The Poetry of Galsan Tschinag:
Tschinag, who expresses himself in a number of German and Mongolian literary
forms, considers himself to be first and foremost a shaman and secondly a poet;
by birthright he is chief of the Tuvan minority tribe in
“Galsan Tschinag” is a Mongolian pseudonym the boy was required to adopt in order to attend Mongolian schools; his native Tuvan name is “Irgit Shynykbioglu Jurukuvá.” “Irgit” is a tribal designation, “Shynyk-“ a root form shared by his extended family, and his given name “Jurukuvá” means in the Tuvan tongue “baby of the fur-skin.” Before his own birth, his mother had given birth to twin boys that lived only ten days; seven days following that, according to Jurukuvá (Tschinag), the souls of the departed twins communicated with their parents. They announced that they would return, but this time combined in one body – with enough joys and the pains for two. Out of caution, the parents decided to keep the next child hidden: when Jurukuvá was born in late winter, 1944, he was negated or kept under wraps, so to speak, until he could walk. When the parents needed to refer to him, they spoke of the “contents of the fur-skin,” which in the expanded Tuvan idiomatic sense meant something kept totally secret – especially from spirits.
Within five years Jurukuvá was showing promise as a shaman through his songs and sayings, a fact recognized by his aunt, herself a shaman, who began to train him how to turn to the spirits for verse. Within the birth order of the family, Jurukuvá was selected to be the one to look after the tribe, a duty he maintains to this day.
Speaking the Tuvan language aloud was forbidden in Mongolian schools; as the child of a culture without a written language, Jurukuvá was required to write in the Mongolian language and script and to take on a Mongolian name, which morphed into Galsan Tschinag. His teachers apparently recognized in him a student capable of both critical thought and of abundant creativity, so he was nurtured and encouraged under the socialist system of schooling. Besides Mongolian and his native Tuvan, he learned to speak Kazakh and Russian well and had become a recognized poet among Tuvans and Kazakhs by the end of his secondary education.
Following one year of Mongolian language and
literature studies at the university in Ulan Bator, Tschinag experienced the
great fortune of being selected in 1962 to travel to the far-off
sister-socialist country of the German Democratic Republic (GDR: East Germany)
to attend classes at the University of Leipzig.
This seemed at times a grand misfortune to the Central Asian nomad – due
to massive culture shock and homesickness, despite his having carried with him
a stone from the highest mountain of the Altai range. Before his arrival – and in consequence of
tales about World War II – his first expectation of
In Leipzig Tschinag spent one year at the Herder Institute to learn German and then launched into the study of German language and literature at the university, sometimes almost literally in the footsteps of Goethe. A series of fortuitous friendships guided him in ways that were to enhance his career as a writer. The first of these friendships was with Erika Taube, a renowned specialist in Mongolian studies able to acquaint him with facts and findings about his own people – from the standpoint of Western scholarship – that complemented his own observations. Building on that base, he has in recent years become a unique ethno-poet capable of seeing his own cultural roots from both the inside and the outside.
Erwin Strittmatter, the East German author, also befriended Tschinag and became his mentor at the end of the young Tuvan’s study years (and after he had completed a thesis on “Tragic Elements in the Works of Erwin Strittmatter”). Besides their literary leanings, Strittmatter and Tschinag also shared a love of the equestrian arts. At Strittmatter’s horse ranch, Schulzenhof, Tschinag taught his older friend the basics of bareback riding and lasso throwing as practiced by Tuvan horse shepherds. In return, the accomplished author showed the fledgling writer how to enhance and “liberate” written passages through the use of circumlocution, strategic omissions, and a tightening of narrative material.
harsh images transmitted to us from the Cold War,
Returning from his
Tschinag’s first impulse to publish his writings in
German-speaking countries was seconded by his status as an outcast in
is clear from Tschinag’s writing, both in prose and in verse, that he is
disturbed by the cultural divide between East and West, perhaps in a way only
possible for someone who knows both so intimately. He sees his own people as threatened and
primitive, while he see
A further distinction that Tschinag makes is between the “round” culture of nomads and the “angular” culture of city dwellers – even in Asian cities. The stars, the planets, the earth, the womb, blood corpuscles, and most natural phenomena are round, while even life itself is cyclical. The city, on the other hand, goes against a natural order with lines and angles, with its angular streets, angular fields, and angular houses with people trying to live pointed lives. Nomads, he says, live in a rounded manner, patiently, slowly, without violence.
