Mystical Forest

Collected Poems and Short Stories of Dungan Ethnographer Ali Dzhon

by Kenneth J. Yin (Author)
©2023 Monographs XXII, 174 Pages


Born in Shor-Tyube, Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, in 1951, Dungan ethnographer and creative writer Ali Dzhon is widely regarded as the preeminent writer on the material and spiritual culture and history of the Dungan people, the Sinophone Muslims of Central Asia. Mystical Forest makes available for the first time in English a significant collection of Dzhon’s poems and short stories, which he penned in Russian over a span of more than half a century, from 1969 to 2021, bridging the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. In these rich literary works, Dzhon expresses his thoughts about the world around him, ponders the fate of his people and the meaning of life, and provides finely nuanced descriptions of his feelings about love, nature, and those around him.

Organized into nine chapters by theme, the 103 poems of varying length in the collection are witty, colorful, and profound pieces that provide rare glimpses into Dungan cultural life, including Dzhon’s searing remembrances of the nineteenth-century Dungan Revolt that led to the first migration of the Hui Muslims from northwestern China to the Russian Empire during the harsh winter of 1877–1878, his moving personal reminiscences of childhood and youth spent in the Soviet Dungan villages of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and his unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities of life faced by the Dungan people in post-Soviet Central Asia. Set largely against the backdrop of daily life in the Dungan settlements, the four riveting pieces of short fiction comprising the final chapter of the collection showcase Dzhon’s consummate skill as a storyteller as they probe the human condition. The present volume includes a foreword by prominent Dungan poet Iskhar Shisyr, an introductory chapter, footnotes, an index, a map, and photographs. This book will appeal to students, scholars, and general readers interested in Dungan literature, history, and culture.

“Mystical Forest is an exemplary volume of poetry and short stories by a foremost ethnographer of the Dungans, a people who dwell at the crossroads of Central Asia. The translations catch the spirit of these texts that reflect local landscapes, cultural change, and the soul of author Ali Dzhon. Conversant in Dungan culture, Kenneth Yin deftly opens new vistas of local and indigenous writing.”—Mark Bender, Professor of Chinese Literature and Folklore, The Ohio State University

“Kenneth Yin’s Mystical Forest: Collected Poems and Short Stories of Dungan Ethnographer Ali Dzhon is a much welcome addition to Dungan Sinophone studies. The stories and poems collected in this volume are of interest because they provide unparalleled access to the thought, society, and culture of the Dungan people. Their intrinsic literary quality and wide variety of subject matter covered make this volume an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the Dungan people and their history.”—Victor H. Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature, University of Pennsylvania

“The complicated historical fate of the Dungan people finds its reflection in Mystical Forest, the book of collected poems and short stories written by eminent Dungan ethnographer Ali Dzhon. Combining memories of the personal and collective past with perception of the present, Mystical Forest offers insight into different dimensions of the contemporary Dungan identity. Yin’s masterful translation of the collection contributes to the understanding and appreciation of the Dungan culture by the English-reading audience.”—Aglaia Starostina, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

“Mystical Forest introduces readers to a unique literary voice from a part of the world that is often overlooked—but which, once encountered, proves to be unforgettable. Ali Dzhon is a poet and ethnographer of Dungan heritage who has spent the past fifty years writing at the intersection of Central Asia’s diverse cultures, languages, political regimes, and religious traditions. This comprehensive collection of poetry and prose includes meditations on nature, family, and community, as well as reflections on experiences of trauma and hardships both past and present. The stoic beauty of Ali Dzhon’s writing style, vividly rendered into English by Kenneth Yin, not only provides valuable insights for students and scholars of the region but will also captivate poetry and story lovers of any age.”—Naomi Caffee, Assistant Professor of Russian and Humanities, Reed College

“Kenneth Yin delights us with a wonderful translation of the works of the prestigious ethnographer Ali Dzhon, whose literary production enables the reader to experience everyday Dungan life and the landscapes on which it happens. Mystical Forest is undoubtedly a must for those interested in new tendencies in current Dungan literature. With meticulous precision, Yin offers an English version of the emotional sea that carries the Dungan multilingual experience on the Central Asian steppe. Close attention should be given to future works by Yin, who is opening a new branch of literary studies carried out in the English language on Sinophone literatures.”—Soledad Jimenez-Tovar, Professor of History, Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas

“The Dungan people now living in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan constitute a unique community of Sinophone Muslims bringing together the cultures of China and the Middle East. Mystical Forest is composed of Yin’s English translations of poetry and prose by the prominent modern Dungan ethnographer and writer Ali Dzhon, thus presenting to English- language readers the genuine voice of a representative of this people. His works contain both historical memories and facts of the modern life and culture of the Dungans, now making these known internationally.”—Rostislav Berezkin, Research Fellow, National Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies, Fudan University

