“Most Influential” Chinese Literature in Translation: 2014 Ranking by International Library Purchases

A list of this year’s 20 so-called “most influential” Chinese literary works in translation has been published by Xi’an Daily (西安日报), and widely republished on the Chinese Internet. What follows are a few factoids I’ve gleaned from this version (影响力最大) at Chinanews.com. The full top 20 for 2014 can be found in Chinese here.

The methodology: a thorough search of Online Computer Library Center Inc., which features data covering 470 languages 470 libraries from over 20,000 libraries located in 112 countries. In other words, the ranking is based on 2014 purchases of translated Chinese literature by libraries worldwide. From the list, however, it seems that only English-language editions have been included, so the “most influential” tag is a tad inflated!

By the Numbers: Purchasing Librairies

  • 686: Decoded (解密), Mai Jia (translated by Olivia Milburn)
  • 443: Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China (黄昏里的男孩), Yu Hua (translated by Alan Barr)
  • 350: The Man with the Compound Eyes (复眼人),Wu Ming-Yi (translated by Darryl Sterk)

[Read more…]

Writers React to Comrade Xi Jinping’s Foray into Literary Criticism

It has taken a bit of time, but Chinese authors have begun to publicize their reaction to Xi Jinping’s speech at the Beijing Oct 15 Forum on Literature and Art Work. While slavish praise has been appropriately abundant, a handful of Art Workers do not appear to be singing in unison. We’ll skip the former and focus on the latter because they’re more fun.

Tellingly, some well known authors have chosen to express their views online in op-eds at the New York Times, first in English, then in Chinese. Both sites are blocked in the PRC, ever since the NYT ran its muckraking report on the massive wealth acquired by the family of then-premier Wen Jiabao.

Yan Lianke’s essay (bilingual version) opens with a reference to his childhood, when “China’s efforts to promote socialism in the late 1950s and early 1960s resulted in what is euphemistically known as the three years of natural disasters, during which more than 30 million people starved to death.” This experience, in particular his mother’s stark explanation of what kind of clay and tree bark one should or should not eat in order to survive, led him to recognize that “darkness is not the mere absence of light, but rather it is life itself. Darkness is the Chinese people’s fate.”

In a nod to Xi Jinping’s call for China’s artists to “use light to disperse darkness,” Yan Lianke (阎连科) asserts that it is indeed “a writer’s job to find life within this darkness.” But in his closing sentence, he clearly opposes Xi Jinping’s insistence — consistent with Mao’s — that literature and art “must persist in the fundamental orientation of serving the people and serving Socialism,” and implies that the writer does not need The Party’s guidance to perform his mission:

. . . only the pursuit of true art, unencumbered by anyone, can help us find the delicate light, beauty, warmth and love that are hidden in the darkness.

[Read more…]

Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Chatting with Guóbǎo

Murong Xuecun, author of Leave Me Alone Tonight, Chengdu, was in Australia when several intellectuals and activistsMurong Xuecun got together in Beijing this year to commemorate the anniversary of the 1989 “June 4th Incident.” Several of those who were there have since been arrested, such as civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), and in order to call attention to their plight, he turned himself in to the police and admitted that while not present at the gathering, he had contributed an essay for their discussion. Here is his description of the ensuing questioning session with the 国保, or Guóbǎo (Inside a Beijing Interrogation Room): 

Then we discussed the Tiananmen Square incident itself. I argued that under no circumstances should the government have ordered the army to shoot at unarmed civilians, let alone dispatch tanks to roll onto the streets of Beijing. The officers did not agree or disagree with me; they just kept asking questions: Do you know what the overall situation was? Do you know what was happening in international affairs at the time? Do you know how many soldiers were beaten or burned to death?

The conversation turned to whether I had broken the law. I told them that I assumed they thought I did because they arrested my friends who were at the Tiananmen commemoration. The officers didn’t like that I made the law sound capricious. The law is not about what they “think,” one of them said. The police, the officer said, had arrested my friends because they broke the law.

