West turns new page in think­ing on Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE - By KELLY CHUNG DAW­SON kdaw­son@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Harper Collins re­cently an­nounced its pur­chase of Chi­nese novel Zu Jie by Xiao Bai for $60,000, for pub­li­ca­tion in English.

The noir thriller will be pub­lished in 2015 un­der the English name French Con­ces­sion. The pur­chase is part of a trend sig­nal­ing in­creased in­ter­est in Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture among Western pub­li­ca­tions and read­ers.

China’s book mar­ket is now the world’s largest. The in­dus­try pub­lished 7.7 bil­lion books in 2011, a 7.5 per­cent in­crease from 2010. Of those books, 48 sold more than one mil­lion copies. Most of those ti­tles were writ­ten by Chi­nese au­thors for Chi­nese read­ers, but Western books trans­lated into Chi­nese also fea­ture promi­nently.

Western ti­tles printed in English also have a niche; Wal­ter Isaac­son’s bi­og­ra­phy of Steve Jobs sold more than 50,000 copies in China. Ac­cord­ing to Pen­guin China, Ge­orge Or­well’s 1984 was its best seller in 2011, sig­nal­ing a de­sire for both as­pi­ra­tion writ­ing and high-qual­ity clas­sic Western lit­er­a­ture.

Since Chi­nese author Mo Yan re­ceived the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture in 2012, Western pub­lish­ers and read­ers have be­come in­creas­ingly in­ter­ested in Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture. Pen­guin China re­cently pub­lished English trans­la­tions of the pop­u­lar Chi­nese novel The Civil Ser­vant’s Note­book by Wang Xiao­fang and Sheng Keyi’s North­ern Girls.

In 2012, the Lon­don Book Fair in­vited 21 Chi­nese au­thors to par­tic­i­pate. Ama­zonCross­ing, a new launch from Ama­zon. com, pub­lished its first Chi­nese novel trans­lated into English ear­lier this year.

How­ever, the growth and pop­u­lar­ity of Chi­nese fic­tion out­side of China is still in its in­fancy. Amer­i­can read­ers have not demon­strated a huge ap­petite for for­eign lit­er­a­ture; in 2012, US pub­lish­ers pur­chased 453 for­eign ti­tles, about 3 per­cent of all US book pub­li­ca­tions. Only 16 of those books were first pub­lished in Chi­nese.

Over the years, a few Chi­nese books have made the in­ter­na­tional best­seller lists, in­clud­ing Ade­line Yen Mah’s Fall­ing Leaves and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. Both au­thors were based in the West, and wrote about their painful mem­o­ries of China in a style that has been de­scribed as “scar lit­er­a­ture.” Western read­ers have re­sponded most to this kind of Chi­nese fic­tion, writ­ten from a sin­gle per­spec­tive and fo­cused on a nar­ra­tive of strug­gle. More re­cently, Wei Hui’s Shang­hai Baby novel about hard-par­ty­ing youth in the 1990s Shang­hai en­joyed pop­u­lar­ity over­seas, a suc­cess that has in part been driven by its ban in China; Western edi­tions ex­plic­itly ad­ver­tise the book’s ver­boten sta­tus at home.

Chi­nese fic­tion’s slow start in the Western mar­ket has been at­trib­uted to dif­fer­ences in per­spec­tive and fo­cus among Chi­nese writ­ers.

Dun­can Jep­son, a found­ing mem­ber of the Asia Lit­er­ary Re­view, be­lieves that Wang Shuo’s Play­ing for Thrills never caught on in the West be­cause the author’s writ­ing style me­an­dered, and fo­cused less on in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ters. Western read­ers pre­fer a more spe­cific per­spec­tive, and a lin­ear nar­ra­tive.

Western lit­er­a­ture has also of­ten taken for granted the reader’s de­fault view of the im­por­tance of per­sonal freedom. The most pop­u­lar Chi­nese nov­els are writ­ten in a style that re­flects a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in the way Chi­nese cul­ture views story-telling, per­sonal nar­ra­tive and the role of the in­di­vid­ual. For many Western read­ers, that gap can be hard to over­come.

Books about China from a Western per­spec­tive (writ­ten by English-speak­ing writ­ers for an English-read­ing au­di­ence) have been pop­u­lar over the last decade. But the fo­cus on Western per­spec­tives on China — as op­posed to Chi­nese per­spec­tives on their own coun­try — is lim­it­ing, Jep­son be­lieves.

A num­ber of pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies and pub­li­ca­tions are do­ing their best to trans­late the best of what Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture has to of­fer. Pen­guin China has pub­lished around four Chi­nese ti­tles in English each year since its found­ing in 2005.

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