stale water that “has stayed frigid for a hundred years” (85-86). The mythical dimension and spirited scale in such figures of speech allow for a flow of consciousness drastically different from that of the modernist kind, the latter often choosing to elaborate on a realistically limited human scale by moving at an extremely slow and miniscule pace. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), for example, takes place within a single day; its protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, spends pages walking to a florist’s not far from her residence so that her itinerary becomes the space to accommodate personal reminiscences and sensual impressions.[11] Liu Qing is closer in time to and more at home among writers such as Ban Yu 班宇and Shuang Xuetao 双雪涛, whose stories practice a drab realism in their focus on daily life in northeast China during the reform era.[12] Although Ban and Shuang also imagine fantastic leaps for their beaten-down characters, these are sentimental and most likely futile attempts at transcending a heavily industrialized then carelessly abandoned world where lives are spent, souls are cemented, and sacrifices are silenced. Those trips to fantasyland are climactic fireworks against a perennially depressive literary sphere, their mission accomplished not in breaking through the darkness but by illuminating it and making it look darker.

In comparison, Liu’s turn to shamanistic fantasy, although sharing the pathos of the two younger writers in drawing attention to the prolonged damage brought by modernity, demonstrates an almost willful naivete in its mighty effort to argue for the integrity and independence of ritualistic illusions. Not only does Liu’s feverish authorial voice refuse to be absorbed into the realist part of the modern tale, at times it proves so ambitious as to almost verge on subsuming narrative realism into folds of the fantastic. Chapter 16, “Indignant Gods” (愤怒的神灵), offers a prime example. In this chapter, Liuzhi is waiting for news from Mandou who is on the road practicing shamanism with Shaman Li Liang. The mentor and his disciple meet with a foul destiny as their service upsets the host who turns out to be none other than Pu Yi 溥仪, the Manchu monarch who was a puppet of Japanese colonialists. At the clandestine ritual, a mouse “bigger than a cat” materializes from under the prayer table, a detestable sight taken to signal the upcoming sorry end of this unfortunate ruler historically known as the “last emperor” of imperial China (163). The deeply perturbed Pu Yi blames the bad omen on the shaman who has to run for his life. Wuchun, Liuzhi’s estranged husband, has by that point made himself into a regiment leader in the regional army and receives orders to capture the fugitive. When he arrives in the village, however, the shaman has apparently already died. As Wuchun tries to verify the identity of the dead man, the corpse comes alive and causes much excitement before disappearing into the river valley (155-169). Throughout this chapter, it is the shamanic perspective, of either Shaman Li Liang or Mandou, that commands most of the narration and description, speaking of the ritual and the arrest in fantastic terms. In particular, Mandou recounts a dream peopled by child ghosts before moving on in the same possessed tone to present the doomed ritual at which both humans and ghosts are visible. With supernatural beings preceding, participating in, and following such a symbolic occasion that predicts the inevitable fall of a premodern China, fantasy intercepts realism in recounting the past, effecting an absolute emphasis on the emotions and effects of modern change rather than the eventful change itself.

As for the other type of shamanistic narration—namely, the lyrical descriptions of nature—it is the inseparable accompaniment, as well as necessary consequence, of those frequent leaps into the fantastic mode discussed above. The sheer scale and volume of life forms are crucial in striking up a powerful overall image of indigenous pantheism. An amazing sense of the fullness and plenitude of nature arises from an apparent strategy of indefatigable inventorying. Along with climatological phenomena, examples of the regional fauna and flora saturate the novel’s human world. A thing or creature always has some other things or creatures next to it, below it, surrounding it, or hovering in the air overlooking it. Here’s a sample of some of this ecological abundance and immensity:

Shaman Li Liang dies . . . on a site where are found thousands of grasshoppers. (164)

Lang Wuchun finds himself practically living in a nation of flies. (164)

Outside White-tile Town, sparrows fly in hordes . . . innumerable grasshoppers jump on the dirt road . . . dung beetles fly out of the poplars and elms one after another . . . while seven-spot ladybirds . . . dance and fly around, filling up the sky. (165)

Frogs are surprisingly galore, . . . so are nightingales . . . mosquitos are in regiments and hordes. . . (220)

The sky in this literary world is constantly covered or filled with large quantities of crows, gulls, caterpillars, powder butterflies, red dragonflies as well as a massive amount of willow fluff, cattail fluff, rain, snow, or even fire (317-320, 353, 359, 373, 401, 404, 413). Such life forms and things appear consistently throughout the novel, except at the end, where animals and trees become much “fewer” (467). The resultant literary image is that of a highly spectacular universe teeming with life and loud with passion. The sound and the fury produced in such a systematic textual turn to biodiversity and multitude manages to dislodge the human drama as the sole center of attention.

