Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters

Eric Abrahamsen (1978 – )

worldcat / academia


Eric lived in Beijing from late 2001, when he studied Chinese at the Central University for Nationalities, until the end of 2016. He began struggling through Wang Xiaobo at an early date, and kept at it through the intervening years. He is the recipient of a PEN translation grant for Wang Xiaobo's My Spiritual Homeland and a NEA grant for Xu Zechen's Running Through Zhongguancun, later published as Running Through Beijing, which was shortlisted for the National Translation Award.

His short-story translations have appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, Granta, and n+1. He also writes occasional cultural criticism, which has appeared in the New York Times and Foreign Policy, among other venues.


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Novels (2)

Essays (2)

Short stories (17)

As Editor


2009 Dangdai Literary Prize

By Eric Abrahamsen, February 18, '10

The winner of the 2009 Dangdai Literary Prize was announced a couple of weeks ago (sorry, we've been eating dumplings in the northeast).

The shortlist included:

A Word is Worth a Thousand Words took the prize; Liu Zhenyun was also the winner of the 2007 prize with My Name is Liu Yuejin.


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New Creative Writing MFA at City University

By Eric Abrahamsen, February 17, '10

The first of its kind, the new Creative Writing MFA program at City University in Hong Kong is aimed at Asian writing in the English language. From the program description:

Its mission is to provide the best education possible for aspiring creative writers and teachers of creative writing, with a special focus on Asian writing in English as well as literature in English concerned with Asian themes.

The program is "low residency", and classes are taught by an international faculty of writers and teachers. Prospective students (who should already have a certain level of achievement in their chosen genre) should apply by the deadline of April 15.

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Ball Lightning Extract

By Eric Abrahamsen, February 10, '10

Ball Lightning, one of the best Chinese science fiction novels of the past few years, is a fast-paced story of what happens when the beauty of scientific inquiry runs up against a push to harness new discoveries with no consideration of the possible consequences.

Joel Martinsen's sample is not currently available, as the piece is under consideration for publication.


Northern Girls Extract

By Eric Abrahamsen, February 8, '10

More reading material: a sample translation of the first chapter of Sheng Keyi's Northern Girls. Edit: the English translation of Northern Girls will be published by Penguin in 2012, so I've removed the sample.

From the promotional materials we took to Frankfurt 2009:

"Sheng Keyi's first full-length novel, Northern Girls is drawn from her experiences as a job-seeking migrant in the early 1990s. Its main character, Hong, is no different from the thousands of other country girls who are moving to Shenzhen to seek work, with one exception: she has an extraordinarily full bosom. She finds herself caught up in the chaos of Shenzhen, a city that hardly existed ten years previously, where the mad rush of economic growth has destabilized moral norms and shredded the fabric of society. With hardly a thought in her head but to make her way in the world, she discovers that her body has already opened some doors and closed others, shaping her fate before she's even had a chance to gain her footing.

"After arriving in Shenzhen Hong and her friend drift at the edges of society, working in hair salons, shops, factories and hotels, owning absolutely nothing in the world but their labor and their bodies. As migrant worker girls they are doomed to be scorned by local women and humiliated by local men, but as Hong's companions slowly begin to turn down the path of least resistance, Hong herself sticks to her own idiosyncratic principles, stubbornly insisting on her own brand of integrity, and the bosom that has caused her so much grief becomes a symbol of her irrepressible vital force."


Impressions of Mo Yan's Newest

By Eric Abrahamsen, February 7, '10

Mo Yan's newest novel, called Frog, is ill-served by its publicity billing: "A novel about the One Child Policy and population control!"

Unappealing as that sounds, Mo Yan is too accomplished a writer to simply dress up an historical tract as a novel, and Frog is in many ways a good read. The first thing I noticed was that he had abandoned the baroquely florid storytelling style of Life and Death are Wearing Me Out for a more traditional Chinese narrative, a descendent of the "gather 'round and I'll tell you a story" style more often associated with Su Tong. In this case, the book is narrated by a Communist Party member whose aunt – once known in their rural county as a miracle midwife – is one of the first implementers of the new planned-reproduction policies of the late 70s and early 80s.

