West turns new page in thinking on Chinese literature

Updated: 2013-08-03 07:35

By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)

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

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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.