Corroborating this level of clarity and detail given to nature descriptions is a Rabelaisian interest in the corporeal and scatological dimensions of existence. Essentially a metaphorical attempt to amplify human experience onto the natural environment, this anthropomorphic penchant is first established by the creation myth of the Kuyala people, whose fundamentally feminized universe self-generates from the upper and lower bodies of a Sky Goddess. Her vagina produces an Earth Goddess, and her upper body gives birth to a Star Goddess. The three goddesses move on as a team to produce the male sex, as well as the seasons and thousands of singing insects, in a process fraught with strife (47-48). When applied to the physical environment of the twentieth century, this corporeal consciousness registers decadence and decay and is sometimes guilty of misogyny in its critique of modernity. We are presented, for example, with a city that feels like “a woman who is fat and stout, newly bathed in a sordid river . . . and revealing a skin whose color is that of rotten apples” (73). There are windblown sorghum fields that heave like a “bloody sea,” autumn rivers that lose weight daily and are replenished by garbage, roads that spread like a squashed spider whose legs each lead to a dangerous destination, and a path that is like a snake with its belly split open (203, 205-207). As for the climate, it provides correspondence to the abused modern landscape with “autumn nights smeared with the saliva of grasshoppers and crows,” “ceaseless autumn rain that is the ginger-yellow urination from heaven’s incontinence,” and a dawn tinted with a sickly rouge as if it were extracted from the cheek of a consumptive (276, 307, 320). In such a heavily expressionistic universe, modern history, partly exemplified by Wuchun’s tumultuous life of unfulfilled desires and ill-considered reorientations, is compared to a river into whose body, obviously feminized, a young boy’s stick-stiff urination once “penetrated” and only managed to produce “one filthy hole after another” (369). Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the scatological turn in the text introduces no fragrances; instead, we have a variety of odors and smells related to decomposition and decay. These exude from wok-bottom dust, swill for swine, mold, pig droppings, innards, farting, mouth smacking, urine, rat feces, cockroach droppings, the blood of bedbugs, dog skin, fox fur, and filthy beddings (172, 221). It is in this peculiar olfactory ambience that the fates of Mandou, Liuzhi, Wuchun, and the others steadily deteriorate. Their foul destiny receives its capstone in 1946 when the locals discover the smelly dead body of a mysterious dragon-like creature—possibly a symbol of their native land (401).[13]

As demonstrated so far, an amazing part of the textual energy in the novel is spent on acknowledging or describing animals and landscapes. The value of human action seems mainly validated when it is in the observant and communicant mode—namely, as a shaman mediating among nature, spirits, and the mundane world. The underside of this particular practice of literary shamanism, as I noted at the opening of this essay, is its superficial approach to character building and relational structuring: characters in History through Words speak in much the same impassioned manner; they change the course of action or switch on emotion rather abruptly without deeper or subtler motivation that is the job of literary craft to provide and make relatable. In terms of such homogeneity in emotions and expressions, the enormous cast of characters might as well be compressed into a small handful. This characteristic inadequacy, as one scholar notes,  seems exactly accruable to influences from shamanistic mythology and is also observable in fiction by northeastern writers such as the earlier Xiao Hong and Xiao Jun 萧军 as well as the more recent Liang Xiaosheng 梁晓声 and Chi Zijian.[14] History through Words seems to be a perfect example corroborating a related observation put forth by Pang Zengyu 逄增煜, who provides a comprehensive discussion of the influence of shamanistic culture on modern literature from northeast China. Referring to fiction by Xiao Hong, Duanmu Hongliang, and Xiao Jun, such as Tales of Hulan River (呼兰河传, 1941), The Ke’erqin Banner Grasslands (科尔沁旗草原, 1935), and Third Generation (第三代, 1936-1950), respectively, all of which feature shamanistic practice as a principal component, Pang notices how shamanism has impacted the “creative psychology, aesthetic thinking, narrative as well as textual form” of these writers in such a holistic manner as to shape the structure of their literary imagination.[15] In particular, whether in first or third person, their narrating voice tends to display an “impassioned and delusional state” (激昂迷狂状态) that seems indivisible from the performative nature of shamanism (148). When assuming a shamanic mentality, sometimes doing so unconsciously, a writer lands in a perfectly intersubjective position from which to address the real and the surreal or the natural and the supernatural as both participant and observant. With a heightened pantheist alertness to multitude and biodiversity in the environment, such literary shamanism can aptly create a highly “imagistic” or “spectacular” effect, writes Pang (148-149). The act of writing becomes an event of shamanistic invocation through words and text.

