Shakespeare’s plays rose to popularity in China when they were first translated from English in the early 20th century by the playwrights Zhu Shenghao and Liang Shiqu. His works only began to be performed publicly in China after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Honore de Balzac was deemed acceptable by the Chinese Communist Party because he was considered a "realist" and because Balzac's works had been admired by both Marx and Engels.

When the writer Yu Hua was in his teens in the 1970s during the Cultural Revolution, the reading of novels was banned In China — especially foreign novels. Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: in the essay “Reading” in “China in Ten Words,” Yu “describes how he first came upon novels. In the 1970s they were forbidden, but he and a friend managed to borrow for twenty-four hours The Lady of the Camellias, a romantic novel by Alexandre Dumas that another student had copied out by hand. The two spent a feverish night making their own copy, splitting the work in half. After they returned the original and sat down to read the other’s copy, they realized that they had written so quickly that they couldn’t read each other’s handwriting. By a streetlight, they read the novel to each other, gasping in pleasure at the romance and tragedy of the courtesan who dies of tuberculosis after being forced to abandon her true love. [Source: Ian Johnson New York Review of Books, October 11, 2012]

Today you can find most popular or critically-acclaimed Western book in China, both in Chinese and English, unless they criticize Communism in some way or are deemed pornographic or a bad social influence. J.D. Salinger's "Catcher on the Rye" and Mark Twain stories are popular. One of the most popular American novels in China in the 1990s was “The Bridges of Madison County”, a story by Robert James Waller about a married Iowa woman who has an affair with a National Geographic photographer. It sold over 500,000 copies and spurred the creation of self-help groups for divorced and unhappily married women. One Chinese woman told Newsweek a "Bridges" affair is "the biggest fantasy with middle-aged, middle-class Chinese women."

The first printing of Harry Potter books by the People’s Literature Publishing House in China was larger than the one for “The Little Red Book”. A Chinese nursery school teacher told the Washington Post, "Nine years old or a 100 years old, we're all interested in Harry Potter.” “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, the fifth book in the Harry Potter series, went on sale 10 days before it was scheduled to, in part to beat counterfeit versions to the punch.

“Speaking to the House of Lords international relations and defence committee in May 2021, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the chairman of the China British Business Council, said that while “China knows an enormous amount about us”, in comparison the UK “know so little about China and have forgotten so much of our history”. Despite this, he said: “They like us, they want to engage with us. It's a matter of great shame to me that two of the three chief executives of the Chinese banks in London know more about Jane Austen than I do as President of the Jane Austen Society. “And I venture to put to this committee that the heads of the British banks in China know virtually nothing about Chinese authors of similar stature.” [Source: Danielle Sheridan, The Telegraph, May 23, 2021]

In 2012, China’s 580 state-owned publishers acquired the rights to more than 16,000 foreign titles, up nearly tenfold since 1995. Top-selling titles at that time included Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” to Henry A. Kissinger’s “On China.” Sometimes the translations can be somewhat astray. The Chinese version of Stray Birds, by the famed Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore and translated by renowned Chinese writer Feng Tang. was taken off the shelves today following criticism its "astray interpretations". A line from the book that reads "The world puts off its mask of vastness to its lover" was translated as "The world unzipped his pants in front of his lover". Another criticized translation reads: "The great earth makes herself flirtatious with the help of the grass". [Source: Evan Osnos, New York Times, May 2, 2014; Ruan Fan, China Daily, December 28, 2015]

Modern Chinese Writers and Literature: MCLC Resource Center mclc.osu.edu ; Modern Chinese literature in translation Paper Republic paper-republic.org ; Wang Shou Wikipedia article on Wang Shou Wikipedia ; Shanghai Baby Book Reporter Review bookreporter.com ; Gao Xingjian Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Nobel Prize site nobelprize.org ; BBC Report bbc.co.uk ; Ha Jin Random House randomhouse.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Book Browse bookbrowse.com ; Book Reporter bookreporter.com ; Amy Tan Amy Tam.net amytan.net ; Academy of Achievement biography achievement.org ; Anniina’s Amy Tam Page luminarium.org

