Rui Zhang
A Look at Chinese Translations of The Arabian Nights

In China, the first translation of selected stories from One Thousand and One Nights appeared in 1900 and proved to be a great success. I'd like to examine how the publication of two particular translations, Xi Ruo's in 1987 and Na Xun's in 1977, reflect adjustments made by the translators for their different Chinese audiences. The two most influential translators of their times—late feudal and Communist eras, respectively—Xi Ruo and Na Xun have different ways of handling the sensitive themes of sexuality and the problematic status of women presented in The Arabian Nights, in order to suit their different audiences.

For example, Xi Ruo changes the geography of the stories to reduce the sense of the foreign and draw The Arabian Nights culturally closer to his audience. Na Xun deliberately revises any details suggestive of infidelity or of wickedness in women's natures. Occasionally, his translation even conveys a political message more amenable to the political agenda during the Maoist era. Let's look now at the back-story of each translator and then drill down on further analysis.

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By the end of the Qing Dynasty, the famous One Thousand and One Nights had stitched itself into Chinese culture. Seeing its success, Zhou Zuoren went on to translate the two most popular stories—“The Story of the Sindbad the Sailor” and “The Story of 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”—in 1903. Continuing the tradition of translating from English to classical Chinese, Xi Ruo published a collection of 55 stories titled Tian Fang Ye Tanthree years later. In 1957 Na Xun published the first Chinese translation of One Thousand and One Nights based on an Arabic manuscript that commenced the line of several more revisions.

In order to draw The Arabian Nights culturally closer to the Chinese audience in a late-feudal society, Xi Ruo created new titles that replace character references with objects or events. With limited experience with foreign literature in feudal society, the ordinary Chinese would feel estranged hearing Arabic names. “The Story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” is shortened to “The Magic Lamp,” “The Story of the Merchant and the Demon” to “The Dates” and “The Story of 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” to “The Persian Lady.” Shortening the titles reduces the stories' sense of foreignness and enables readers to more easily remember them.

Xi Ruo also changed settings. Similar to the function of changing the stories' titles, these geographical adaptations introduce a level of familiarity that makes Arabic literature more accessible to the Chinese. As China was very much self-interested during the Qing Dynasty, the ordinary people hardly had any information about the world outside its borders. To help them visualize a completely different life and culture, Xi Ruo locates The Arabian Nights in Tartary, and additionally introduces the Sassanid Dynasty in Persia. A close relationship between the Chinese and the Tartars “existed […] from the very earliest times” (Parker, 261). Although war primarily facilitated this relationship, the habit of Chinese emperors marrying their daughters to the Tartar leaders in exchange for peace enabled cultural interchange; the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) by Kublai Khan brought the Chinese and the Tartars even closer. Xi Ruo employs this connection in his translation to create a sense of familiarity and a better, though incorrect, visualization of the distant empire. In Xi Ruo's version, “The Story of the Hunchback” takes place in a city near the border of Tartary and “The Story of 'Ala al-Din and the Magic Lamp” in the farthest east of Indochina. Setting the stories in the fantastical space of remote cities generates more imagination and exoticism, and the introduction of the Tartars brings The Arabian Nightsculturally closer to the common Chinese readers. On the other hand, his geographical revisions mimic the exoticism China itself was a symbol of in the original texts.

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Na Xun was the most prominent translator of Arabic in China and contributed to the cultural exchanges between the peoples of these nations. In 1934, Na Xun started his studies at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and remained there until 1947. His long stay in Egypt motivated him to translate The Arabian Nights into Chinese. Meanwhile, he also introduced Chinese literature to the Muslim world, a sect to which he belonged. Shortly after his return to China in 1947, he became the editor for a Muslim paper based in Yunnan (Naguzhen). His first translation had already been published in the early 1940's, but continued developing the version through 1957 when he condensed “the most important and remarkable stories into three volumes as a preparation for a more complete version in the future.” This statement also provided a response to the continuous demand of the readers for the Nights stories (Na Xun, Preface 3). Four years after the publication of his final version with six volumes, Na Xun died in 1989 in Beijing, after having devoted his life to the translation of One Thousand and One Nights and other works of Arabic literature.

