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.

In fact, since 2014 many publishers and state bodies have been hard at work helping to extend China’s reach into West Asia, the Middle East and North Africa via various publications projects. Here’s a quick list for reference:

China’s four vernacular classics (Dream of the Red Chamber, Water Margin, Journey to the West and Three

Arabic rendition of Li Jinxiang's "Aisha's River" (阿依莎的河)
Arabic rendition of Li Jinxiang’s “Aisha’s River” (阿依莎的河)

Kingdoms) have recently been translated into Arabic and Turkish, and Xinjiang’s The Twelve Muqam (十二木卡姆) into English, all reportedly thanks to Xinjiang-based talent. The same report (西北五省) also mentions that the Kyrgyz epic, Manas, has been published in a Slavic language, but I suspect that may be a (confused) reference to the Cyrillic form of Kyrgyz that is used in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

I have learned that during 2014-15, the “Contemporary Chinese Ethnic Literature Translation Project,” (中国当代少数民族文学作品对外翻译工程) under the China Writers Association, has subsidized the translation of several literary works into what we can dub “silk road languages”— Arabic and Kazakh — in particular. All 5 Arabic renditions were handled by an Egyptian university, and include short stories by Hui authors Li Jinxiang (李进祥) and Shi Shuqing (石舒清), both of whom have previously been translated into French. The writing of six authors were rendered in Kazakh, including several volumes by Yerkex Hurmanbek (叶尔克西·胡尔曼别克), a Xinjiang-based, female Kazakh writer.

Israel aside, penetration of the Middle Eastern market by China’s fiction is probably deepest in Turkey. My own research (Obligatory Pretty Face) came up with a dozen novels that are available in Turkish, including two each by Mo Yan (莫言), Su Tong (苏童) and Gao Xingjian (高行健).

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

  1. This is all a good thing. Adding Chinese to the mix of cultural influences is to be welcomed. As long as China doesn’t try to appropriate other people’s culture and pretend that it’s “Chinese”, I think it’s great that China can go up against the near-monopoly of the West over the world’s intellectual life.


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