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Advance Praise
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword: Kernels of an Authentic Life (by Iskhar Shisyr)
  • Preface
  • Note on Transliteration and Translation
  • Introduction: Dzhon and His Place in the Dungan Literary World
  • Chapter One: Poems of Rumination
  • Mystical Forest
  • Clouds
  • Memento Mori
  • Solitude
  • Autumn
  • Chess
  • We Forget
  • The New Year
  • Night Wind
  • Pastoral
  • The Mystery of the Trigram
  • Donʼt Speak …
  • Affinity
  • The Inevitable
  • The Time Comes
  • Chicory Blooms by Late Summer
  • I Stopped Deluding Myself …
  • Without Rhyme …
  • February 7, 2020
  • It’s Fine
  • The Book
  • Chapter Two: Poems of Autobiographical Nature
  • Trains
  • I Am to Blame
  • I Look at the World …
  • I Am Told …
  • Flying in My Dreams
  • Yet Another Day
  • I Will Drink Life to the Lees
  • I Donʼt Regret Bygone Days
  • Fears
  • Punctuation Marks
  • After Carousal
  • The Play of Life
  • Testimony on an Ethnic Topic
  • Metamorphosis (A Donkey’s Dream)
  • Chapter Three: Poems about Family
  • To My Son
  • To My Wife
  • Mother
  • You Alone (A Dedication to My Wife)
  • Lullaby
  • A Quarrel
  • A Patchwork Quilt (A Dedication to My Wife)
  • Granddaughter
  • Chapter Four: Poems about Love
  • Dreams
  • Should You Come …
  • Agony
  • A Plea
  • A Declaration
  • Jealousy
  • The Secret
  • Contemplation
  • Déja Vu
  • Nocturne
  • Where Are You, Young Girl?
  • A Joke of Old Eros
  • To Him Who Remembers
  • Chapter Five: Poems of Friendship
  • To the Pulp Writer
  • To Mukhame Khusezovich Imazov
  • A Friendly Jest
  • To Mar Vundizovich Dzhumaza (on His Fiftieth Birthday)
  • A Friendly Jest (A Dedication to Mar Dzhumaza)
  • To My Friend (A Dedication to Iskhar Shisyr)
  • A Friendly Jest (A Dedication to Iskhar Shisyr)
  • My Friend Has Departed (A Dedication to Ismar Maslianov and Lamzar Ianfu)
  • A Tree (A Dedication to Iasyr Shivaza)
  • Companions
  • Epitaph
  • Chapter Six: Poems of Nostalgia
  • An Encounter in Russia
  • Karakunuz
  • Masanchi
  • A Sonnet
  • Colors
  • In Leningrad
  • Przhevalsk
  • Milianfan
  • Chapter Seven: Poems of Melancholy
  • The Vessel Is Broken
  • Emulating Sergei Esenin
  • A Bird
  • Autumn Has Come
  • Farewell
  • The Cry of a Vagrant
  • Parting
  • It’s the New Year Again!
  • My Autumn
  • Autumn
  • Disillusionment
  • Chapter Eight: Poems of Nationalistic Character
  • The Ma Family Maiden Has Been Bridenapped
  • To the Dungan Woman
  • The Land
  • Unrest
  • Lunar Wind
  • To Dzhon Kasym (and All the Veterans of the Great Patriotic War)
  • Bai Yanhu
  • Chapter Nine: Poems of Religious Character
  • Apples
  • Faith
  • Dua
  • Parable
  • To Obscurantists
  • Friday Prayer
  • Urumchi
  • Words
  • Repentance (Tawbah)
  • Here Is All of Me
  • Chapter Ten: Short Stories
  • The Bicycle
  • Tales of Grandmother Maiyan
  • Last Song
  • Bitter Root
  • Index of Proper Names

←xii | xiii→

Foreword: Kernels of an Authentic Life1

The title of Ali Dzhon’s collection of poems, Tainyi les (Mystical forest), has capacious, profound, and mnemonical meaning. The poems in the collection unfold before the reader a kind of artistic scroll that presents an integral picture of an inner perception of the surrounding world. In sad reminiscences, in witty “reportages of time,” and in deep reflections on the eternal laws of the universe are hidden the kernels of objective reality, which truly reveal the “mystical forest” of the human soul.

The collection contains works written by A. Dzhon over many different years. For this reason, it can be called an anthology of selected poems that can be used to judge the work of the author as a whole. They reflect the artist’s musings and perceptions of social reality, seeking ethical fundamental principles of contemporary identity.

The poet speaks about burning questions with such simplicity that it seems at times there is no art in his poetry. But this simplicity is quite deceptive. Behind the apparent simplicity there is a rich, intense, and comprehensive tome on the poet’s life. His poetry is beautifully crisp, lucid, and transparent, but it contains an immensely complex world of thoughts and feelings. The poet’s grief is piercing, ←xiii | xiv→joy in the attainment of beauty enchants with its perpetuity, and meditations on existence sting with pain. The words in A. Dzhon’s poems do not have literal or descriptive sense, but fluid sense.