Na Xun's translation, produced in a different era than Xi Ruo's, reflects Communist ideas intended to satisfy readers in Maoist Communist China. For example, throughout the book, Na Xun frequently uses the term “fu nü” for women. “Nü” refers to the female gender and is typically associated with girls or unmarried women. Married women are called “fu.” The compound “fu nü” is a collective noun that refers to “massified and political subject” that “stood for the collectivity of all politically normative or decent women” in the CCP under Mao (Barlow, 38). The other collective term for women, or female, “nü xing” (“xing” meaning sex) was seen as an “eroticized subject” and a “Westernized” or “bourgeois” term that stood for the “reverse of normality for women” (37). In the most recent Chinese translation by Li Weizhong, the neutral term “nü ren” replaces Na Xun's “fu nü” in “Rely not on women” (Burton, 13). Na Xun's “fu nü” conveys much more a sense of politeness and respect for women and satisfies the CCP politically.

Using the term “fu nü” for “all politically normative or decent women,” Na Xun propagates the idea of female equality for the CCP. In fact, both Xi Ruo and Na Xun include progressive feminism in their works. Although Xi Ruo published his translation before the collapse of the feudal Qing Dynasty in 1911, political unrest for new social norms against the empire was already active and the early 1900's marked the beginning of the feminist movement in China. Ideas of regarding women with human rights were perpetuated after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Therefore, one of the major concerns of Xi Ruo and Na Xun was the deletion of discriminatory words or phrases towards women and the change of details that suggest infidelity, narrow-mindedness and wickedness.

For instance, i n Xi Ruo's “The Tale of the Enchanted King,” the king's wife no longer needs to pretend to love him “so much … that if [he is] away from her even for a single day, she [refuses] to eat and drink until [he returns]” (Haddawy, 56). In Xi Ruo's version, they do not love each other anymore after five years of marriage and treat each other as strangers. Consequently, the wife is relatively less condemnable for betraying her husband than the wife in the original version and readers sympathize less with the king. In addition, both Xi Ruo and Na Xun exclude the blatantly offensive sentence, “You (the wife), dirtiest of whores and filthiest of all venal women who ever desired and copulated with black slaves” (60).

Na Xun revised “The Jewish Physician's Tale” with the same intention in mind. The tale centers around a young man from Mosul who is robbed of the chance at romance with two beautiful ladies from Damascus when they transform into men. The original story implies that jealousy drives one of the ladies to murder her own sister and indirectly results in the young man's loss of his right hand. In Na Xun's version, the two ladies disappear, a maneuver that evades the accusation that woman is culpable of man's misfortune and failure.

Both translators downplay woman's infidelity, inviting sympathy as a response rather than condemnation by presenting them as victims of man's narrow-mindedness and brutality. Na Xun accomplishes this by placing the second lady in “The Story of the Porter and the Three Ladies” in a passive position. She accepts the young man's proposal even before meeting him, as a form of self-protection against threats she feels being along in others' homes. In both translations, the lady pledges her lifelong loyalty to her husband in lieu of taking “a solemn oath” that she “[will] not look at any other man” (Haddawy, 144). When the lady buys the fabric in the market, the merchant requests “neither silver nor gold but … a kiss on her neck.” In Haddawy's version, the lady turns her face to him, “tempted by [the old woman]” (145), but in Na Xun's version, the merchant beats and violently kisses the lady despite her refusing his price. The minor difference in the pledges reduces the lady's culpability later in the story, as nowhere in the original text suggests her lacking love for her husband. The husband responds with ruthless treatment of his wife, causing her misfortune. Thus, the traditional roles of man and woman, as in the “The Jewish Physician's Tale,” are reversed in an effort to align with the social mores.