The aunt is the heart of the story – her determination to carry out what she sees as a vital new policy, her demonization by rural families hell-bent on raising sons, her eventual reconsideration and regret. Mo Yan is still a master of the scene, of the dramatic moment, and there are many throughout the book: starving children discovering, with shuddering wonder, that coal is good to eat; the death of a pregnant woman who has plunged into a turbulent river rather than let the planned-reproduction team drag her back for a forced abortion; the same team demolishing the houses of neighbors of an anti-abortion holdout, in order to turn the whole community against the law-breakers.


Grayhawk Agency: Call for Mai Jia Translation Submissions

By Eric Abrahamsen, January 28, '10

The Grayhawk Agency in Taiwan is calling for translation sample submissions for Mai Jia's book Decoded. Any translators interested in submitting a sample for this book, please email a query to, and we'll send you two novel extracts to choose from, as well as more background information on the book and author. Please send your inquiries within the next two weeks.

The Grayhawk Agency will be accepting samples through the first week of March, following which two translations will be chosen (one for each of the two extracts) to be used with the promotional package, and recommended to publishers. Translators whose samples are chosen will be paid $300.

The Grayhawk Agency's most recent sale is Zhang Ling's Gold Mountain Blues.



By Eric Abrahamsen, January 14, '10

Another good bit from Han Han's blog (we should just start a Han Han channel here). Minutes after I read this blog post I got a dirty message from Wang Xiaoshan, "in support of Han Han".

Lastly, I saw a news report that said that any cell phones used to send dirty messages or pornographic content will have their SMS capabilities turned off, and you'll have to go to the police station and give them a written pledge before they'll turn it back on again. The government's just like this: it always gives you a verb and a noun, and then it never explains the noun. For instance, you can't be counter-revolutionary, but they never tell you what counter-revolutionary means. You can't commit hooliganism, but what is hooliganism? Now you can't send dirty messages, but they won't tell you what a dirty message is. I used to go along with the government and accept their standards, but friends kept straying unwittingly into mine fields – even some fifty-cent Party members who mean to kiss ass end up not passing inspection, and look stupid. My recommendation is that these mine fields be written out clearly: "over here is a mine field, enter at your own risk". But not only do they make no clear statements, they keeping piling mines on the sidewalk – who's fault is that if we step on them? So it's nearly the New Year, everyone will be sending text messages around: in order to avoid the tragedy of friends getting their phones shut off and having to go to the police station to give a written pledge on the first of the new year, I've decided to sacrifice myself. For the next few days I will continually send dirty messages from my phone until it is shut off. Then I'll come back here to tell everyone exactly what constitutes a dirty message or pornographic content. So if you get a dirty or pornographic message from me, please don't get me wrong: I'm not in heat and I'm not flirting with you, I'm just exploring.

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Talking to the Banyan Tree

By Eric Abrahamsen, January 13, '10

Following up on the announcement a few weeks ago of the re-opening of the Banyan Tree, China's first influential literary website, this is a short Q&A with Wang Xiaoshan and Yang Yong, Editor in Chief and Managing Editor, respectively, of the new Banyan Tree, the most recent acquisition of Shanda Literature Limited, which is in turn a part of Shanda Interactive Entertainment Limited, an online gaming, literature and music empire that has an eye on most of the prime digital real estate in China. The Banyan Tree, which first opened in 1997, has languished over the past four or five years, but Shanda is intent on breathing new life into the old brand.

Why did Shanda buy the Banyan Tree, instead of just starting a new literary website?

Wang Xiaoshan: I think they were looking at the Banyan Tree's brand. That site started 12… 13 years ago now, Christmas of 1997. Back then it was a personal website, but as it grew it fostered a lot of great authors and scriptwriters. So even though it's traded hands several times in the past few years, it's brand and its image is still there. This way, it's big news from the very beginning.

Yang Yong: A lot of literary youth still have an emotional attachment to the site, as well.


Domestic Gloss on the Google Fracas

By Eric Abrahamsen, January 12, '10

So obviously, between Google agreeing to settle with Chinese writers on the book scanning issue, and Google announcing that it will no longer censor its search results, these are big days for Google and China.