Mark Twain in China

Amy Qin wrote in the New York Times’s Sinosphere Blog: Mark “Twain’s writings have won him literary fame in China...Although “Huckleberry Finn,” with more than 90 different translations in Chinese, is a favorite, a large portion of Twain’s popularity in China derives in fact from another, much more obscure work: a short story called “Running for Governor.” A humorous account of Twain’s fictional candidacy in the 1870 New York gubernatorial election, “Running for Governor” was taught alongside the writings by Mao Zedong and other prominent Chinese thinkers and literary figures in middle schools across China for more than 40 years. In this time, it was read by several generations and millions of Chinese, making Mark Twain one of the best-known foreign writers in China and “Running for Governor” one of his best-known works. ““Just about anyone who has had a middle-school education in China knows Mark Twain and ‘Running for Governor,’ ” Su Wenjing, a comparative literature professor at Fuzhou University, said in a telephone interview. “And everyone remembers the specific cultural moment and social critique represented in the story, this is certain.” [Source: Amy Qin, Sinosphere Blog, New York Times, January 6, 2014]

“Published in the literary magazine Galaxy just after the New York gubernatorial election in 1870, “Running for Governor” is a satire that takes aim at what Twain saw as the hypocrisy of the American electoral process and the dog-eat-dog nature of party politics. In the brief yet imaginative sketch, Twain finds himself nominated to run for New York governor on an independent ticket, only to be overwhelmed by a slew of false ad hominem attacks from several unnamed accusers. In the face of charges that he had, among other things, robbed a poor widow and her family of a small plantain patch in “Wakawak, Cochin China,” as well as slandered the incumbent governor’s dead grandfather, Twain concludes the story with his characteristic élan: “I was wavering — wavering. And at last, as a due and fitting climax to the shameless persecution that party rancor had inflicted upon me, nine little toddling children of all shades of color and degrees of raggedness were taught to rush on to the platform at a public meeting and clasp me around the legs and call me PA! I gave up. I hauled down my colors and surrendered. I was not equal to the requirements of a Gubernatorial campaign in the State of New York, and so I sent in my withdrawal from the candidacy, and in bitterness of spirit signed it, Truly yours, Once a decent man, but now MARK TWAIN, I.P., M.T., B.S., D.T., F.C., and L.E.

“That “Running for Governor” was a critique of the United States written by an American as highly esteemed as Twain was precisely what made it so appealing to the Chinese. Soon after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, it was selected as a required reading for middle school students across the country along with other short stories that were seen to reinforce the anti-Western, anti-capitalist, socialist education agenda. “One of the major reasons why ’Running for Governor’ is rarely taught in the U.S. is because it satirizes the embarrassing corrupt political community in the U.S. that Twain saw at the time,” said Selina Lai, a lecturer in American Studies at Hong Kong University who is currently writing a book titled “Mark Twain in China.” “Not surprisingly, that makes it an extremely popular piece to teach in Chinese classrooms.” Teachers were instructed to emphasize the anti-capitalist message of the story prior to any considerations of the story’s style or form. “The ideas in this story extend far beyond the era in which it takes place,” reads a popular teacher’s guide for “Running for Governor” that is available online. “Today, it is still as before: A good lesson in the sham and deception of the democracy of the capitalist classes.”

“For more than 30 years, my uncle, Wang Lifeng, taught “Running for Governor” in accordance with these guidelines in a small village school in rural Shaanxi Province. Classroom conditions, particularly before the market-oriented economic changes that began in the late 1970s, were poor, with drafty mud-walled classrooms and few resources for either teachers or students. Nonetheless, Mr. Wang fondly recalls teaching “Running for Governor” along with other stories deemed suitably critical of social injustice, such as Guy de Maupassant’s “My Uncle Jules” and Anton Chekhov’s “A Chameleon.” But for Mr. Wang, who is retired from teaching but still farms wheat and corn, “Running for Governor” is a favorite, not only because of its humor or its supposed vindication of the Chinese socialist system, but because Twain himself was someone who, as a self-taught, self-made man, knew what it was like to “live in the lower rungs of society.” “Twain understood the happiness and unhappiness of the people, their pains and difficulties,” Mr. Wang said by telephone from his home in Shicao, a village about a one-hour drive from the city of Xi’an. “He lived in that environment. He was at that level.”