Next we discussed whether citizens “must obey the law.” I said good laws should be obeyed but evil laws must be challenged. They strongly disagreed, insisting that the law must be obeyed whether it’s good or evil.

“And you’re a graduate of the China University of Political Science and Law, eh?” the younger one asked mockingly.

I began to talk about Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience, but quickly felt like a ridiculous pedant. What’s the point of talking about the virtues of civil disobedience in a Beijing police station?

Osnos, Vogel and China Censorship Percentage Stats

But when can I get my uncensored Chinese edition?

But when can I get my uncensored Chinese edition?

In what a publicist would judge a savvy approach to pre-launch marketing of one’s book, Evan Osnos recently wrote a much-discussed NY Times Op-ed in which he explained why he won’t be releasing his new Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China in Chinese in the People’s Republic any time soon.

In a word, because Osnos doesn’t want a “special edition” of it — with chunks of the original deleted — customized for Chinese readers. That would, he maintains, “endorse a false image of the past and present.”

In her June 20 piece about the brouhaha, Slippery Slope, Dinah Gardner cites two statistics several times: 10% and 25%. The 10% is a reference to the amount of text that Ezra Vogel claims was deleted from his Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China when published in Chinese. And 25% is an estimate of what one Chinese publishing agent proposed cutting from Osnos’ Age of Ambition.

Based on my knowledge of editing and censorship in China, however, if Vogel actually believes that 90% of his work was faithfully transmitted via the final Chinese text, then he is deluding himself. Or, more charitably, he is much more knowledgeable about Deng Xiaoping than he is about publishing in China. [Read more…]

Altaic Storytelling Quote of the Week: Nâzım Hikmet, Poète Amoureux de la Langue Turque

Il [Nâzım Hikmet] a aimé la langue turque comme le paysan aime sa glèbe ou ses boeufs, comme le menuisier aime son bois et son rabot. En véritable gourmet du verb, il savourait chaque mot, le mastiquait soigneusement avant de le digérer dans le creuset de la poésie. Il était amoureux de la langue turque et voulait palper ses mots avec ses mains; les voir couler entre ses doigts comme une eau baignée de soleil était son plus grand bonheur et, aux jour difficiles, son unique consolation.

(Excerpted from Nedim Gürsel’s novel, L’ange rouge)

Chinese Authors in Turkish: Obligatory Pretty Face, Nobel Stamp of Approval

Çin'in IncisiSince I arrived in Turkey in mid-June 2013 and resided in Ankara, Antalya and now Istanbul, I’ve seen 3—yes, 3—contemporary novels by Chinese authors in Turkish translation on bookstore shelves. Mind you, 2 of them I saw just a few weeks ago . . . and I go book-shopping at least once a week.

They are Mo Yan’s Kırmızı Darı Tarlaları (Red Sorghum), Anchee Min’s Çin’in Icisi (Pearl of China) and—just out—Tie Ning’s Yıkanan Kadınlar (The Bathing Women).

Based on my “comprehensive” market research, it appears that there are two packaging elements essential to cracking the Turkish market. The first is the mandatory oriental female visage showing at least the lips.

The other is the mention of the Nobel Prize in large type, on all 3 book covers (front or back), as misleading as it might be. Granted, Mo Yan is a Nobel Laureate, though many readers are unaware that the prize is awarded for a lifetime of writing, not for a particular novel. But Tie Ning’s cover quotes Japan’s Kenzaburō—himself a Nobel Laureate, we mustn’t forget—about the novel, while Anchee Min’s perhaps more shamelessly flashes the brand by reminding us that the subject of the work, Pearl Buck, was a recipient.

But that’s not to say that there are only three Chinese novels now available in Turkish. For a more comprehensive list of modern Chinese fiction available in Turkish (as of 1Q 2014), see below:

Ai Mi (艾米)

[Read more…]

“Empresses in the Palace”: Wrong Message for Guileless Western Audience?