A florid example in that vein can be found in The Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸),  Chi Zijian’s lyrical account of the gradual decline of an Evenki tribe over the course of the twentieth century that concludes with the majority of the nomadic community giving up hunting and collecting to settle down in a town.[16] With first person narration provided by a ninety-year-old Ewenki woman whose anonymity is deliberate because she does “not want to leave behind” her name, Chi employs an analogy between a day and a century (248). The entire novel is one narrational act accomplished within a single day, not unlike an extended shamanistic ritual. The nonagenarian narrator delivers her recollections at “Morning,” “Noon,” and “Dusk”—which form the titles for the three sections of the novel—and tells about her childhood, adulthood, and old age during which she, together with the over-a-dozen members in her tribe, lives through Japanese colonialism in the first half of the century and state-organized deforestation, industrialization, and urbanization in the second. The chronological linearity of this modern saga is steadily reshaped by a sense of elegiac cyclicality because the narration often announces before the fact the fate of a character or expresses a premonition about a later part of the story. Reminding one of Xiao Hong’s compassionate tone in Tales of Hulan River, especially explicit in the seventh chapter about a gentle poor miller, Chi uses countless le (了) characters at the end of a sentence or part of a sentence, producing an emphatic impression of temporal closure as the past has irrevocably passed and also a sense of sighing pity at the happiness enjoyed or tribulations endured in that past.[17] Although effective in communicating nostalgia, in the case of The Last Quarter of the Moon, this syntactic practice seems inordinate, resulting in an effusive style that soon becomes trite.

Liu’s History through Words is a sizable new addition to this shamanistic strain in northeastern literature, and like Chi’s novel on Ewenki culture, it seems susceptible to the same challenge of going beyond effusive lyricism to find a more compelling and original form—the crucial matter of style and structure—with which to account for experiences and emotions made available by ethnic shamanism in a truly profound and sophisticated manner. As discussed earlier, the arresting images that this literary shamanism is highly capable of are often composed of great numbers of animals and insects or of spirits and landscapes drawn in a highly dramatic coloring. Liu’s novel feels like a spectacular battlefield on which the modern era, ruthlessly unstoppable with the power of its technology, meets heroic resistance from nature and tradition embodied in a multitude of life forms and strong emotions. His literary experimentation, siding with the premodern and the shamanistic, cannot win this war by numbers or sheer emotional force, however. It succeeds in critiquing modern progress with its earnest reminders of the sacrifices and violations suffered by tradition and nature, but it fails to structurally challenge or profoundly derail the unidirectional progression typically found in modern tales. The formal strategy of biological multitude and lyrical plenitude and recourse to melodrama prove incapable of generating a sustainable counter temporality in the text. Persistent and heroic as this literary shamanism is, it remains powerless and almost naive.

* * *

At this point I cannot help thinking of the Colombian classic One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), which was born of a comparable strategy of multitude, or more precisely, multiplication, or ever more precisely, false multiplication.[18] Mimicking nature’s own generative fecundity, Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece endows the multi-generational Buendía family with magical growth through the sheer force of words, text, writing. In significant contrast with the endlessly productive capacity of the words is a fundamental inability in all the characters to develop. Members of the Buendía family appear interchangeable as the same names, Aureliano and José Arcadio, are given to children from seven generations and incest seems to be a hereditary disease. This stunted growth in characterization, however, is a different matter than that characteristic flatness in History through Words because it is the result of a meticulously executed strategy of perverse repetition and fascinating banality with which to defy and defeat the thrill of modernity’s encroachment. It succeeds in creating a self-sufficient structure that shimmers and whirls and in which time is both generated and corrupted, given that life is born from decay and vice versa. It is such futile fecundity or fecund futility that makes one feel intensely nostalgic and inexplicably desolate about not only a particular historical past but also the mystifying phenomenon of existence.[19]