“Even before “Running for Governor” became popular in China, Twain’s reputation in China as a social critic had been cemented. Though his colloquial humor did not always translate well into Chinese, his unaffected satires and consistent willingness to take on what he saw as the pervasive inequality and injustice in his own country endeared Twain to many of the most prominent writers and thinkers of early 20th-century China. A fervent anti-imperialist, he even famously once pronounced himself a Boxer in support of the violent nationalistic uprising against foreigners in China in 1900. In a speech delivered in 1960 in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Twain’s death, the eminent Chinese writer Lao She hailed Twain as an “outstanding writer of critical realism in the United States” and a bracing social critic who had been reduced by Americans to a figure who told jokes.

Orwell and Brave New World in China

Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: Of the many things that are banned, blocked, or censored in China, the novels of George Orwell do not make the list. In 2021, when I entered Xinhua Winshare, one of the largest of the bookstores that are overseen by the Party in downtown Chengdu, the first table displayed twenty titles that documented the career and theories of Xi Jinping in mind-numbing detail... Less than thirty feet away, another table featured stacks of books marketed as the Dystopian Trilogy: “1984,” “Brave New World,” and “We,” a novel that was banned in the Soviet Union after it was written, around 1920, by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Nearby, a security camera hung from the ceiling, and the cover of the Orwell volume declared, “War Is Peace. Freedom Is Slavery. And Big Brother Is Watching You.” There were also copies of “Animal Farm,” and another Chinese translation of “1984.” In 2021, more than two hundred thousand copies of “1984” were sold in Chinese editions, along with a hundred thousand copies of “Animal Farm.” [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]

“Many of my students had read Orwell in high school, and his books were taught in various courses at Sichuan University...Students from another department invited me to attend their dramatic performance of “1984.” When I entered the lecture hall, the professor greeted me warmly; he asked only that I not mention the name of the class. I sat at the back of the hall, near a security camera. There was another camera in the front.

“The assignment had been to perform a new version of a classic story. At the beginning of the play, some boys and girls acted out the Two Minutes Hate, yelling Chinese curses that reminded me of a Cultural Revolution struggle session: Fangpi! (Fart!) Yangliande zhu! (Sheep-faced pig!) Yangliande luozi! (Sheep-faced mule!) After that, the play focussed on Julia, who becomes Winston Smith’s lover. In the novel, Julia is a highly sexualized, unintellectual figure who simply hates the control of the state, but the Sichuan University students turned her into a secret Party agent. She is assigned to entrap Winston — but then, in carrying out her mission, she can’t stop herself from falling in love with him. Her feelings are shattered when she sees how quickly Winston gives her up under torture. After that, she renews her dedication to the state, and the play ends with the Party identifying a new target, with a Chinese name. “Comrade Julia, congratulations on accomplishing this task,” a superior says. “Your next mission is Ye Lianke.” I hadn’t thought it was possible to make “1984” any darker, but the students had succeeded. Afterward, one of the writers told me that she’d expanded Julia’s role because the original character seemed underdeveloped — the writer had recognized a strain of misogyny in the novel.

“When teaching Orwell, I often thought about why such books aren’t considered a threat to the Party. In the novels of the Dystopian Trilogy, futuristic societies distract and control individuals by various methods: the continuous war and rewritten history of “1984,” the sex and soma drugs of “Brave New World,” the surgical removal of human imagination in “We.” But none of these books anticipates how useful competition can be in sustaining a long-term authoritarian state. In China, nationalistic propaganda might be effective for children and other people at a lower level, but there’s a tacit understanding that it won’t work as well for the highly educated. As long as these individuals have opportunities to advance and improve their lives, they are less likely to oppose authority. And the system doesn’t need to be hermetically sealed in the manner of “1984.” The vast majority of Chinese students who go abroad choose to return — for them, it’s as simple as yinyefeishi. If they were truly afraid of choking, they would remain in the United States.”

