21 October 2019

Chi Zijian’s The Last Quarter of the Moon

A family of Evenki reindeer herders

The Last Quarter of the Moon, or in Chinese The Right Bank of the Argun 《額爾古納河右岸》, Chi Zijian’s 遲子建 multigenerational epic of one extended family or band (urireng, or obshchina) of Evenkil as narrated and viewed through the eyes of a nameless elderly Evenki woman, a ‘long-time confidante of the rain and snow’, is an engrossing and moving read. It’s a panoramic view of life and death on the Chinese northeastern taiga – hunting, foraging, herding, cropping horns on the reindeer, trading furs for supplies, striking camp and moving, making rock paintings, smithing tools, weaving clothes, dancing, making love, rearing children, healing, performing ‘wind burials’ for the dead – across the nine decades of the narrator’s life: from the decline of the Qing Dynasty through ‘reform and opening’.

The language of the book may come across as rustic, and I wonder if something wasn’t lost in translation. There is a great deal of imagery of mountains and forests, of water and wind. The reindeer, not merely livestock but also beloved companions and even forest spirits in their own right, are also treated with reverence. We see through the narrator’s eyes that the human world and the natural world and the spirit world weave into each other. The decidedly shamanistic perspective of the narrator lends a decidedly supernatural ‘tone’ to many of the central events of the book. Omens and forebodings come true. Nature and human life are intertwined in profoundly spiritual ways. However, despite the poetry and folkish natural imagery, the traditional lifestyle is presented without adornment. It is done without papering over, romanticising or anæsthetising how tenuous and fragile that human life was. There is no idyll to be seen here: the urireng is not without plenteous regrets, suffering, sorrows, grudges, even all-consuming hatreds – not to mention sickness, stillbirths, amputations, mental degeneration. Modern medicines, when they come, are greeted with decided enthusiasm: not least because they lift a great burden off the shamaness.

At the same time, she takes a dim view of the coming of modernity and progress: the Sino-Japanese War, the Sino-Soviet split, the construction of roads and townships, the coming of the logging industry, the pull of the young people into the towns. Urbanisation and the decline of the traditional pastoralist Evenki lifeworld is accompanied by a familiar litany of evils: alcoholism, divorce, depression, suicide, promiscuity, crime (i.e., timber smuggling). The disconnexion of the Evenkil from their beloved forests and rivers seems to rob them, in our heroine’s view, of something vital and necessary to their survival. There is an intimation of loss – beautiful, heartbreaking – in the narrator’s elliptic descriptions of the changes that come to her urireng.

Our narrator is a passionate woman, born from a sweet and caring but seemingly ill-fated relationship between a beautiful dancer, Tamara, and a hunter, Linke. Linke’s younger brother Nidu, it turns out, had also pursued Tamara and lost an archery contest for her hand to his brother – and he took up the controlled madness of the shaman as an outlet for his loss. She lives in the shirangju with her parents, her elder sister Lena and her younger brother Luni. Other residents of the urireng are drawn with equal patience, with their characters being illuminated as much by the narrator’s own maturation as by their own decisions and changes in outlook. Ivan, the tribe’s blacksmith who marries a Russian Orthodox KVŽDist former prostitute and fathers two children with her – she leaves him, taking the children, when the Japanese invade; he later becomes a Soviet partisan. Maria and Hase, and their tender-hearted son Dashi. The bitter and caustic Yveline, yoked into an unloving marriage with Kunde by her son Jilende. The brave and gentle Lajide, a hunter from a neighbouring urireng who wins the narrator’s heart. Nihau, the beautiful dancer who marries Luni – but who takes on Nidu’s mantle of shamanism (much to her grief, as her spirit dances cause her to lose her own children).

As the narrator herself bears children, the urireng becomes progressively more shaped by their personalities and perspectives – though her children by Lajide and later Volodya are often ‘echoes’ of their ancestors: particularly their fathers and grandfather Linke. Even though the Evenkil are familiar with the outside through their Russian anda Rolinsky (who sells them tools, sugar, tea, other supplies), the coming of the Japanese causes the outside world of politics and war and technology to break in on the Evenki community in a drastic way.