A. Dzhon can be considered a rational poet. He looks at the world through the eyes of a serious scientific researcher. It is not at all difficult to guess where this cool rationality comes from. A. Dzhon is a professional ethnographer by profession. Thus, practical scientific reasoning has left a certain imprint on his poetry. Notwithstanding, his rationality does not hinder the emotionality of his poetry.

In his poems A. Dzhon contrasts the current fashion, which demands the sophisticated art of classicism, versification, and “technicism,” with simplicity. His poems pour out of his heart with inner freedom. In this respect, it can be safely said that A. Dzhon crafts poems, while many write them. In his poems he does not seek verbal embellishments designed to mask imitativeness, contrivance, or emptiness, as he speaks plainly, unambiguously, and precisely. Hence, his poems are so effortless to read.

In his poems A. Dzhon creates a kind of artistic canvas on one or another subject. He conveys in them his feelings, thoughts, experiences, and most importantly, a mood that gives rise to energy, the so-called catharsis of the artistic literary canvas. In his poems the poet, without realizing it, “imposes” on the reader the catharsis from which he himself is freed in the process of creating the poems.

A. Dzhon’s poems sometimes combine overtly aggressive, surprisingly vulnerable, yet youthfully romantic content. This is a characteristic peculiar to the true poet’s perception of reality. Only the heat of “boiling” emotions of the soul can spur an individual on to create a true work of art. The tension of feelings, taken to the limit, is expressed in a well-balanced harmony of carefully chosen common, ordinary but vital words.

Iskhar Suvazovich Shisyr

Doctor of Philological Sciences, Member of the Union of Writers of the Kyrgyz Republic

←xiv | xv→


The idea for this volume was conceived in the summer of 2015, upon my learning of the recent 2011 publication of a collection of Russian-language original verse by the Dungan ethnographer Ali Dzhon under the title Tainyi les (Mystical forest). I promptly contacted Professor Dzhon by email to find out more about this most intriguing verse collection of the poet-ethnographer. By that time, I had already been aware of Dzhon’s status as the leading ethnographer of the Dungans, but I was unaware that he had been writing poetry in Russian starting at the age of 18. In my correspondence with Professor Dzhon, I soon learned that he had written several Russian-language short stories as well.

In the tradition of the poet-ethnographer, while acquainting the reader with the complex world of his inner thoughts and feelings, Dzhon also provides valuable insights into the realities and aspirations of his people, the Dungans, the Sinophone Muslims of Central Asia. Dzhon has posted and reposted many of his original poems on his personal web page on the popular Russian-language social network Odnoklassniki (Classmates). Dzhon’s creative writings are regularly mentioned in his biographical sketches, news articles, interviews, and other media pertaining to him.

Engaged in the study of the literature and culture of the Dungans, I proposed to Professor Dzhon the translation of his poems and short stories from Russian into English. I endeavored to make his creative works available to a wider audience, ←xv | xvi→acquainting English-language readers with Dzhon’s exquisite literary talent, his profound musings about life, and his ethnographic perspective on the Dungan people. He readily and humbly agreed to provide me with any needed assistance on such a project, although he admitted at the same time that he had in fact never written his poems and stories with the intention of having them published. Nonetheless, his close friends and colleagues took it upon themselves to have his verse collection Tainyi les published in 2011 as a gift to Professor Dzhon on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. He had also published several of his short stories in Dungan or Chinese translation, and he has, in more recent years, had many of his poems published in the original Russian on social media websites—both his personal web pages and those developed for sharing news relevant to the Dungan community in Central Asia.

Throughout the years that I have been working on this book project, Professor Dzhon has been most gracious in answering all my questions and meeting other of my research-related needs—always in an expedient, congenial, and thoughtful manner. I could not have asked more from him. I am most grateful to Professor Dzhon for the confidence and trust placed in me to bring his creative work to English-speaking audiences. I hope my translations capture the spirit and essence of the originals.


XXII, 174
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (February)
Dungans Dungan literature Russian literature Soviet literature Hui (Muslim Chinese) literature diasporic literature poetry prose fiction collected works Central Asia Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan Mystical Forest Collected Poems and Short Stories of Dungan Ethnographer Ali Dzhon Kenneth J. Yin
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2023. XXII, 174 pp., 9 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Kenneth J. Yin (Author)

Kenneth J. Yin teaches modern languages, literatures, and linguistics at the City University of New York. His research has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among others. He is the author of Dungan Folktales and Legends (Peter Lang, 2021). He was educated at Cornell University and Georgetown University.


Title: Mystical Forest