There's been some press about the Google books issue inside of China, though as you might imagine it is carefully-edited, carefully-angled press, aimed at obscuring the censorship issue while making Google out to be a copyright-stealing, China-bullying corporate pirate. This widely-reposted article, in Chinese, represents the main thrust of reporting in China. In the interest of expediency and irony, we've run that article through the Google translator (editing only the title for clarity), and now leave you to puzzle through the (surprisingly comprehensible) results:

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Lowering Expectations

By Eric Abrahamsen, January 11, '10

The following is a translation of "thing number one" from Han Han's latest blog post, "Three Things". He's talking about the continued non-appearance of his much-ballyhoo'd new literary magazine, called <独唱团> (temporary translation: Band of Soloists, any better suggestions?).

I attended two press conferences in Beijing, not for any promotional purposes – I don't like doing promotion even for books that earn me money directly, and I rarely meet with media or readers face to face. The purpose of these conferences was to lower everyone's expectations for Band of Soloists. I had originally meant this magazine to be a freer, wilder sort of literary magazine, but unfortunately, given present publishing restrictions, it's going to be difficult to realize that plan, and I'm also not willing to compromise to the point where the magazine is no better than traditional literary magazines. The magazine has yet to go to print, and the first issue is far from having a publication date. Actually the contents of the first issue were ready months ago; even the second issue is mostly complete, but various stumbling blocks have kept us from printing. I'm feeling pretty helpless; I'll try harder to work with my partners. Please understand that I personally have no desire for delays, I only meant to improve the lives of writers in China, and if the delays continue they could hold up my own finances too, I might not even get a new set of clothing for New Years. So I'm not delaying on purpose, I'm just trying to get a freer creative space for the writers who believe in me. Maybe my own strength and abilities are limited – I hope readers will forgive me, and forgive my incompetence. And please, everyone, lower your expectations for this literary magazine. Even if and when it finally goes to print, the first few issues will likely be terrible. I will do everything I can to guarantee a basic level of quality, but please don't hold out too much hope for it. Let me say to you once again, the flight will continue to be delayed, not because of technical errors with the plane, but because of inclement weather conditions.


Three Percent/Open Letter Best Translation Long List

By Eric Abrahamsen, January 6, '10

A couple of days ago (we're slow), the Three Percent translation/literary weblog posted their longlist for their 2010 Best Translated Book Award. They've picked their 25 titles based on an impressive (and possibly unique) breadth of reading and understanding of world literature; the list includes some darlings of the international scene (ie Robert Bolano) as well as a hefty representation of relative unknowns. We've got one dog in the race: Cao Naiqian's There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night, translated by John Balcom, but of course everyone's a winner…

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By Eric Abrahamsen, January 3, '10

A recent review from the NYT Sunday Book Review begins like so:

Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s wonderfully stylized new novel, “Running Away,” begins with a question: “Would it ever end with Marie?” That’s only fitting for a book that leaves so much unanswered — we never learn the narrator’s name or occupation or, indeed, why his relationship with Marie, his Parisian girlfriend, is tanking. Those aren’t the only riddles, either. From the outset, the narrator fails to divulge why Marie has asked him to deliver $25,000 to a Shanghai associate, Zhang Xiangzhi.

Now I may be afflicted with some occupational disease here, but to me the only thing that stands out in that paragraph is the fact that an author with a French name, writing an English-language thriller, has not only chosen to set part of his international storyline in China, but has given a major character a Chinese name containing two "zh"s and the dreaded "x".


The Tree Rises Again

By Eric Abrahamsen, December 26, '09

Last week, a friend called me up and told me to show up at such-and-such a place, at such-and-such a time, and to have my nice pants on. It had something to do with the Banyan Tree, one of China's oldest literary websites, but beyond that I frankly didn't catch the drift.

So this morning I went, and here's the deal: The Shanda Company, an online literature/media company which is eating up everything in sight, recently bought the Banyan Tree (榕树下, róngshùxià). The Banyan Tree was started in 1997, early days for the Chinese internet, and in the late nineties and early oughts it was the place to go for Chinese literature online. It's been pretty quiet for the past five years, but as part of Shanda's campaign to own mostly everything (someone offhandedly mentioned purchasing Paper Republic over lunch, good lord), they bought the Banyan Tree and are bringing it back to life. It was a large and loud event, attended by dignitaries such as Wang Meng, Ai Weiwei, Hong Ying, Feng Tang, Xu Xing, Lu Jinbo and a host of other half-writer, half-journalist chimeras.

