One Belt, One Road: China’s Soft Power Campaign Quietly Inches its Way to Middle East and North Africa

A children’s literature exhibition and copyright exchange for countries along the Silk Road were two of the major focuses of the just-ended Beijing Int’l Book Fair, reports the Global Times (Book Fair):

Children’s book publishers from 15 Arab countries and 18 domestic publishers signed deals that will see the best of children’s literature from China and the Middle East be shared between the two regions.

Given the increasing number of culture exchanges between China and Arabian countries, the China
Publishing Group, China’s largest publishing company, has worked on expanding cooperation with over 20 countries in the Middle East. At the fair, the publisher announced it closed a deal with Middle Eastern publishers to bring Maodun Literature Prize winner Zhou Daxin’s
Requiem [安魂] to the region. The publishing house’s Mottos of Modern Chinese previously sold more than 10,000 copies in One Road, One Beltthe region — a record for Chinese books sold in the Middle East. 

This will come as no surprise to you, assuming you’ve been following the developments about China’s far-reaching One Belt, One Road campaign (一带一路), a development strategy and framework that seeks to foster connectivity and cooperation between China and the countries along the ancient Silk Road.

At the moment, the Silk Road Economic Belt is getting a lot of press coverage for its grandiose proposed infrastructure projects, and the fact that it is making Moscow and Washington rather jittery. But there’s a more subtle side to it. The “Silk Road Fragrant Books Project” (丝路书香工程) is effectively the cultural component of the campaign. Given the stamp of approval by China’s Ministry of Propaganda, it is designed to stimulate the translation and publication of great literary, historical and cultural works that are grounded in the cultures of peoples along the ancient Silk Road.

Turkish version of Tie Ning's "The Bathing Women" (大浴女)

Turkish version of Tie Ning’s “The Bathing Women” (大浴女)

The project plan for 2014-20 includes translation subsidies, translations between Chinese and various foreign languages, international exhibitions, and a database of Silk Road publications. The definition of “silk road” is quite broad, including both the original land-based caravan routes from Xi’an through Central and West Asia, the Middle East and Europe, as well as the so-called Maritime Silk Road that linked the South China Sea, South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

As I reported in Slice of the Pie, the Silk Road Fragrant Books Project already claims a number of achievements. Agreements were inked in 2014 to set up “mechanisms” to facilitate mutual silk road translation projects with countries such as Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Nationalities Publishing House (民族出版社) has reportedly undertaken to publish 17 books in Kazakh, including Three Hundred Tang Dynasty Poems (唐诗三百首) and the contemporary classic The Governance of China (习近平谈治国理政) by none other than President Xi Jinping. [Read more…]

One Belt, One Road: China Has the $, but Does it Have the Cross-cultural Expertise?

China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” campaign (一带一路, OBOR) is a development strategy and framework that seeks to foster connectivity and cooperation between China and the countries along the ancient Silk Road that passed through Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It also includes the lesser-known Maritime Silk Road.One Road, One Belt

This global initiative has many governments excited, because it implies a helping hand from China in infrastructure investment for items such as transnational railways. And as I noted recently in Translators Get Piece of the Piethe cultural component in this campaign is also wide-reaching, including translation subsidies, translations between Chinese and various foreign languages, international exhibitions, and a database of Silk Road publications.  The goal would be to stimulate the translation and publication of great literary, historical and cultural works that are grounded in the cultures of peoples along the ancient Silk Road.

Since 1949, however, the People’s Republic has often focused its research on the US, Europe and Japan, and badly lacks basic expertise concerning many regions worldwide. This is apparent even in the field of literary translations. See Turkish Novels, Honor Killing and China’s English-language Complex for one representative example.

No need to take my word for it though. In One Belt, One Road, One Frenzied Debate, Dingding Chen (Assistant Professor of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macau, Non-Resident Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) Berlin), points out one of the “main problems with the current frenzied discussion on OBOR”:

First, there is simply a lack of academic expertise on most developing countries in China. Unlike the U.S., area studies as a discipline has never been seriously treated by the government and the result is that very few scholars in China are respectable experts in regions like South America and the Middle East. Many of China’s so-called experts on the Middle East simply don’t speak Arabic languages and cannot read Arabic texts. And many of China’s Africa experts have never traveled to Africa to do field research. How can you give sound advice to the Chinese government if the experts themselves are not knowledgeable about their respective regions? This is a huge problem in China.