A curious kindred spirit seems to be shared by Latin American magical realism and Asian literary shamanism: both tend to mobilize colorfully indigenous culture or ethnographic content in depicting the impact of modernity experienced as an inevitable clash between the old and the new.[20] Representative works of magical realism, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Men of Maize (Miguel Ángel Asturias, 1949, Guatemala), tend to seek “antidote(s)” in myths, whether biblical or Mayan ones, for challenges posed by modernity and do so by literarily conjuring up rains, floods, or fires in moments of crisis.[21] Natural phenomena are invoked in such a hyperbolic manner as to warp conventional realism and replace the linear understanding of history with a nonlinear, often cyclical, one.[22] Through the lens of magic and myth, apparent progress and innovation is revealed as repetition with variation, just as life and death are necessary conditions for each other. The belief in existential cyclicality is certainly present in shamanism; its most typical narrative involves journeying down to the netherworld to bring back the dead or achieve a healing effect. The most influential example is the legend of “Shamaness Nishan” (尼山萨满) that originated in Manchu culture and also sees variations in other Tungusic peoples as well as in Korean folklore.[23]

In History through Words, we observe a comparable tendency toward structural repetition, whereas narrative cyclicality—more than just regular seasonal changes in the story—seems much weaker.[24] The former is reflected in the collective shamanic status shared by Mandou, Shaman Li Liang, Liuzhi, Wuchun, and even Han Shuying 韩淑英, a dedicated communist whose destiny is particularly intertwined with that of Wuchun, functioning as his savior, lover, and political or moral teacher as she plays a crucial role in turning him into an independence fighter.[25] Together with the high-profile presence of multitudinous nature, these human variations of shamanic spirituality play different roles but essentially constitute a unified perspective. As the result of what Liu calls “head-on assault” (正面强攻) in his effort to invoke and preserve the fast-disappearing shamanistic heritage, multitude and repetition seem natural, necessary, and effective in creating an ambitious literary shamanic ritual.[26] At the same time, however, Liu’s baroque experimentation seems to fall short of consolidating all that indigenous inspiration into a refined chronotope, or a full poetic structure, which summarizes and visualizes particular and meaningful relations between time and space in the narrative.[27] Driven by an urge to preserve and revitalize the endangered Manchu shamanism and oral tradition, Liu names his chapter clusters feiling (腓凌), and deliberately structures the entire novel like a shamanic ritual, much after the fashion of Ulabun (乌尔奔or乌勒本).[28] Also known as jianggu (讲古) or shuobu (说部) in Chinese, this Manchu oral tradition and its written records present regional legends, heroic memories, or family genealogies, often with a preference for “grand narratives” (宏大叙事).[29] In the light of that cultural and literary legacy, Liu’s fiction has, on the one hand, offered a reasonably updated historical perspective by presenting a saga focusing on ordinary citizens; on the other hand, it has failed to further distill and reform that very inspiration taken from tradition in such a way that it can both overwhelm modernity with its unique older logic and also sustain that victory in literary imagination. The strategy of natural multitude and shamanic repetition, with all its spectacular presentation of the picturesque and the grotesque, does not produce a solid counter temporal-space whose alterity—possibly as a profound cyclicality or in another form of nonlinearity—would offer a more refreshing critique of modernity.

The valuable attempt, partial success, and thought-provoking imperfection in Liu’s literary shamanism invites further thoughts and experiments from writers and critics alike to ponder the full potential of the place of tradition and heritage in contemporary imagination. If we return one more time to the fascinating clarity of nature and its concrete life forms, such as animals and insects, which exemplify Liu’s impressive inheritance of a shamanic vision, one intriguing strategy magical realism uses is to place animals at the center of a story in a most uncanny manner. I have in mind here those creatures in the world of Julio Cortázar: the soft, fluffy rabbits that a man regularly produces through vomiting, or the tiger that materializes in a different room every day (though we never see it) and dictates the domestic itinerary of a household, or the still-life-like axolotls whose near absolute immobility suggests a sickening and deceitful timelessness.[30] Such creatures take a leap from reality, whether natural or mundane, to the uncanny and cease being epistemological objects. Instead of being missed as part of a beautified past or pristine nature, their presence is that of a radical poetic principle that threatens to derail a familiar reality. How might the animals and creatures that have been given such an epic and innocent presence in Liu’s fiction continue to evolve in Chinese literature? In what number, shape, or size might they appear? In what relations with their surroundings would they pose, rest, or move? And, of course, animals are but one angle from which to create or approach a story. Ethnic or otherwise, traditional culture has a lot to offer in reorganizing our imagination and understanding of modernity.