Tschinag’s prose seems intriguing to the Western reader for its glimpses into
the lives of an “other” folk, into a culture fascinating but alien to
As a Tuvan author who writes in the German
language, rather than as a “German” author, Tschinag has developed a form that
goes far beyond the use of a poetic pidgin; his is a unique poetic lingua franca that combines elemental
vividness with psychological insight. No
German poet would have the background to conceive of “soul-white snow” and
“cloud-trapping rocks” below the “blued-in sky,” phrases used by the shaman
Tschinag, phrases that seem as surreal as the landscape of the High Altai
range. By offering fresh Asian imagery,
the none-too-modest Tschinag proposes to
infuse new life into the overly sophisticated affectations of verse in the
Tschinag has said: “one has to address the cult objects with a refined, clear and powerful poetic language in order to be heard.” His people believes language to be such a strong and influential force that poetry may only be written after the time of thunderstorms is past. You can learn more about his poetic and shamanic tradition from a talk presented in Rotterdam as the 1999 “Defence of Poetry” address, entitled “Defense of the Stone Against Plaster,” which is available in English translation.
From the beginning, says Tschinag, he knew that he would use a foreign language if destiny were to choose him as the first writing poet of his people. That language is German. His poetry has earned him acclaim in the German-speaking world, including the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize in 1992 and the Heimito von Doderer Literary Prize in 2001.
The poems translated on this website come from the following collections, each of which was published by Waldgut Verlag in Frauenfeld, Switzerland:
All the Paths Around Your Yurt (Alle Pfade um deine Jurte, 1995)
You Will Always Be Untamable (Nimmer werde ich dich zähmen können, 1996)
Cloud Dogs (Wolkenhunde, 1998)
Oracle Stones as Red as the Sun (Sonnenrote Orakelsteine, 1999)
The Stone Man at Ak-Hem (Der Steinmensch zu Ak-Hem, 2002).
It has been a joy for me to search for strong and vivid equivalents to Galsan Tschinag’s poetic phrases. It is my hope that his role as an ambassador for an endangered culture will go forward successfully and that his mediation between East and West may find ready acceptance within the English-speaking world.
– Richard Hacken
 Traces of the tribe can also be found in
 Stefanie Schild, “Ein Bein in der
Urgesellschaft,” in: Münchener Merkur
 Erwin Strittmatter, Lebenszeit. Ein Brevier (Munich: Goldmann, 1987), pp. 70ff.
 Erwin Strittmatter, as quoted in Cornelia Schrudde, Galsan Tschinag. Der tuwinische Nomade in der deutschsprachigen Literatur (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2000), p. 86.
 Galsan Tschinag, “Rund und eckig,” in: Lerke von Saalfeld, ed., Ich habe eine fremde Sprache gewählt: Ausländische Schriftsteller schreiben deutsch (Gerlingen: Bleicher, 1998), pp. 92-93.
 On at least one occasion (“Rund und eckig,” p. 98), Tschinag referred to himself as a “Gegenmissionar,” a counter-missionary to the “white brothers” – Christian missionaries – who have been attentively imposing themselves on Mongolians since the fall of Communism.
 As quoted by Schrudde, p. 80.
 Tschinag, “Rund und eckig,” pp. 101-102.
 Tschinag, “Rund und eckig,” pp. 96-97.