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Li Juan’s memoirs of pastoral life give glimpses into disappearing livelihoods in the Altai Mountains

To express surprise, 9-year-old Nurgün exclaims “Aiya!” in Mandarin, while everybody else in her Kazakh family would say, “Allah!” This is one of many everyday observations Li Juan makes in Winter Pasture, which follows a Kazakh family whose children have come home for winter break, subtly transformed by their education at a free public boarding school.

Translated into English for the first time, Li Juan’s writings are timeless in their portrayal of loneliness, vastness, and death—yet bear the marks of the times in cross-cultural collisions on a shifting grassland. Two books by the Xinjiang-born, ethnic Han writer were released in English this February, cementing her arrival onto the international literary scene.

Winter Pasture, translated by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan, records a grazing journey Li takes in 2010 with an ethnic Kazakh family and their 100 sheep, over 50 cattle, six horses, and three camels, living in burrows dug into the snow-covered ground in the Altai Mountains. Originally published in 2012, it is a masterpiece of vivid character sketches. Distant Sunflower Fields, translated by Christopher Payne, is a later work from 2017. It spans the years Li sought to cultivate 100 hectares of sunflowers on a plot of rented land with her mother and grandmother, and turns meditatively inward toward her own life and family.

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author Tina Xu (徐盈盈)

Tina Xu is the former culture editor at The World of Chinese. She writes across film, literature, and society, spanning from indie documentaries to diaspora communities. Her stories for TWOC received the 2021 SOPA Award for Excellence in Regional Reporting on the Environment, and were finalists in Women’s Issues and Photography.

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