Book reviews

Huo Da’s ‘The Jade King’ or 穆斯林的葬礼

I finally got round to reading Huo Da’s ‘The Jade King’ or, in the original Chinese version ‘Funeral of a Muslim’ (穆斯林的葬礼). A best-selling and award-winning novel in China, and based in part on the author’s own experience, it tells the story of three generations of a Muslim family of jade carvers in the Muslim Quarter of Beijing. It charts a plot through the years of the period of the ‘Republic of China’, the Japanese invasion, World War II, and to a lesser extent the Cultural Revolution’s purging of long-standing sacredness. Portions of the tale are set in different time periods which weave together the full story. I didn’t expect to be hooked from the start and I haven’t been so moved by a book for a long time. 

It hits on some quite interesting themes including the Japanese invasion, the effects of the war on women and families, tensions around sino-Islam, and the practice of well-intentioned lying (善意的谎言).

The translation is good for its purposes except that occasional Islamic terms and concepts are clunckily rendered, bearing, at best, part-resemblance to their pinyin or transliterated Arabic equivalents and sometimes way off the mark in meaning. Translators ought to do their homework. I have noticed that this can happen via sinologists studying the Hui who are neither Chinese nor Muslim, and thereby lacking the tools and experiential basis to really capture the intersections of both.

I had heard that it has been adapted for film purposes but I’m hesitant to seek this out, knowing what I know about modern Chinese TV, how it uses exoticisation’s appeal, and how an otherwise good story can be radically altered for the worse.

But overall, The Jade King is one of my all time favourite reads. A gem.

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