Empresses in the PalaceVarious media including The China Daily (Bring Asian Magic to US) have reported the rumor—as yet unconfirmed—that China’s crowd-pleasing 76-part TV series Empresses in the Palace (甄嬛传) may soon be recut and dubbed in English for re-broadcast by a US firm.

The TV adaptation of the historical novel of the same name depicts the intrigue between empresses and consorts during the reign of  the Yongzheng Emperor in the 1720s.  When the concubine Zhen Huan (see photo) first enters the palace, she is innocent and gullible, but she learns to fend for herself and through cunning and deception eventually becomes empress.

Perhaps piqued by the thought of the series giving a less than flattering image of China to overseas audiences, Hou Jianyu (侯健羽) penned a sharply worded critique that has been widely circulated on the Chinese internet, including as a Letter to the Editor at The Financial Times Chinese site (价值观).  Entitled What Sort of Values Will be Exported via “Empresses of the Palace”? , the essay not only disses this low-brow entertainment, it also predicts most Americans won’t be won over:

The popularity of the broadcast of “Empresses in the Palace” is a mere gust of wind in today’s China, and its artistic value falls far short of the classics that have been passed down over the centuries. It cannot represent mainstream Chinese culture.

I predict that, at best, “Empresses” will gain the attention of a generation of Asian immigrants in the US; but as for Americans who are deeply influenced by Western values, they will not be willing to accept the import of this set of backward values. Those values will have no cultural resonance for such viewers, and they have no motivation to master the scheming portrayed in the series.

If China wishes to export its own culture and set of values, then it must first improve its own social system. Chinese must first believe that we can achieve success via hard work, perseverance and integrity, without employing our “art of deceit” [厚黑哲学].

P.S. By this standard, shouldn’t the export—i.e., translation—of Machiavelli’s The Prince have been banned?

“Mosuo Culture Bonfire Parties”: Hamming it up for the Tourists, Attendance Required

Mosuo women on Lugu LakeCanada’s Globe and Mail recently ran a piece on the impact of modernity and tourism on the Mosuo (摩梭族), a matriarchal tribe that resides around Yunnan’s Luguhu Lake (泸沽湖). In China, a Matriarchy under Threat has now been translated, edited and published as 《云南摩梭人遭遇现代化挑战》in the August 17, 2011 edition of Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息).

Cankao is a respected and influential Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history, and in many cities across China it sells out every day before noon. Virtually no English is used and little or no content is added. But references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often “airbrushed.”

As usual in my pieces on Cankao Xiaoxi, I run the original English copy immediately below. For the benefit of English speakers who cannot read the Chinese version published and distributed throughout China, I cross out the English words that were deleted when the article was translated into Chinese, and indicate any added copy (normally just for readability’s sake) by putting it [in brackets]. This way one can better see how Cankao’s editors “package” foreign copy for domestic consumption.

To summarize the deletions you’ll find below:

  • All mentions of the Communist Party, and government policy aimed at changing Mosuo behavior, have been deleted
  • References to “male lovers” have been heavily edited
  • Some phrases that imply that Han visitors treat the Mosuo as curiosities have been deleted
  • The writer’s explanation as to why the society evolved into a matriarchal one has been deleted   [Read more…]

Hakka and Minnan “tulou”: Former Residents Emigrate, Opt for Indoor Plumbing

The New York Times has just published Monuments to Clan Life Are Losing their Appeal, a marvelous look at the state of tulou (土楼) built by Hakka and Minnan in Fujian. These communal structures, usually but not always round, housed dozens of families from the same clan:

Yongding, China—The gargantuan buildings are so iconic that they appear on a Chinese stamp. The most famous have distinctive round shapes, appearing from a distance like flying saucers that have plopped down in the middle of farm fields. Some were reportedly mistaken for missile silos by American officials poring over satellite images.

But the thousands of “earthern buildings” here, built by the ethnic Hakka and Minnan people of rural Fujian Province, are the ultimate architectural expression of clan existence in China.

