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.

Eric also runs a US-based company called Coal Hill Books which provides rights agency and publishing consulting for Chinese and international publishers seeking to do business with each other. You can reach him there at


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Novels (2)

Essays (2)

Short stories (17)

As Editor


There's a New Chinese Literary Prize, and Mo Yan's Won It

By Eric Abrahamsen, October 2, '08

The Newman Prize for Chinese Literature is a new prize for Chinese writing sponsored by the University of Oklahoma's Institute for US-China Issues. Mo Yan has won the inaugural round, which you can read about here. From the home page:

The Newman Prize for Chinese Literature is awarded biennially in recognition of outstanding achievement in prose or poetry that best captures the human condition, and is conferred solely on the basis of literary merit. Any living author writing in Chinese (residing anywhere) is eligible. The Prize consists of $10,000 and a plaque, and may serve to crown a lifetime’s achievement or to direct attention to a developing body of work. An international jury of distinguished experts will both nominate the candidates and select the winner, based on a transparent voting process.


Cue the Bands

By Eric Abrahamsen, October 2, '08

The Xinhua News Agency, as it is wont to do, brings us fresh cause to despair: the hot new literay trend is here, and it is 'writing groups' or 'bands' (写作组合), cabals of scribblers analogous to the boy-bands or girl-bands that dominate the pop music world. These writing groups are mostly in the under-twenty age-range, mostly writing in imitation of 'older' celebrity writers like Han Han. Apparently it all started in 2006, when Li Ze (李锋) at the World Knowledge Press (世界知识出版社) published Water Town (水城), a novel by a pair of girls then aged 18 and 19, who called themselves Jumping Orange Writing. They were followed by the three members of Girls' Studio (女生作坊) (the youngest of whom is 16), Lollipop (棒棒糖) (middle school students), and Unknown Quantity (未知数) (elementary school students). As the article cheerfully notes, many of these groups only ever publish one book, or break up without having published anything at all.

Is this curtains for serious Chinese literature? I've done plenty of hand-wringing myself in the past few years, but at a certain point, when pop culture has got its claws deep enough into literature, it seems likely that literature will pull a Trojan Horse, and start to transform pop culture from the inside out. Among all these scribbling teens there must be a few who, fifteen years from now, at the age of 29 or 30, will start to feel the itch of dissatisfaction and wonder if they shouldn't be trying for something a little deeper. From the melodramatic, sentimental mush that's being produced today, it's only a few short steps to a Chinese Dickens, and once you've got a Chinese Dickens, well… there's nowhere you can't go.

Wishful thinking, perhaps, but if these trends keep up I'm going to renounce all snooty puritanism, and whole-heartedly embrace this new era of sloppy literary love. Not actually read the books, mind you, just 'embrace the era'.


Interview with Li Jingze

By Eric Abrahamsen, September 26, '08

China will be the guest of honor at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair next year, and preparations are already underway. The following conversation serves as a foreword to the informational packet being produced by the German Book Information Centre here in Beijing, which also includes a sampling of Chinese writers and works that will be featured at the Frankfurt Book Fair.


Exposure Anxiety

By Eric Abrahamsen, September 21, '08

The following article ran in Southern Weekend in late August, examining The New York Times Book Review's edition dedicated to reviews of Chinese literature. In the interest of multicultural understanding, we hereby present this translation of an analysis of a review of a translation of some novels.

Does everyone remember the domestic media reports in early May, saying that The New York Times Book Review had praised Guo Jingming as China's 'most successful' writer? Plenty of people had their feelings hurt and, hopping mad, cursed the American devils for wearing colored glasses and slandering Chinese literature.

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PEN: Silenced Writers Speak

By Eric Abrahamsen, August 1, '08

In the run-up to the Olympics, PEN is holding an event centered around China's imprisoned or threatened writers and journalists. This will take place in New York on August 7, at The New School's Tishman Auditorium. From the press release:

On August 7, the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, PEN American Center will honor the more than 40 writers and journalists currently being held in Chinese prisons for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Acclaimed American writers will come together on stage at this special event to break the silence—or what has been called the Great Firewall—that threatens the work and lives of Chinese writers.

Edward Albee, Russell Banks, Philip Gourevitch, Jessica Hagedorn, Hari Kunzru, Rick Moody, Martha Southgate, Francine Prose, and others will read new and previously untranslated statements and writings by several of the jailed writers and other dissidents and members of the Independent Chinese PEN Center.

On the off chance that anyone's there and attending, send a report or a photo, will you?


Calque/Three Percent

By Eric Abrahamsen, July 30, '08

My our window on the world is awfully small… It sounds as though there's a fascinating discussion on translation in the latest issue of Calque, a journal of literature in translation, but we wouldn't know if it weren't for Three Percent, who have posted a bit of it:

"To tell the truth, I suspect that readers who can compare translations and originals actually tend to be worse judges of the quality of a translation than people who are unable to read the original. [. . .]

"Of course, readers who can access both the original and the translation are able to find obvious mistakes, and that’s something only they can do, and that can be important. But surely that’s not what we mean when we ask what distinguishes good translations from bad? We’re interested in something that runs deeper, I would hope—not something so superficial that any old multilingual reader can come along and point it out after a hasty comparison of the two texts. [. . .]"


In the News...

By Eric Abrahamsen, July 26, '08

Ha Jin Wants to Visit China:

"Jin, who teaches English at Boston University, said Saturday he's interested in visiting China but is discouraged by the difficulty of publishing Chinese translations of his English books in the mainland. He said he also applied to become a visiting professor at the elite Peking University in Beijing in 2004 but never heard back."

Gao Xingjian doesn't:

"Instead, the writer's focus is his new life in France, a country he had visited several times as an interpreter before his exile. He now has French citizenship and said he had no trouble integrating into French society, something he attributes to having grown up with Western culture."