Finnegan's Wake in Chinese

A Chinese translation of "Finnegans Wake", the famously difficult 1939 James Joyce novel that the author's own brother described as "unspeakably wearisome", sold very well in China when it was published in 2013. Lilian Lin and Carlos Tejada wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “A newly affluent nation that prizes black Audi sedans and Louis Vuitton handbags has made a literary status symbol of what may well be English literature's most difficult work. Thanks in part to a canny marketing campaign involving eye-catching billboards and packaging, "Finnegans Wake" sold out the first, 8,000-volume run shortly after it was released. The book briefly rose to No. 2 on a bestseller list run by a Shanghai book industry group, just behind a biography of the late Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's modern-day boom. That isn't to say buyers necessarily love it. "I have to say it's less pleasant than I expected," said Nico Wu, a 23-year-old public-relations professional in Shanghai, who says he slogged through the first 30 of its 775 pages before giving up. "I thought at least I could get a sense of the plot," he said. "But now, I feel it is too hard to even do that." Ms. Dai is unfazed by that sort of response. "One has to admit that there is a group of people who bought the book out of curiosity and vanity, but there is also a large group of people who bought the book because they really want to appreciate it," she said. [Source: Lilian Lin and Carlos Tejada, Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2013]

“The appetite for Joyce's most challenging work comes from a real hunger for demanding literature. A Chinese writer, Mo Yan, last year won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first for a Chinese national. But his victory only underscored China's lack of a global profile in the printed word. Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution suppressed China's rich literary heritage. Continued government censorship and the lack of emphasis on reading for pleasure in the schools haven't helped. "I am so desperate to know how it feels to read the most complicated book in the world," said He Kuang, a 50-year-old civil servant in the coastal city Xiamen, who bought the translation. "It's like an IQ test." "Finnegans Wake" famously begins midsentence. It defies conventional narrative structure. It offers 10 different words referring to thunder, each at least 100 letters long, such as "bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunn- trovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!" Experts are still arguing, but many believe it takes place during a shifting dream or dreams, and it involves among many other matters a bar owner and his family and an unspecified sexual transgression in a park.

“Defenders say its power lies in how it pushes the boundaries of language. "You can read it as poetry," said Sun Ganlu, a prominent 54-year-old Chinese writer whose work has been translated into English, French and Japanese. Mr. Sun, who praises the new Chinese translation, says the book could inspire readers. "Maybe after they read it, they will start to take literature seriously or even write." That possibility inspired Ms. Dai, the translator, an associate professor and vice dean of the department of Chinese language and literature at Fudan University in Shanghai. "The traditional writing style of Chinese literature needs to be changed after all these years," she said. "Someone needs to stand out and lead by his unique writing, like what James [Joyce] did in Western literature."

“But publisher Shanghai People's Publishing House gave the book market appeal with a slick billboard campaign in the downtown areas of major Chinese cities. A deluxe, 168 yuan version comes in a box with a slim Joyce biography and bookmark, and it shows a young Joyce standing head-cocked and confident with his hands in his pants pockets. The book was also advertised in in-flight magazines, online reading sites and stores. It got an additional boost from China's state-run media, with the official Xinhua news agency naming it one of the most influential books of last year. “As a result, the book's initial 8,000 run sold out within three weeks, according to the publisher. It has since printed 5,000 additional copies that it says have been distributed to bookstores.

Translating Finnegan's Wake in Chinese

Lilian Lin and Carlos Tejada wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "Finnegans Wake" has bedeviled readers for decades, but few can claim the toil and triumph it has given to Dai Congrong. Ms. Dai spent eight years translating it” into Chinese. She endured low pay, a skeptical husband and the continued demands of her teaching job. That is on top of deciphering sentences like this: "Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface." Her reward, to her great surprise, was success. Her translation of the first part of the book has become a modest but clear hit here in China. Chinese readers are now puzzling their way through Joyce's rhythmic stew of English, Gaelic, Romance languages, puns and layered meaning. "It's beyond my expectations," Ms. Dai said. Local media even interviewed her 8-year-old son, she said, "though he has no idea what the book is about." [Source: Lilian Lin and Carlos Tejada, Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2013]

“Ms. Dai, a bookish 42-year-old whose only nod to ostentation is her taste for Lancôme perfume, first discovered Joyce through Chinese translations of "Ulysses" released in the 1990s. "It lingered in my mind after I put the book down," she said. "Life is like what is described in 'Ulysses': fragmented." "Finnegans Wake" is on another level, however. To re-create some of the sounds of the novel, Ms. Dai had to create new Chinese characters — a notable hoop to jump through considering Chinese already has tens of thousands of characters.

