China's Silk Road legacy and image management
by Bruce Humes

Guest contributor Bruce Humes undertakes Chinese-to-English literary translation and China media research, and can be contacted at

Just a few days after Colin Thubron's travelogue Shadow of the Silk Road was reviewed in the New York Times, a translation of that book review appeared in China's Cankao Xiaoxi (July 25).

And no wonder. China looks after its Silk Road properties very closely, thank you.

As noted in my earlier updates on Cankao Xiaoxi, this daily newspaper is a respected Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history. Virtually no English is used and no content is added. But there are three areas in which Cankao Xiaoxi takes liberties: It pens its own headlines and captions, and routinely deletes references deemed unbecoming to China's image.

Surprisingly, the longish book review by Lorraine Adams has been translated into Chinese with very little cutting. But those deletions - copy that editors find unfit for Chinese eyes - are intriguing.

The most predictable deletion is a very un-PC reference to the Cultural Revolution, dubbed by Thubron as "mass terror, in which more than a million people are said to have died."

Eating alone in a Uighur restaurant, Thubron writes, "a fleeting nostalgia touched me. I remembered a young man in Damascus 40 years ago, seated alone like this, eating, watching. But now those around me spoke not Arabic, but the scuttling, stressless language of a Turkic people." This paragraph has been cut from the Chinese translation, presumably because it makes Xinjiang (the northwest part of China bordering on the "stans" like Kazakhstan), home to a large population of Muslim Uighurs, sound more like the Middle East than it should.

Perhaps more interestingly, the other two deletions both seem aimed at "positive image management" for China’s ethnic minorities.

Reviewer Adams praises Thubron for "his account of an unexpected root-canal procedure at the hands of a chador-wearing dentist," as a "small masterpiece of painful hilarity." Perhaps Cankao Xiaoxi editors found this sentence irrelevant to the review, and it does sound like it happened in a country west of China, but its deletion also ensures that the translation will not offend the sensibilities of China's own Muslims.

The single largest deletion (70+ words) refers to nasty deeds long ago accomplished by the Mongols, once fierce enemies of the Han Chinese, but now officially an ethnic minority in the PRC. "Thubron recounts stories," relates Adams, "about the great butchers of the Central Asian past - about Tamerlane's pyramid of skulls and the Mongols' destruction of Balkh, Tus, Nishapur, Merv and Rey. In Thubron's words, "They were not just laid in ruins; they were all but extinguished. The Mongols herded their inhabitants outside the gates - men, women and children - and massacred them, even dogs and cats, then ploughed every dwelling into the ground."

The Silk Road, re-packaged for you by politically correct editors. How much of Thubron's original travelogue will make it into the China edition - if there is one - is anybody's guess!

There are currently 3 Comments for China's Silk Road legacy and image management
by Bruce Humes.

Comments on China's Silk Road legacy and image management
by Bruce Humes

Anyway, interesting. I may check it out when I have time. I really don't get censoring the whole Mongol history part. That's pretty lame.

I came across Cankao Xiaoxi myself this summer upon a recommendation from a teacher at Yunnan Normal University. I spent an evening reading about miscellaneous oddities: Sarkozy's photo op to remove that bit of flab protruding from his bathing trunks while vacationing in New England; the exhorbitant amounts of time China's youth spends online as opposed to the Japanese; the inside scoop on ex-KGB men running Putin's Russia etc. The funny thing is, I didn't figure out that all the articles were (edited) translations until later. This led me to be quite surprized at the level of frankness in an article on Sino-US relations - until I realized it was by one of the notorious "journalists" at USA today.

Besides that, the coolest thing I found was a bilingual op-ed by some Wall Street banker, the "practicing English" section of Cankao Xiaoxi. He rambles on in some of the bizarrest English - you know, the type filled with English idioms and catch-phrases that Chinese kids conjure up inappropriately in conversation - about the current age of decadence in the US, where youngsters are either short-sighted money grubbers on Wall Street, or hopeless authors of screenplays submitted to Spielberg. All this leads him to the conclusion that US society will not weather the next recession.

Keep up the good work.

Iacob Koch-Weser

This is a good article but i doesnt talk about the actual legacy

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