Qi Wang
School of Literature, Media, and Communication
Georgia Institute of Technology


[1] Liu Qing 刘庆, History through Words (唇典) (Beijing: Zuojia, 2017, 2018). It was first published in the spring issue of the literary magazine Harvest (收获) in 2017.

[2] This award is hosted biannually by the Faculty of Arts at Baptist University of Hong Kong. Winners of this award include Jia Pingwa 贾平凹’s Shaanxi Opera (秦腔), Mo Yan 莫言’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳), and Wang Anyi 王安忆’s Scent of Heaven (天香), (accessed 2021-08-04).

[3] Jia Pingwa’s Shaanxi Opera has an enormous cast whose numerous characters in the multigenerational Xia family are each captured in a compelling and distinct manner mainly through behavior and speech. There are very few descriptions of their clothing. Jia’s loosely autobiographic novel shows obvious influence from Cao Xueqin’s masterpiece, starting with a narrative structure that is based on the everyday life of an enormous family. The crazed innocence of Zhang Yinsheng 张引生, a principal character as well as a compellingly free-spirited narrator, reminds one of Jia Baoyu 贾宝玉 for his devotion to pure love and detestation of hypocrisy. See, Jia Pingwa, Shaanxi Opera (秦腔) (Beijing: Renmin wenxue, 2008, 2021). Jia Pingwa explicitly speaks of being influenced by Dream of the Red Chamber, especially its “way of reflecting societies and human nature by portraying quotidian triviality,” see, Qinghua Zhang, “Carrying on ‘Chinese Fiction’ Traditions: An Interview with Jia Pingwa.” Tr. Chenmei Xu. Chinese Literature Today, 6, 1 (2017): 18-23.

[4] See, for example, Liu, History through Words, 203-204.

[5] The “new Manchus” (ice Manju) also include the Daur, Oroqen, Evenk, and others; their enrollment in the banners was part of the imperial “efforts to control the hunting and fishing groups living on the lower reaches of the Amur after the Treaty of Nerchinsk” in 1689. See, Xiaoli Jiang, “Did the Imperially Commissioned Manchu Rites for Sacrifices to the Spirits and to Heaven Standardize Manchu Shamanism?.” Religions 9 (2018): 400; doi: 10.3390/rel9120400. Jiang draws from Hai Ming, Genealogy of the Kuyala Clan in Heilongjiang (黑龙江库雅喇氏家谱), in Beijing Library’s Genealogy Collection Series—Ethnicity (北京图书馆藏家谱丛刊—民族卷) (Beijing: Beijing Tushuguan, 2003), vol. 46, 587-590.

[6] Evelyn S. Rawski, The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 232, 242.

[7] Apart from White-tile Town (白瓦镇), there is Wash-horse Village (洗马村), as well as a smaller village occupied by Korean immigrants. With its possession of a street named Yanfen (艳粉街), White-tile Town reminds one of the city of Shenyang whose Yanfen Street is rich in history and memory. Yanfen Street has inspired various artistic works including: the song “Once Upon A Time on Yanfen Street” (艳粉街的故事) from 1994, written and performed by Ai Jing 艾敬,; the documentary Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (铁西区, dir. Wang Bing 王兵, 2002) in which the second part is exactly about life on this street; short stories by Shuang Xuetao 双雪涛 such as “Out of the City” (走出格勒) and “The Hall of Light” (光明堂). For Shuang’s stories, see his Moses on the Plains (平原上的摩西) (Tianjin: Baihua wenyi, 2020, c2016), 186-200; The Aviator (飞行家) (Guilin: Guangxi shifan daxue, 2017), 21-95. For discussions of Shuang’s fiction, see, David Der-wei Wang 王德威, “The Revelation of Yanfen Street—Shuang Xuetao’s Moses on the Plains,” originally published in Wenyi zhengming (文艺争鸣) 7 (2019), available at; Qi Wang, “Shadows and Voices: Shuang Xuetao’s Fiction of Northeast China,” (accessed 09/17/21).