“The first line of the novel, which begins mid-sentence, reads, "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." To translate that sentence alone, Ms. Dai provides two definitions, five footnotes and seven asides in smaller type to describe its allusions to religion, memory and the 17th- and 18th-century academic Giovanni Battista Vico. Her publisher paid her 75 yuan ($12) per thousand English words translated, meaning she needed to keep up her research duties at the university. That bothered her husband, Gu Jian, who told her he could make the same amount of money in much less time. "I don't have time to read it," said Mr. Gu. "Maybe I will try to read it after retirement."

Shanghai People's Publishing House The publisher has committed to supporting translation of the rest of the book, says Ms. Dai, a process that she says will take at least eight more years. Mr. Gu worries that it could be longer: "It will take maybe 20 years to finish that."

$1 Million for Authorized 100 Years of Solitude

A Chinese publisher is set to bring out the first ever authorized edition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in Chinese, after winning an auction for the rights with a fee reported to be in excess of $1 million. [Source: Alison Flood, The Guardian, April 29, 2011]

Pirated editions of the Nobel prize-winning author's most famous novel have been rife in China for decades. The piracy so enraged Marquez on a visit to the country in 1990 that he swore that even 150 years after his death his books would not be authorized in China, according to Chinese newspaper the Global Times.

But Thinkingdom House editor-in-chief Chen Mingjun refused to take no for an answer, writing a letter to the author in 2008 which according to the Global Times read: "We pay our respects to you across the Pacific Ocean, making every effort, shouting 'great master!' just like you did to your idol Ernest Hemingway across the streets in Paris---We believe that you'd also wave your hand and shout back 'Hello friend!' just like Hemingway did."

Jo Lusby, managing director of Penguin China, which publishes the English language edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, said the size of the advance had "already created an enormous amount of interest" in the novel, despite it being "widely available in pirated forms for a long time". "I think they'll be lucky if they can meaningfully address the presence of cheap pirated formats out on the streets, though," she told The Guardian.

The deal, however, "does serve to demonstrate why China is at a fascinating point", she added. "Even at a time when writers and artists (such as Ai Weiwei) are disappearing in crackdowns, publishers are bullish about the future, and it's one of the few places in the world where you can attend the opening of a large scale chain bookstore,” she said. Whether paying such a large sum of money for a book is a sign of health in the Chinese literary market, or a warning that the market may be overheating is less clear, she continued, "but this kind of thing doesn't happen very often, and with a bit of luck it will instead be something of a major publishing event rather than the symptom of a mania".

Chinese Influence on Western Literature

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “References to China abound in French and English literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the latter century, particularly, a great many stories appeared which attempted to use Chinese themes or were written in a supposedly Chinese manner. Indeed, the vogue for China led to the development of an entirely new form of literature, known as "Chinese letters," in which the hero was usually an imaginary Chinese sage, supposedly traveling through Europe, who wrote accounts of what he saw on his journey to his friends at home. This literary form was cleverly used to express all sorts of shrewd and amusing criticisms of European civilization. It has interest for us today because of the frequent comparisons made between Europe and China, and the picture thus given us of the attitudes of eighteenth century European writers toward China. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, Asia for Educators, Columbia University, July 1948 afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“The first such "Chinese letters" seem to have been written by a certain French author in 1739, and numerous imitations followed both in France and England in the next several decades. Oliver Goldsmith (1728-84), author of the Vicar of Wakefield, was the most famous writer to use the device. His Chinese Letters, written in 1759-60 and reissued two years later as The Citizen of the World, reveal a considerable knowledge of China.

