Xu Gefei's world

Updated: 2012-05-03 09:33

By Yang Guang (China Daily)

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Xu Gefei's world

Publisher Xu Gefei chooses comics as the medium for her message to enable the French public to better understand China. Provided to China Daily

The publisher was inspired to start her French comics publishing business to correct the negative impression some Westerners have of China. Yang Guang reports in Beijing.

The life of Xu Gefei, the first Chinese to launch a comics publishing house in Europe, changed at 16, when she read Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder's novel Sophie's World. Born on a forest farm in Yanji, Jilin province, Xu spent her childhood playing in the wild with a pig called "Little Flower". She moved with her family to the provincial capital city of Changchun when she was 4. The pig was later featured in Xu's autobiographical novel The Little Flower of Manchuria (Petite Fleur de Mandchourie), which, written in French, was published in 2010 and is currently being adapted into a film.

The 33-year-old publisher says she lacked confidence as an adolescent because she was fat, dark-skinned and had difficulty fitting in at school.

"After reading the novel, I was lost in confusion, pondering the meaning of life," she says.

Against her parents' wishes, she quit school and began to teach herself English at home.

"I finally figured out that though I am nothing to the world. I am the whole world and universe to myself," she says.

At 19, Xu left home and ventured to Shenzhen, Guangdong province. She tried her hand at more than 10 jobs, such as factory worker, secretary, hotel receptionist, translator and interpreter.

Two years later, she went to Shanghai, where she worked as a salesperson at a Swiss chemical company.

A friend told her she belonged in Paris, because, "Paris is the most liberal place" for a woman like her. So, she worked during the day and learned French at night.

In 2003, her parents sold their apartment in Changchun, and Xu finally managed to scrape together enough money to send herself to France.

She became a salesgirl at a clothing store and then a waitress at a restaurant, before landing a job at a consulting company, for two reasons: She could speak Chinese and had worked in the chemical industry.

After learning her mother had a stroke because of the strain of trying to pay off debts, she swore "never to be poor again".

She worked hard, became the company manager in China two years later, paid off the debts and bought her parents a new house.

After completing her presentation to a client one day in 2008, she was struck with the sudden realization that even if she could live to her 80s, there were just 20,000 days to live.

"I thought to myself that I couldn't waste my life anymore and must do something I love from my heart," she says.

The "something" materialized in March 2009, when she launched Fei Publishing (Les Editions Fei), a comic publishing house dedicated to telling Chinese stories.

"Foreigners' fear of China results from, and is reinforced by, negative portrayals in the Western media," she says. "China has long been short of her own effective voice."

Xu says she hopes that, through her efforts, the general public of France - not just elites - will have a better understanding of China. "The best invitation is a story."

She chose comics as the medium for her message because France is the second largest comic market after Japan.

However, things were not easy at the beginning - she spent five months writing and revising her business proposal, but it was repeatedly turned down. During the period, she had no income, couldn't get bank loans and had to live on unemployment benefits.

One day, she couldn't help but wail bitterly behind a tree in a park. A man came to her and asked her why. The man turned out to be French TV playwright and director Patrick Marty, who later married her and became art director of the publishing house.

She told her story, and they talked until it was dark and the park closed. Marty was interested and became the writer of Judge Bao, the publishing house's first comic series.

Published in January 2011, the series features the intriguing cases of Bao Zheng (999-1062), the Song Dynasty (960-1279) official whose courage and wisdom turned him into a "half-man-half-mythological-hero".

Judge Bao was an instant success at the 2011 Angouleme International Comics Festival, the largest of its kind in Europe. It has been translated into English, Italian, Dutch and Chinese.

A 30-volume comic series, Outlaws of the Marsh, is to be published by the end of 2012, which tells why and how 108 men and women from different backgrounds banded together and became leaders of an outlaw army and fought government troops, during the Song Dynasty.

Xu says she intends her publishing house to become a creation center for high-quality Chinese content - books and their derivative CDs, short animations and toys - in the next five to seven years.

Contact the writer at yangguang@chinadaily.com.cn.