The Evenki men are conscripted by the Japanese Army – though Ivan runs away and joins the Soviets when the sadistic Japanese commander Suzuki sics the army attack dogs on Kunde for faltering during a marching drill. Their Han contacts change with the coming of the Chinese Communists. Ivan comes under suspicion for his Soviet ties after the Sino-Soviet split. He later requests, out of affection for his estranged wife, a Russian Orthodox funeral rather than a ‘wind burial’. (Many of the Evenki characters possess Russian names, even if they are not of Russian heritage.) Baijiu makes its appearance as a trade good, as a companion at village dances, as a deceptive friend and as a hidden killer. As Han townships pop up, intermarriages occur. Young people leave the urireng and live in the towns – then come back. Modern artworks and attempts at committing Evenki language, song and folklore to writing occur – but are they the preservation of the living embers that Tamara handed down to her daughter, or are they ‘destined to be buried in a grave’? These transitions are ambiguous. They are left hanging over the present-day framing of the narrator’s tale of her past.

Death – whether sudden or lingering, whether it strikes young or old – is a constant presence. And even though we know it and we see it coming, we still feel it, viscerally, when it hits those people whom the narrator loves or comes to love. Small gestures and small actions are given an outsized meaning whenever a parting, however brief or incomplete, might be a final one. In many cases, even characters who are deformed or bitter or who do wicked things, the narrator manages to paint in sympathetic tones based on the losses they suffered. Our narrator is a kind soul – even and especially to those she dislikes. She learns to be so because of her tragic sensibility: her awareness of the proximity and the finality of loss. The collectivism of the Evenki mindset – that collectivism which made them (at first, before Stalin) so amenable to the Soviet system – comes to the surface in this way particularly: even the difficult people are a part of the narrator’s life in indelible ways. It’s one of Chi Zijian’s gifts as an author that we can be made to feel the deaths of even these difficult, wounded people.

The magical realism of The Last Quarter of the Moon – which truly deserves that label despite decidedly not being in the New World, Latin American literary movement which birthed the name – stems from precisely this overlap of the tragic-shamanic (super)natural with blunt portrayals of pastoralist life in transition. Perhaps it would be better to call this genre ‘shamanic realism’. At any rate, this is a bittersweet tearjerker of a novel – but exquisitely written. As far as contemporary Chinese literature goes, it would be very hard not to recommend this one.


  1. Many thanks for your detailed review of my translation of "The Last Quarter of the Moon." It is great to see quintessentially Evenki practices, such as wind burial, noted here.

    You describe the language as "rustic," and "wonder if something wasn't lost in the translation." Perhaps! But it is important to note that the author Chi Zijian is a monolingual Han Chinese; she does not know Evenki,so her Chinese manuscript, written in the first person, was a bold attempt to enter the mind of the protagonist, a 90-year-old Evenki woman. I would describe Chi Zijian's Chinese -- unlike her other novels -- as exceedingly plain, and almost devoid of the four-word "chengyu" or idioms that normally pop up everywhere in spoken and written Chinese. My sense was that she intentionally wrote like that, because she wanted to mimic the way an Evenki might think, or at least, to distinguish it from Mandarin Chinese. In this, she reminded me of Ran Ping, a Han Chinese who wrote a fictional biography of Genghis Khan (蒙古往事); I interviewed him and he said flat out that he minimized use of chengyu, etc., in an attempt to "recreate" the thought patterns of the Mongols.

    For readers interested in the Evenki, their Siberian culture and the novel, I recommend a visit to a page I have created with dozens of related links, in Chinese, English, French and Spanish:


    Bruce Humes

  2. Mr Humes, thank you very much for your comment! I really enjoyed your translation of Last Quarter, and for the record I thought you did an excellent job in conveying the naturalistic imagery.

    It is interesting that you note Chi Zijian is using plain and non-idiomatic language in order to enter the head of her unnamed narrator. I shall have to check out Ran Ping's historical fiction work and also the links you've provided here. Thanks again, and welcome to the blog!