* * *

Geographical adjustments and feminine critiques are not enough to distract Chinese audiences from explicit erotic scenes permeating the stories comprising The Arabian Nights. Through such efforts as moderating the sexual affairs of the two queens with their lovers in the prologue of The Arabian Nights, Xi Ruo creates ambiguity so as not to draw attention to the “most unmentionable topic for the Chinese” (Ho). Shahzaman finds his wife asleep with a slave in his palace, not “in the arms” of the slave, who is not identified as “one of the kitchen boys” (Haddawy, 3), “the meanest Officers of the Household” (Galland, 21), nor “a black cook of loathsome aspect and foul with kitchen grease and grime” (Burton, 4). Then, in Shahriyar's garden, Shahzaman witnesses his brother's wife bathing with the black slave Mas'ud, leaving when they are done. This telling contrasts Burton's exaggerated description: “He walked boldly up to her and threw his arms round her neck while she embraced him as warmly; then he bussed her and winding his legs round hers, as a button-loop clasps a button, he threw her and enjoyed her.” In the English translation, the imprisoned woman asks the two brothers to make love to her, but Xi Ruo's choice of diction confuses an intention to make love with the brothers with one of showing affection towards them.

Na Xun goes further. He deliberately eliminates any suggestively sexual scenes. For one, the original scene of Shahriyar's wife with the black lover becomes “singing and dancing” until the day wanes. Though, more importantly, the imprisoned woman completely disappears.

The Chinese consider sexuality “an area of danger and wrong doings,” and women who “venture into it […] suffer gravely” (Ho). To save the female characters from “danger” and suffering, the two Chinese translators must reduce the eroticism in The Arabian Nights. Although intending to raise woman's status, both Xi Ruo and Na Xun constrain her to the traditional Chinese value—chastity—by removing the erotic descriptions of women throughout.

* * *

Though the heavy censoring of sexual scenes throughout the translation of The Arabian Nights promoted the value of the stories in Arabic literature, some modern Chinese readers still find the title too “erotic” and “shocking” (Douban). Apparently, both translators made the right choice to at least somewhat tame such descriptions.

Almost five decades later, Na Xun's translation is still popular and read in most Chinese-speaking countries. New editions continue to be published, but most have stolen from Na Xun's version, even those circulating in Taiwan (Na Guolü). As I've discussed in this paper, Na Xun's 1977 republication of the 1957 version might still bear differences with his more complete 1985 six-volume version published after China imposed its open-door policy. The era after the Cultural Revolution may have influenced him to make more changes in accordance with the culture of the new time period if not to bring his translation closer to the original Arabic version.

Works Cited

  • Baidu Baike. “Xi Ruo.” 11. May. 2009.
  • Barlow, Tani E. The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism. Duke University Press, 2004.
  • Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights.” The Translation Studies Reader. Taylor & Francis, 2007.
  • Burton, Sir Richard Francis. The Book of the Thousand Nights and A Night. Vol. 1. The Burton Club, 1885.
  • “One Thousand and One Nights.” Published online c.2006.
  • Galland, Antoine, Fables of the East: selected tales. 1662-1785, edited by Ros Ballaster. Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Haddawy, Husain. The Arabian Nights: Based on the Text edited by Muhsin Mahdi. Norton & Company, 1990
  • Ho, Josephine. “Sexuality in Contemporary Chinese Culture.” Lecture, delivered at the conference “Building a Global Civil Society” (June 4-7, 1997).
  • Li, Kai. “The Forgotten Translator: Xi Ruo.” SUNAAA Newsletter.
  • Marzolph, Ulrich, Richard van Leeuwen, and Hassan Wassouf. The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, 2004.
  • Mernissi, Fatema. Scheherazade Goes West. Washington Square Press, 2001.
  • Na, Guolü. “One Thousand and One Nights in China.” Yunnan Zhengxie. 30 July 2007.
  • Na, Xun. One Thousand and One Nights. Vol. 1. Renmin Wenxue Publishers, 1957/1977.
  • Parker, Edward Harper. Ancient China Simplified. Chapman & Hall, 1908.
  • People's Government of Tonghai District. “Let One Thousand and One Nights into the Chinese People's Dreams – Famous Translator of Arabian Literature, Na Xun.” 29 March 2005.
  • Xi, Ruo. The Arabian Nights. Xinhua Shudian, 1987.

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Rui Zhang is a graduate of Boston University, having been awarded degrees in Economics and International Relations. Prior to Boston, she studied at the Frankfurt International School in Oberursel, Germany.

With thanks to Sara Bass for her editorial contributions to this essay.

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