As it turns out the friend who called me, whom I've always known as a highly-intelligent, deeply cynical journalist and inveterate rager against many machines, is the new head editor of the Banyan Tree. As soon as I've figured what the hell he's up to I will post in more detail, but I wanted to get this up here now, because when you go look at the Banyan Tree website ( there's just a great big countdown clock to midnight tonight (Beijing time), at which point presumably something magical will happen. So here's this for now, watch the clock, and we'll get you something a little meatier when the fireworks are over.

EDIT: Well it wasn't immediately magical; it looks like most other online literary sites. We're on vacation at the moment, and will have a talk with the editors when we get back in early January. More then!

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FCCC Frankfurt Discussion

By Eric Abrahamsen, December 7, '09

The Foreign Correspondent's Club of China held an event last Friday that was a sort of retrospective on the Frankfurt Book Fair – lessons learned, insights gained, etc. (details here) The four speakers were Michael Kahn-Ackermann, head of the Goethe-Institute in Beijing; Jo Lusby, General Manager (China) of the Penguin Group; Zhou Wenhan, a freelance writer based in Beijing; and Kristin Kupfer, a German freelance journalist.

The discussion, held in the Sequoia Cafe, was good – highlights (from my point of view) included Michael Kahn-Ackermann's point about the enormous disconnect between the official delegation and the Chinese writers who attended. Essentially that the two groups had entirely separate goals, different methods of presenting themselves, and different styles of communication. Jo Lusby continued this with comments that the government would have to learn how to balance its control over "the message" with allowing those people who actually create culture to do their work. There was also a lively debate/argument over the responsibilities of the western press, with one excitable audience member (a journalist) saying, "When we ask Mo Yan if he's a dissident writer he has to answer!"

Zhou Wenhan, the freelance journalist, wrote his remarks out in Chinese, which were then ably translated and read by Jonathan Rechtman. I was impressed with how succinctly and forcefully he presented some very important ideas about how the Chinese government works, and so rather than regale you with half-remembered anecdotes I will paste below, with permission of both author and translator, the English version of what he said:

Kristin has asked me to talk about the strategic issues surrounding the communication between the German and Chinese organizers in a broader sense, but I'm not part of any government think tank or anything, so I can't really say much about the strategic side of things. I can only speak about some of my observations as to how the Chinese government seeks to manage information in all of its interactions with other countries, whether in terms of cultural exchanges, international conferences, or the Olympics.


Chinese Literature Today: Call for Submissions

By Eric Abrahamsen, November 25, '09

The University of Oklahoma is on the verge of launching a major initiative into Chinese literature, which comes as a surprise to those of us who were twiddling our thumbs, but has actually been in the making for three years now. This initiative comes in two parts: a series of Chinese books to be published starting in 2011, and the launching of a new literary journal, Chinese Literature Today, a sister publication of the venerable World Literature Today, available in Chinese through Beijing Normal University. The new journal will launch next year, and they're soliciting submission, so have at it. The order of the day is "scholarly articles written to be accessible to a wide readership", ie not just smart but well-written, too.

From the Submissions Guidelines (PDF):

World Literature Today, the University of Oklahoma’s College of Arts and Sciences, and Beijing Normal University are pleased to announce an exciting new scholarly journal focusing on contemporary Chinese literature and culture in partnership with NOCFL. The new title, Chinese Literature Today, will feature articles, literary criticism, and original works of fiction and poetry by accomplished scholars and authors from China and abroad. As the editors of Chinese Literature Today, we would like to invite you to take full advantage of this exciting new opportunity by submitting your work today.

In 2006 World Literature Today (WLT), one of America’s oldest periodicals devoted to world literature, began working with China’s most prestigious College of Chinese Language and Literature at Beijing Normal University (BNU) to produce a special issue focusing on China. WLT celebrated this publication in the summer of 2007 by holding the first “China and World Literature Today Conference” in Beijing. Following these initial successes, WLT and BNU began the more ambitious project of initiating a Chinese-language edition, which was unveiled at the “China and World Literature Today International Conference” held in Beijing in October 2008. Many of the nearly three hundred international and Chinese novelists, scholars, editors, and poets who attended the conference voiced a desire to see more Chinese literature and literary criticism available in English translation. Thus, Chinese Literature Today was born.

Submissions should be sent to the CLT editor at by December 16, 2009.

Download the full submissions guidelines (PDF) here.

Download the CLT styleguide (PDF) here.