Silk Road Economic Belt: Translators to Get their Slice of the Pie

Representatives of five of China’s northwestern provinces met June 15 in Xining to discuss how to benefit from the “Silk Road Fragrant Books Project” (丝路书香工程). This is a global publishing initiative, given the stamp of approval by China’s Ministry of Propaganda, which is designed to stimulate the translation and publication of great literary, historical and cultural works that are grounded in the cultures of peoples along the ancient Silk Road. Details can be found in this Chinese news piece (西北五省).

The project plan for 2014-20 includes translation subsidies, translations between Chinese and various foreign languages, international exhibitions, and a database of Silk Road publications.

The definition of “silk road” is quite broad, including both the original land-based caravan routes from Xi’an through Central and West Asia, the Middle East and Europe, as well as the so-called Maritime Silk Road that linked the South China Sea, South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

Predictably, China publishers have rushed to cash in by offering to translate and publish politically correct tomes. The Nationalities Publishing House (民族出版社), for instance, has put in a bid to translate Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China (习近平谈治国理政) into Kazakh.

Meanwhile, some titles targeted for translation leave one scratching one’s head. [Read more…]

Definitions of “Chinese” Literary Works in Expansion Mode?

An intriguing picture of what constitutes Chinese literature (中国文学) emerges via an interview with Bai Gengsheng (访中国作协书记处书记白庚胜), a Naxi who has held several senior positions in the state-run ethnic minority literary research apparatus, including his current role as Secretary of the China Writers Association.

In the interview with Chinese Reading Weekly (中华读书报), Bai says:

In ancient times, the myths, epics and narrative poems of minority ethnicities blossomed with éclat in the garden of Chinese — even global—literature . . .Guan Hanqing (关汉卿), Pu Songling (蒲松龄), Nalan Xingde (纳兰性德), Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹), Abay (Ibrahim) Qunanbayuli (阿拜), Tsangyang Gyatso (仓央嘉措), Maḥmūd al-Kāšġarī (喀什噶理), Ali-Shir Nava’i (纳瓦依), Kutadgu Bilig (福乐智慧), The Gate of Wisdom (真理的入门), Compendium of the languages of the Turks (突厥语大辞典), Secret History of the Mongols (蒙古秘史), Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦), Storied Building with a Single Floor (一层楼), Weeping for the Red Pavilion (泣红亭), and The Story of Qing Dynasty History (青史演义) are all world-renowned authors and works.

It is interesting to note that Bai does not mention Life of Jangar (Mongol, 江格尔), King Gesar (Tibetan, 格萨尔王), and Manas (Kyrgyz, 玛纳斯), which are now officially recognized by Beijing as the three great non-Han epics of ancient Chinese literature. Over the last year or so, however, several experts in ethnic literature have pointed out that these works are still not widely introduced in standard textbooks on Chinese literature used in the PRC today.

I recently published a post about how writing in languages native to China — other than Mandarin — has long been relegated to the periphery by Han literary historians. Here’s a passage from that post (Mother-tongue Literature) (the words are mine, my summary of ideas presented in Chinese by Liu Daxian, who is a member of the editorial staff at the quarterly Studies of Ethnic Literature 民族文学研究):

Liu emphasizes that “mother-tongue literature” includes both written and oral forms. He points out that “literature” as defined and promoted via China’s modern education, media and scholarship, tends to focus on written forms such as the novel, poetry, essays and drama, and since much mother-tongue literature — by which he basically means “literature in indigenous languages except for Mandarin” throughout the essay — doesn’t easily fit in those categories, it is viewed as a non-mainstream, even subtly inferior class of literature (亚文学).

If anything, Bai’s list of Chinese literary classics by a range of multi-ethnic authors moves in the opposite direction. He concentrates on “written” (as opposed to “oral”) literature, and considers the texts he cites as mainstream. But does his list represent the result of a positive and inclusive view of Chinese literature, or an expansive, even imperialist one in which the Chinese literary establishment is attempting to appropriate classics that rightfully belong to other peoples of Northeast and Central Asia? [Read more…]