“We have already seen how a Chinese play was used by Voltaire as the basis for a play of his own, The Chinese Orphan (1755). The same Chinese play enjoyed success in other countries as well. It was translated into English in 1741, into Italian in 1748, and provided the inspiration for Elpenor (1783), an unfinished tragedy by Germany's greatest poet, Goethe (1749-1832). Perhaps the reason why Goethe never succeeded in finishing it is that he tried to put it into an ancient Greek setting. Another play, Turandot, is an interesting example, in European dress, of the blending of cultural influences from both China and the Near East. Its story is that of a cruel Chinese princess who lives in Peking. She has sworn to marry no one who cannot guess three riddles she has prepared. All suitors who fail must suffer execution. So beautiful is she, however, that many have tried, though none successfully. Finally a Near Eastern prince, coming to Peking in disguise, guesses the riddles, wins her hand, and by his love turns her from her cruelty. This story, though Chinese in setting, is quite un-Chinese in spirit and actually goes back to a Persian tale. A French translation made of it in 1710 was the basis for an Italian play written fifty-two years later by a Venetian dramatist, Count Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806). Gozzi's play became in turn the basis in 1802 for a German version by the great poet, Schiller (1759-1805). Weber (1786-1826), the German composer, contributed incidental music to Schiller's play, including a "Chinese Overture." This, interestingly enough, he derived from a Chinese melody contained in Rousseau's Dictionary of Music (1767).

“Of the several later plays and operas inspired by the story of Turandot, the most notable is that by Puccini (1858-1924), composer of Madame Butterfly and other famous operas. Puccini's work was unfortunately not entirely finished before his death and was first performed only two years later. But it has since been acclaimed by some critics as his greatest opera. In it he uses several genuine Chinese melodies, including a main theme based on a popular Chinese song, "The Beautiful Plum Blossom." This song had already been made known in Europe as early as 1804 through a book, Travels in China, by John Barrow. The author had visited Peking in 1793 as a member of an official British embassy sent there in that year.

“Turning now to Western literature in the nineteenth century, one of the warmest enthusiasts for China was Judith Gautier (1850-1917), daughter of the famous French poet, Théophile Gautier (1811-72). Though she never visited China herself, she studied Chinese as a girl under a Chinese tutor, and in 1867 published The Book of Jade, a collection of poems written in the Chinese manner. Her book has been read and praised by many men of letters. In the following year she published an original novel, The Imperial Dragon, which was probably the first French novel to have a Chinese setting, a plausible Chinese plot, and Chinese characters. Not long afterward, the American, Bret Harte (1856-1902) was writing sympathetically of the Chinese he knew in California, though admittedly with no knowledge whatever of Chinese civilization or literature.

Chinese Influence on Western Poetry

Chinese poetry had a strong impact on the literary movement known as Imagism. Professor Derk Bodde wrote: The Imagists were a group of young English and American poets who began in 1909 to hold meetings in London to discuss their new literary theories. They wanted to get away from what they considered the artificiality of nineteenth century English poetry. They avoided rhyme and wrote in free verse. They favored simple, everyday speech in place of high-sounding, vague language. They tried to make their poetry as clear and concrete as possible so as to give the most vivid picture in the fewest words — hence the name "Imagist." From 1914 to 1917 they published four collections of Imagist verse which raised a storm of argument in literary circles because of its unconventional nature. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, Asia for Educators, Columbia University, July 1948 afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“French poetry gave the Imagists their chief inspiration, but Chinese poetry has been described by one of them as their "foster-father." Its influence was particularly evident in the case of three Americans: Ezra Pound (born 1885), John Gould Fletcher (born 1886), and Amy Lowell (1874-1925). The interest of these three in China is not surprising, for Chinese poetry possesses the same qualities of compactness, vivid pictorial portrayal, and use of concrete language, with which they themselves were experimenting.

“In 1915 Pound published his Cathay, a book of verse based upon some rough translations of Chinese poems that had been given him by a Boston friend. The meter used by Pound in this book has been followed by practically all translators of Chinese poetry since. Fletcher eagerly read Judith Gautier's Book of Jade, Bethge's Chinese Flute, and other translations or adaptations of Chinese verse. His Blue Symphony (1914), which is regarded as one of the masterpieces of Imagist poetry, is Chinese in setting and spirit. And Amy Lowell, whose brother, Percival, had lived in Korea and Japan, looked to China and Japan for the inspiration of her Lacquer Prints (1919) and many other poems. In 1921 she collaborated with Florence Ayscough, an American who had long lived in China, in a translation of Chinese poetry called Fir-Flower Tablets.

“Despite the interest of these poets in China, it must be confessed that they did not always succeed in catching the real essence of the Chinese spirit. This is probably because none of them (except Florence Ayscough, not herself an Imagist) ever went to China or knew the Chinese language themselves.