A Defense of Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem:

"Also welcome, in my view, is Jiang Rong’s willingness to merge his tale of environmental destruction with an open discussion of Han Chinese cultural and political imperialism."

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Man Asia Literary Prize: 2008 Long List

By Eric Abrahamsen, July 26, '08

Has it been a year already? The long list for the 2008 Man Asia Literary Prize has been announced; only three of the twenty titles are Chinese. In our corner:

  1. Banished!, by Han Dong, translated by our very own Nicky Harman!
  2. Leave Me Alone, Chengdu (成都,今夜请将我遗忘), by Murong Xuecun.
  3. Brothers, by Yu Hua.

The qualification rules for the competition state that the books need to be submitted in English manuscript, but the English version must not have been published yet. Banished! and Brothers have publication dates, but I hadn't heard that anyone was translating Leave Me Alone, Chengdu. Murong Xuecun's appearance on the list is interesting – he was one of the early internet authors, writing vaguely adolescent stories of youth and urban anomie, but he's taken on a steadily more 'serious' tone. I haven't read Chengdu, but I head it's pretty good. Anyway, if anyone knows who translated either Brothers or Chengdu, leave a comment! The shortlist arrives September 1st, the final winner to be announced at the end of September.

Via Three Percent.

Update: Murong Xuecun's book was translated by Harvey Thomlinson, and there's a lengthy excerpt online here.


50 Best Translations…

By Eric Abrahamsen, July 18, '08

From the past fifty years. So says The Times, at any rate. One Chinese book, Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, and that almost certainly because Gao is a Nobel laureate. On the other hand, if I had to vote for a best Chinese-English translation from the past fifty years, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a definitive champion…

Update: Esther Allen, Executive Director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University, posted this up on the Guardian about the list of 50, in which, alongside ruminations on the books that made the list, she mentions that the recommended translation rate posted on the British Translators' Association webpage is 80 pounds per thousand words of prose! Golly.



By Eric Abrahamsen, July 14, '08

As you might have noticed, we’ve made a few changes to the website. The main thing is that it now runs on a different framework – besides that and a few very small bells and whistles, the most noticeable change ought to be that it's much snappier. The new system will pave the way for future grandiosity, as well.

With any luck the transition will go smoothly – your comments and suggestions are very welcome!

edit: I forgot to mention that, while the old RSS feed address will redirect to the new one, you might as well just subscribe to the new address directly. Sorry for the hassle!

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Because Han Han is Too Damn Old

By Eric Abrahamsen, July 12, '08

A week or so ago I attended the press conference for The Next (文学之新), a new literary competition designed to sniff out the newest in Chinese literary talent. Most of you may know this already, but Chinese writers are generally referred to by the decade of their birth. So-and-so is a 70s writer, or an 80s writer, etc. Whether there’s any real utility to this kind of classification I don’t know – I suppose it’s possible that China’s recent history has changed so dramatically, so swiftly, that any given ten-year cohort might actually have something in common.

The 80s writers were the last hit sensation, but the sad truth is that Father Time spares no one and they’re starting to show their age – graduating from college, developing taste in music, having sexual experiences, etc. The Next is the mutual brainchild of the Yangtze River Art and Literature Publishing House, Top Novel magazine, Penguin, and the Qidian literature website, and the goal is a return to the purity of the under-25 set. The competition is accepting submissions from now until the end of September, following which comes several rounds of elimination: from 36 contestants to be announced in December, to a grand champion by next July. Each month in between will see another, smaller group of contestants announced in that month’s issue of Top Novel.

This competition is interesting both for the muscle behind it – major foreign and domestic publishing houses, as well as two of China’s largest internet portals – and for the judging panel. Top Novel magazine is an element of the Guo Jingming franchise, and Guo Jingming is the major star power behind this project. Guo, of course, is a definitive 80s writer – possibly the most famous of them, certainly one of the richest, without a doubt the most glittery. He’s on the judging panel, but right there with him is one of China’s hoariest authorities, Wang Meng. Wang Meng is a government writer of the old school: genuinely talented, a smart guy, but also a past master of toeing the line. The rest of the panel includes Zhang Kangkang, Wang Haipeng and Hai Yan – they’re aiming for a mix of market appeal and literary cred.

The press conference was a standard affair – emphasis on the fairness and openness of the competition, and major stress on picking works that are ‘positive’ (积极的) and ‘sunny’ (阳光的). Take heed, ye adolescents! If life sucks and you hate everybody, keep it to yourself! I’ll save the odiousness of ‘sunny’ as a mind-control adjective for another day. My favorite quote came from Guo Jingming, describing his reaction to the submissions so far: “Now I know how my esteemed colleagues on this panel must have felt when they read my writing for the first time. I just don’t understand it.”


Wang Xiaobo Interview

By Eric Abrahamsen, June 25, '08

A year or two ago I went to a exhibition on Wang Xiaobo’s life at the Lu Xun Museum. Along with the entrance ticket they gave you a DVD with a half hour or an hour of footage of Wang Xiaobo, including an interview he once did for CCTV. I just recently found this interview on Youtube, and am linking to it here, along with a translation of the conversation. This is from 1995, remember, an era caught between the hit-him-with-a-stick Cultural Revolution, and the can’t-be-arsed-to-wag-a-finger 2000s. CCTV, we should note, had not yet achieved the high standards it boasts today.

The interviewer, Liu Wei (刘为), starts off civilly, but by the end he’s nearly given himself a hernia trying to paint Wang as a salacious destroyer of other people’s morals. Observe, particularly, his craftiness as he traps Wang into admitting his books are all autobiographical, and his beautiful parting shot.

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