Open Letter to China Literary Exports, Inc.

Ever since Mo Yan received the Nobel Prize for Literature, a lively discussion has ensued among China’s soft power apparatchiks, bodies such as the China Writers Association, and writers, academics and translators—including some who, regrettably, were not born Chinese.

The topic? How to ensure greater success for the “campaign to take Chinese literature global.”

As a translator of Chinese fiction and books about traditional Chinese culture, I’d like to add my two cents worth here. My suggestions for “maximizing exports” of Chinese literature in translation in 2014 and beyond:

  • Recognize that a person’s nationality and mother tongue are not the key determinants of his or her ability to help bring Chinese literature to the rest of the world;

  • Establish a “Translator-in-Residence” fund, and actively recruit translators to reside in China for several months, where they can experience 21st century China and get to know Chinese writers, translators and publishers. Target a variety of nationalities and languages, rather than focusing exclusively—as is so often the case in China—on European languages.
  • Tweek visa requirements so that translators of literature and works on traditional Chinese culture become eligible for legal stays in China when undertaking such translations, even if the publisher of the book (when translated) is not a Chinese company.
  • Sponsor web sites and events on the ground that bring together Chinese translators with their foreign counterparts, so as to facilitate international partnering for future translation projects.

Bruce Humes

5 thoughts on “Open Letter to China Literary Exports, Inc.

  1. I totally agree with you on this one. The “soft power apparatchiks” (I like this term) struggle to do literature export “my way”, ignoring other methods you have suggested. I have also suggested the use of residencies, grants to motivate more to work along these lines. The Irish method (grants and residencies through Irish Literature Exchange) is worth learning from.


  2. China got it wrong by having programs like Confucius Institute, which I believe is modeled on the German model (DAAD), but it is being questioned both at home (for wasting money and possible corruption) and abroad (for ideological infiltration). It is going to be much more helpful to establish grants and residencies to “pull” people in, rather than “push” programs out.


    1. I have to admit I hadn’t thought of the Confucius Institutes as a possible conduit for literary translation-related activities, but there’s no good reason why that couldn’t be made to happen.

      But in terms of stimulating the learning of Chinese abroad, I’m not sure that “China got it wrong” by setting up the Confucius Institutes. It is true that the British Council, L’alliance française and Goethe Institüt over the years were accused of being colonialist tools. Given, the Americans in particular see the Confucian Institutes as trojan horses, but for a country that tapped Angela Merkel’s own mobile, that’s understandable; those with a “black heart” (as we say in Chinese) tend to imagine others are equally evil.

      I think history will show that the influence of Confucius Institutes, particularly in Africa and elsewhere in the third world, was very positive in building good will and expanding contacts.


      1. Confucius Institute is useful in the sense that a cannon is useful in shooting a few mosquitos. The cost (tangible and intangible) far outweighs any benefits that they may produce. What you see as good will may also be attributed to increased economic presence and commercial exchanges though there is no denying that CI also contributed a share.

        There is no accountability in the way CI spends its money and there is no real evaluation whether it is doing anything of real value, rather than the vague idea that it builds good will.

        Check this article about the 32-million dollar website project for CI:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s