Russian Literature and China

Lu Xun 1881–1936) is generally regarded as China's greatest writer of the modern period. He was China's first major stylist in vernacular prose (other than the novel) and was known as an essayist and short story writer and was the founder of modern Chinese literature. Lu particularly admired Nikolai Gogol and made a translation of "Dead Souls". His own first story's title, "Diary of a Madman", was inspired by a work of Gogol of the same name. The popular and acclaimed writer Yan Lianke is a big fan of Dostoevsky.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), author of War and Peace and other immortal novels, had a keen interest in China . Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “His interest in China has been almost completely overlooked...perhaps in part because it appears only in his later philosophical writings rather than in his more widely read novels. During the last thirty years of his life, Tolstoy read more than thirty books on China and Chinese thought. The sayings of Confucius and Lao Tzu especially interested him. Indeed, the latter philosopher is said to have been "his favorite among the sages of antiquity." So deeply impressed was he by Chinese thought that he wrote, or had his followers write, no less than nine articles and pamphlets on China. Most of these were published by Tolstoy's own press in cheap editions, selling for only a few cents a copy, so that they might reach the widest number of Russian people. As late as the final year of his life, when he was in his eighties, Tolstoy is reported to have exclaimed: "Were I young, I would go to China!" [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, Asia for Educators, Columbia University, July 1948 afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“Tolstoy's famous doctrine of nonresistance to evil is admittedly greatly inspired by Christian teaching. Yet there is good reason to believe that it was considerably influenced by Lao Tzu's philosophy as well. And it in turn, as is well known, influenced Gandhi in his equally famous theory of political passive-resistance. Likewise, the Confucian attitude toward music seems to have been well known to Tolstoy when he developed his own remarkably similar theory that music is not merely something to be enjoyed, but also acts as a powerful moral force that can be used to influence men for either good or evil.”

Interest in African Literature in China on the Rise

Chimamanda Adichie is at the head of a wave of interest in African literature in China Abdi Latif Dahir wrote in Quartz Africa: Dear Ijeawele is a forthright and frank book, a 15-step letter about how to raise a feminist child. But when it’s published in China around April this year, it will garner its author, the celebrated Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a new status: becoming one of few African writers whose body of work has mostly, if not all, been translated to Chinese. “By far the hottest African writer among Chinese fans today is Nigeria’s Adichie,” says Bruce Humes, an American linguist and Chinese literary translator. For years now, Humes has compiled a bilingual list of contemporary African fiction published in Chinese since the 1980s, putting together a list of novels, poetry, drama, and short story collections available to readers in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Humes, who has lived and worked across China since the late 70s, has so far identified 146 translated works from 66 African authors. [Source: Abdi Latif Dahir, Quartz Africa, January 15, 2019]

“The list of translations, including the 13 interpreted in 2018, features a great variety in terms of language (French, English, Arabic, Portuguese), nationalities (Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, Angola, Nigeria, and more) and also genres. Yet only a few authors have had more than one volume dubbed into Chinese, and even fewer with two or more books. These include the likes of Nigerian authors Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee, and the sole Lusophone writer with at least three novels now in Chinese, Mia Couto of Mozambique.

“By having all her three novels (Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Americanah), lone short story collection (The Thing Around Your Neck), and two essays (We Should All Be Feminists, and Dear Ijeawele) translated to Chinese, Adichie proves that she’s a literature icon in China, says Diane Pan, who has edited her work at Shanghai 99 since 2013. (Yilin Press published Half of a Yellow Sun in 2010.) By tackling current issues including gender inequality, the immigrants’ experience, and racism, Pan argues the 41-year-old novelist helps readers introspect about life’s major questions.

“By tapping into questions about human mobility, aspirations, and personal fulfillment, Adichie she adds, also builds a kind of intimacy between her protagonists and young Chinese readers many of whom are living and studying overseas. “Her books can help people understand and cope with many disorienting predicaments,” Pan says.

The rise of Adichie’s translated books dovetails with China’s deepening presence in Africa, and claims it is only interested in doing business and has less concern for the continent’s people or future. Chinese media outlets have also been criticized for their depictions of Africans, and black people have often protested about how they are viewed and spoken of in daily interactions.