For centuries, each building, called a tulou in Mandarin Chinese, would house an entire clan, virtually a village. Everyone living inside would have the same surname, except for those who married into the clan. The tulou usually tower four floors and have up to hundreds of rooms that open out onto a vast central courtyard, like the Colosseum.

The outer walls, made of rammed earth, protected against bandits. The forms vary. Many are square, resembling medieval keeps. With stockpiles of food, people could live for months without setting foot outside the tulou.

But as the clan traditions of China dwindle today, more and more people are moving out of the tulou to live in modern apartments with conveniences absent from the earthen buildings—indoor toilets, for example.

Also of interest is a book by Huang Hanmin (黄汉民) published only in Chinese (I believe), 《福建土楼》(Fújiàn tǔ lóu).

You might think that China’s media minders would be fairly happy with this report, but when it was translated and published in Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息) on March 24 (美报称福建土楼对居民失去吸引力), large chunks of it were deleted.

Cankao Xiaoxi is a respected and influential Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history, and in many cities across China it sells out every day before noon. Virtually no English is used and little or no content is added. But references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often “airbrushed.” For earlier coverage of how Cankao Xiaoxi repackages foreign newspaper reportage for domestic eyeballs, check out But where are Pederasty, Passion and the Dalai Lama? or Just Say “No” to Orgasms.

Here is some of the copy that appeared in the New York Times report but was deleted from the Chinese version:

  • “President Hu Jintao visited them [some tulou] during the 2010 Lunar New Year festivities”
  • “One afternoon, they [elderly residents] were moving firewood stacked outside the front entrance of the tulou to nearby storage sheds; the local government had asked them to do this to hide the messy stacks from tourists.”
  • “Chinese officials tried smashing the clan system during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Collectives built more and more tulou and randomly assigned people to live in the buildings, so each clan would have members spread among different collectives. When the Cultural Revolution ended, people drifted back to their clans.”
  • ” ‘People don’t clean it [Huan Xing tulou] anymore,’ said Jiang Qing, 28. . .’As long as people live here, the ecosystem thrives. Once people move out, then it all falls apart.’ “
  • “Mr. Huang, the scholar. . .’What they’ve preserved is just the structure, but the people have all moved out,’ he said. ‘So the living part has died. You’re just preserving a relic.’ “

“Chinese Book Publishing Industry Liberalizes”: But Where are Pederasty, Passion and the Dalai Lama?

It’s always good fun to observe how the Chinese media exercises censorship even as it seeks to use the foreign press to trumpet the PRC’s modernity and openness. An article in today’s Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息), China’s Book Publishing Industry Gradually Liberalizes (中国图书产业逐渐变的开放), is a marvelous case in point. It is an edited translation of an article which appeared in the New York Times, “Book Publishers Scramble for Chinese Readers.”

Cankao Xiaoxi is a respected and influential Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history, and in many cities across China it sells out every day before noon. Virtually no English is used and little or no content is added. But references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often “airbrushed.”

As usual in my pieces on Cankao Xiaoxi, I run the original English copy immediately below. For the benefit of English speakers who cannot read the Chinese version published and distributed throughout China, I cross out the English words that were deleted when the article was translated, and indicate any added copy (normally just for readability) by putting it [in brackets]. Highlights:

  • Several phrases and even some quotes referring to love between males have been “harmonized” (i.e., deleted or translated less than accurately)
  • Negative references to the Communist Party are deleted
  • All references to Li Jihong (李继宏), the English-to-Chinese translator whose best-selling version of The Kite Runner was censored before publication, have been omitted
  • The reference to the Dalai Lama as “the [Chinese] government’s arch-nemisis” has been cut

**********

Book Publishers Scramble for Chinese Readers

By Dan Levin (Dec 21, 2010)   The New York Times

BEIJING —Star-crossed love between Alexander the Great and his teenage male slave. Ferocious battles that defined an empire. The bloodshed and romance of Ancient Greece.

The novel “The Persian Boy,” by Mary Renault, has it all. In the West, the book, which is filled with [homosexual] scenes of pederasty and homosexual passion, raises a few eyebrows nearly four decades [Read more…]