The Poetry of Galsan Tschinag:

An Introduction

 

 

            Galsan 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 Mongolia. The Tuvans, consisting of some four thousand native speakers of an oral Turkic language, are an endangered people.  Some two thousand of them live as nomadic hunters and shepherds in the High Altai reaches of West Mongolia – near the intersecting borders of Kazakhstan, Siberia, Mongolia and China – while the remaining two thousand Tuvans live in cultural islands scattered across Central Mongolia.[1] This people is mainly known in the West for their “throat-singing,” a type of laryngeal drone with simultaneous overtone that hauntingly evokes the wide steppes and background peaks of the Altai Range.

            “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.[2] 

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 Germany had been to find a country full of fascists and warmongers.  After some time in his host country, though, he was able to withhold judgment until he had made long and thorough observations:  he came to love this people that was so different from himself.[3]

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.[4]

            Despite harsh images transmitted to us from the Cold War, East Germany actually represented – due to its historical setting – a relatively liberal form of Communist rule.  This was particularly true when compared to Mongolia, which attempted to compensate for its meager population, in Tschinag’s opinion, by outperforming all other socialist countries in ideological zeal.  Particularly galling was the Mongolian policy toward ethnic minorities:  in the 1960s the Tuvans were forcibly removed from their ancestral grounds in the Altai region and forced to resettle to Central Mongolia, to “put down roots,” a totally incomprehensible and alien act for nomads.  All forms of literature about ethnic minorities or tribal customs were likewise forbidden and repressed. 

Returning from his Leipzig years to Ulan Bator in 1968, Galsan Tschinag became a Lecturer in German at the Mongolian state university, but the next eight years were a time in which he was alternately persecuted as an “unreliable element” for his spoken and written opinions, denounced, stripped of his position, and then gradually woven back into socialist society again. Today he shuns the titles of resistance fighter or anti-Communist for at least two reasons:  (1)  Communism is dead, and his culture refuses to speak ill of the dead; and (2) he is firmly convinced that without the hard-knock schooling of socialism he would not have developed so well as a person or as a poet.  For him, socialism was a harsh but necessary father who took the poet’s potentially weak flesh and made of it a tanned hide.[5]  

Tschinag’s first impulse to publish his writings in German-speaking countries was seconded by his status as an outcast in Mongolia – with the consequent impossibility of publishing there. Even so, his first prose work, Eine tuwinische Geschichte (A Tuvan Tale) was only permitted to appear in the GDR through the personal intervention of Strittmatter with the head of state, Erich Honecker.  Upon the fall of Communism, of course, the publication of his works came to rely more on their somewhat romanticized content and form, not on any political considerations.  He has since published over a dozen prose works, some of which put Tuvan oral histories to paper for the first time, others of which are highly autobiographical.  In the latter camp is Die Karawane  (The Caravan), in which prose narratives combine with diary notes to recapture the grand Tuvan event of 1995: Tschinag, at the head of a giant caravan powered more by Toyota pickup trucks than by horses or camels, moved many of his nomadic people 2,000 kilometers, restoring them to ancestral grazing lands in the Altai Mountains, an area from which they had been forcibly resettled in Stalinist years. 

            It 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 Europe as a society of consumers that are inwardly hollowed out, with neither souls nor a sense of family. He takes one of his goals to be a writer who bridges that gap, someone who can represent his people and their ways to the West in a literary voice that reaches between the antipodes of Asia and Europe.[6]  In his mind, the East can offer two valuable things:  an ancient, gray philosophy of life (an interior landscape that is key to psychological balance) and a culture of interpersonal relations and interdependence, the sort of reliance on community that is vital for a nomadic society living under harsh conditions.[7]

            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.[8]

            If 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 Europe, then it is in the poetry that his innermost soul is revealed.  The poems that center on his own nomadic culture are steeped in images of nature, images of a moving, migratory nature that are often animistic, images of nature infused with spirits.  Horizons stretch, snow migrates, and a poetic first-person catches fire: even beyond the literal intent of words written by a shaman, these poetic scenarios form strong and original metaphors to the mind of a Western reader.

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 poetry-poor land of Germany.  He has the world of the nomads behind him, he claims, a world that has not yet left its roots – unlike the Western world that is chasing after “progress.”  For him, poetry is an image dressed in words; the poet first has to see that image clearly and feel  it deeply.[9]

Just as Central Asia seems limitless to the nomad, a stylistic lack of boundaries in Tschinag’s poetry enables and reinforces the imagery of unbounded migratory movement.  The reader of his poetry sees no periods or other punctuation to indicate stoppage: sentence boundaries are intimated by line placement or by syntax – rather than by direct denotation.  The punctuation tools that Tschinag does use are an occasional comma or dash, both of which allow the flow to continue.  Within this boundlessness, Tschinag crafts word-images describing the consequences of natural phenomena – turbulence from flapping wings of geese that flew over hours before, or warmth from the smoke of a distant fire – in order to imbue them with poetic permanence.   They become part of a shamanic spell.

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

 



[1]  Traces of the tribe can also be found in neighboring Siberia and in China’s Xinjiang province.  The total for those of related Tuvan blood may actually number into the hundreds of thousands, but the vast majority of these, according to Tschinag, have been “Mongolized” into a loss of their native language and culture.  

[2]  Stefanie Schild, “Ein Bein in der Urgesellschaft,” in: Münchener Merkur (15 November 1995).

[3]  Erwin Strittmatter, Lebenszeit. Ein Brevier (Munich: Goldmann, 1987), pp. 70ff.

[4]  Erwin Strittmatter, as quoted in Cornelia Schrudde, Galsan Tschinag. Der tuwinische Nomade in der deutschsprachigen Literatur (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2000), p. 86.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] As quoted by Schrudde, p. 80.

[8] Tschinag, “Rund und eckig,” pp. 101-102.

[9] Tschinag, “Rund und eckig,” pp. 96-97.

 



Richard Hacken, European Studies Bibliographer,
Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA.
Comments, corrections and suggestions are welcome: hacken @ byu.edu