“In recent years, Beijing has also moved to strengthen its “cultural diplomacy,” sponsoring Mandarin lessons across Africa, increasing its media presence and influence, and backing movies centered in fictitious African states. China’s new Silk Road plan, the multi-billion One Belt One Road initiative, also has a cultural and social component designed to enhance understanding between nations — and hence improve its “soft power” globally. “Most Chinese readers have the faintest idea about Africa and African literature,” says John Wang, assistant professor at the school of translation studies in Jinan University. Translations, he explains, help “find common ground” and showcase “African literature as an important part of the world of literature.”

“In a sign of growing interest in African literature, Humes notes that Chinese publishers now directly translate from Portuguese and Arabic texts, instead of commissioning interpretations from English-language translations. And unlike the past, when state-run imprints focused on ideologically-driven works like those of Léopold Sédar Senghor or Ngũgĩ or favored high-profile and award-winning writers like Gordimer, the profit motive has come to the fore in recent years. “Chinese readers, he said, are also interested in literary writers with African roots who have made a success in the West, including Adichie herself and Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou.

“Pan says they will publish between 8,000 and 10,000 copies of Dear Ijeawele for the first print, with Shanghai 99 selling more than 100,000 copies of her previous works. Humes notes that if a scribe has three or more books translated, “we can assume his or her works are selling fairly well.” And in the wake of growing political, economic, and cultural Sino-African exchanges, Humes says more translation projects will come underway. “As China seeks to project its soft power and make friends, it makes sense that further collaboration will involve other African countries in 2019 and beyond.”

Restrictions and Censorship of Foreign Books in China

Foreign books that deal with subjects deemed touchy are often given a nip and tuck by censors. Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times: China can be a gold mine for royalties. In 2012, J.K. Rowling took in $2.4 million here, and Walter Isaacson, the author of the biography “Steve Jobs,” earned $804,000, according to the Huaxi Metropolitan Daily in Chengdu, which publishes an annual list. But while best-selling mysteries like “The Da Vinci Code,” by Dan Brown, or classics like Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” are often faithfully translated, the authors of sexually explicit works or those that touch on Chinese politics and history can find themselves in an Orwellian embrace with a censorship apparatus that has little patience for the niceties of literary or academic integrity. “Some books, like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the erotic blockbuster by E.L. James that has been published in more than three dozen countries, may be beyond salvaging. A Chinese publisher who reportedly paid handsomely for the rights last year has so far been thwarted from bringing it to press, according to industry executives. [Source: Andrew Jacobs New York Times, October 19, 2013]

China Digital Times reported in 2016: “The question of whether authors should accept censorship in exchange for publication within China has been much discussed in recent years. Some, like Ezra Vogel, have argued that it is “better to have 90 percent of the book available here than zero”; others, like Evan Osnos, feel that “altering the proportions of a portrait of China gives a false reflection.” Some of those who do accept cuts, like Peter Hessler and Francis Fukuyama, have posted details of the omissions online for curious Chinese readers to hunt out. [Source: China Digital Times, April 19, 2016]

“On her blog, Leta Hong Fincher published a set of redactions from her book “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China” on Sunday. As she explained on Twitter, they had been made by the publisher without her approval: “According to my contract with the Chinese publisher, they were supposed to give me the manuscript for 15 days before publication, but they just published it without notice and I didn’t even know what was in it until I read it later.” She told CDT: I was dismayed to discover that my book came out in the mainland without my having a chance to approve the translated manuscript, since my contract stated that I was supposed to have the final say. Yet in spite of the censorship, I do not regret the publication of my book in the mainland.

In 2017 the Chinese government issued on order aimed to reduce the number of foreign picture books for children published in mainland China. China’s state publishing administration had imposed a quota system, capping the number of foreign picture books that could be published on the mainland. The government said “there had been a bit too much inflow of ideology” coming from foreign picture books,” an editor told the South China Morning Pos. “It has deliberately decided to constrain imported books and protect those written by Chinese authors.” “Another source, who works for a private publishing firm, said it would not be able to publish any foreign picture books for children this year, adding there had previously been no quota requirements and little censorship pressure.” [Source: Sidney Leng,South China Morning Post, March 9, 2017]

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Last updated August 2022

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