[8] In a study of ecofeminist criticism, Patrick D. Murphy identifies similar strategies such as dialogic voices and “blurring of genres” that also characterize the nature writing authored by women and found in Native American texts. See Patrick D. Murphy, Literature, Nature, and Other: Ecofeminist Critiques (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 48. It is interesting to see how some of the analysis of Western nature writing as cited and developed by Murphy seems appositional for the discussion of Liu Qing’s novel in Chinese: “‘the land’ . . . enters the story . . . ‘as another character, as the instigator of plot’ … with [author Mary Austin] presenting ‘a particular point of view on the world’ and through continuously depicting the land’s own ecosystem behavior as a viewpoint ‘on oneself.’” Murphy is citing from the introduction in Marjorie Pryse, ed. Stories from the Country of Lost Borders by Mary Austin (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), xix. He is also creatively mobilizing M. M. Bakhtin’s discussion to engage with ecocriticism. See, Murphy, 38, 178, endnote 5.

[9] Liu, History through Words, 92-93, 96. For samples of this fantastic mode in the novel, see, 1-2, 14-15, 36-43, 47-48, 55, 85, 89, 235, 222, 249, 447. Narration also gets swollen by anecdotes, an example of which is the suicide of a shaman’s wife during a violent cleansing of the shamanistic practice (157-158).

[10] Clear markers of chronology are found in chapter 26 and chapters 36 through 41. For instance, in 1931 the Japanese took Shenyang and Changchun and arrived in White-tile Town; in 1945 the Japanese surrendered and the Soviets arrived; in 1976 the Cultural Revolution concluded, and Mandou begins planting trees to memorialize his beloved ones who have died on those various historical occasions.

[11] Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (New York: Harcourt, 1981), 3-13.

[12] Qi Wang, “Frozen Waters and Deathly Wells: Ban Yu’s Fiction of Northeast China,” (accessed 09/19/21); and “Shadows and Voices: Shuang Xuetao’s Fiction of Northeast China” (see note 7 above).

[13] Following the start of both the Land Reform Movement and the Chinese Civil War in 1946, Mandou practically loses his entire family: Wuchun, Liuzhi, and Mandou’s half-sister Ezi 蛾子 all die between 1946 and 1947 (401-427).

[14] Li Feng 李枫, “Influence on Profiles of Contemporary Chinese Northeastern Novels from Shamanistic Myths” (萨满神话对现当代东北小说情节模式的影响). Manchu Studies (满语研究), no. 2 (2011): 133-134.

[15] Pang Zengyu 逄增煜, ”Shamanistic Cultural Elements and the Writing of the Northeast Writers Group”(萨满教文化因素与东北作家群创作). Social Science Front (社会科学战线), no. 4 (1995): 144-149.

[16] Chi Zijian 迟子建, The Right Bank of the Argun River (额尔古纳河右岸) (Beijing: Beijing shiyue wenyi, 2005, 2014). For an English translation of the novel, see, Chi, The Last Quarter of the Moon. Tr. Bruce Humes (London: Harvill Secker, 2013).

[17] Xiao Hong 萧红, The Field of Life and Death (生死场) (Beijing: Jinghua, 2005), 184-185, 289-291.

[18] Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Tr. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Harper Collins, 1970, 2003); originally published in Argentina in 1967 by Editorial Sudamericanos, S. A., Buenos Aires.

[19] In the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the word “nostalgia,” or occasionally in adjective form (“nostalgic”), appears at least thirty-two times, and the word “solitude,” also occasionally in adjective form as “solitary,” appears at least twenty-one times in the novel. For mention of “nostalgia” or “nostalgic,” see, ibid, 23, 27, 45, 63, 77, 82, 107, 119, 138, 156, 172, 175, 176, 194, 222, 262, 264, 266, 277, 363, 373, 380, 381, 385, 390, 402, 414, 416; for instances of “solitude” or “solitary,” see, ibid, 27, 99, 110, 182, 215, 235, 248, 259, 267, 279, 289, 290, 291, 373, 384, 395, 404, 410, 411, 412, 414.

[20] A laborious literature review on the definition of magical realism can be found in, Eva Aldea, Magical Realism and Deleuze: The Indiscernibility of Difference in Postcolonial Literature (London: Continuum, 2011), 1-18.

