African Literature in China: Still Stuck on “Things Fall Apart”?

China’s 21-century investment in Africa is massive, multifaceted and a cause of anxiety for leaders in Washington, London, Paris and among the continent’s other former colonial masters, as well as New Delhi. But China is not just busy building airports and railways in Africa, or inking deals to monopolize the exploitation and export of valuable minerals and fossil fuels for decades to come.

The exercise of “soft power” is very much on the agenda too. China-funded Confucius Institutes—promoting the teaching of Chinese language and culture—are popping up throughout Africa, including Egypt and Morocco in the Arab world, and several sub-Saharan countries, including Benin, Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda.

In return, one might well ask: what is China “importing,” culture-wise, from Africa?  If the translation and publication of African writing in Chinese is anything to go by, the continent is hardly a blip on China’s cultural radar.

Internet research and our interviews with Chinese publishers indicate that the golden age of African literature in Chinese translation may well have been during the 1980s. Foreign Literature Publishing House (外国文学出版社), empowered by Beijing’s policy of promoting solidarity with the Third World back then, translated and published a fair number of African works such as those by Nigerian (Wole Soyinka), Kenyan (James Ngugi), Senegalese (Leopold Sengor) and Algerian (Mouland Mammeri) writers, as well as collections of folk tales for children, etc.

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