[21] Rodica Grigore, “Truth, History and Myth in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Theory in Action, Vol. 6, No. 1, January 2013, 50-73, 65; René Prieto, “The Unifying Principle of Men of Maize By Miguel Angle Asturias.” Modern Language Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Spring, 1986), 26-38.

[22] For comments on cyclicality in Men of Maize, see, Preto, “The Unifying Principle of Men of Maize By Miguel Angle Asturias,” 32, 35.

[23] Michael Berman, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story (New Castle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007). About twenty versions of the legend of Shamaness Nishan—alternately transcribed as “Nisin, Nizan, [or] Nioidan”—have been located and not only are known among the Hezhens, Evenks, and Daur, but also see comparable versions in the Korean legends of Princess Bari (Barigongju, 钵里公主) and Shimchong (Shim Chong, 沈清), see, Jerzy Tulisow, “The Wedding Song of Shamaness Nisin—An Unknown Fragment of a Well-Known Tale.” Central Asiatic Journal, Vol. 58, No. 102, The Manchus and “Tartar” Identity in Chinese Empire (2015), 155-156; Jin Xiangde 金向德, “A Comparison of the Manchu Legend Shamaness Nishan and the Korean Legend Princess Bari” (满族《尼山萨满》传说与朝鲜族《钵里公主》神话之比较). Journal of Chifeng University (赤峰学院学报), Vol. 36, No. 1, January 2015, 183-184; Hong Taehan 洪泰漢, “Song of Abandoned Princess Bari (钵里公主).”, accessed 02/22/22; Berman, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story, 125-135.

[24] Narrative cyclicality, if not completely absent, seems extremely weak in History through Words. By the end of the novel, Mandou embarks on a journey to pay homage to the various “soul trees” (灵魂树) that he has planted and cultivated for each of his beloved ones, all deceased now. The trees have been stolen and transplanted to the cities as ornaments on the fast-developing real estates (Liu, 482-485). On exiting his hometown, Mandou recalls his previous departure as a young boy and the surroundings seem again filled with birds, animals, plants, flowers, trees, and fireflies with such a confident clarity and liveness as only the remote past has once seen. The novel ends with Mandou’s dozing off into a dream that is also a memory; he sees again the child-ghosts, these friends of his who look “the same as before” (还是老样子) (485). The present might have a chance to return to the past for a restart, but by this point, Mandou, an octogenarian who has just recovered from a severe heart attack, might be actually nearing his death while riding on the bus.

[25] Liu Qing speaks of the shamanic status applicable to all these characters in, Li Xiu’er 李秀儿and Liu Qing, “Reenchantment of the Land—Dialogue with Liu Qing on the Novel History through Words and Shamanistic Culture” (大地的复魅——与刘庆对谈小说《唇典》与萨满文化). Contemporary Writers Review (当代作家评论, Wechat public account), 01/11/21, available at, accessed 01/31/22.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Bakhtin, M. M., The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist, tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas, c1981, 2006), 84-258.

[28] A literal translation of the novel’s title 唇典 would be “lip dictionary,” by which Liu refers to two vernacular traditions, one being the Manchu oral tradition in which a shaman often plays a central role as storyteller, the other being secretive professional argot such as used among bandits, see, Li and Liu, “Reenchantment of the Land;” Dong Ziqi 董子琪, “Interview of Liu Qing as Winner of First Prize of Dream of the Red Chamber Award: Shamanism is the Oldest Culture You Can Find in Northeast China” (红楼梦奖”首奖得主刘庆:寻找东北最早的文化 能找到的就是萨满)., 07/18/18,  accessed 01/31/22.

[29] Liao Yi 廖一, “On the Biographic Literary Characteristics of Manchu shuobu” (论满族说部的传记文学特征). Northeast History and Geography (东北史地), 2014 (05), 84. From the 1980s to 2014, over forty Manchu shuobu have been collected (Liao, 82-85). An overview of the sixteen works first recovered is available in, Wang Honggang 王宏刚 and Yuan Li 苑利, (满族说部:一宗亟待抢救的民族文学遗产). Studies of Ethnic Literature (民族文学研究) 2 (2000): 46-49.

[30] Julio Cortázar, Bestiary: Selected Stories. Trs. Alberto Manguel, Paul Blackburn, Gregory and Clementine Rabassa, and Suzanne Jill Levine (London, Vintage Classics, 2020), “Letters to a Young Lady in Paris,” 8-14; “Bestiary,” 46-57; “Axolotl,” 161-165.