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


Age 18

By Eric Abrahamsen, November 9, '07

My previous post on niubi was actually prompted by a bit of reading I’ve been doing: Feng Tang’s 十八岁给我一个姑娘 (which I persist in calling Given a Girl at Age 18, though I think he prefers ‘Chick’). Here’s the first couple pages of the book, which I held on to until after I’d posted on niubi, as a kind of fig leaf for the brazen cop-out at the end of the third paragraph below. Yes, I am ashamed of myself, but I can’t help it.

Zhu Shang

Long before I moved into this building, I’d heard Old Lecher Kong Jianguo talk about Zhu Shang’s mother. Old Lecher Kong Jianguo said that she was his one true passion. The first time I met Zhu Shang I made a decision: I would do everything I could to spend the rest of my life with her.

When you’re only eighteen years old you’ve got no sense of time. ‘The rest of your life’ so often means forever.



By Eric Abrahamsen, November 8, '07

  • The New York Sun carries a review of a new book about Marco Polo's travels in China and Mongolia.
  • The National Library's project to reprint rare works from pre-Qing times is making progress: they've got a complete reprint of the Siku Quanshu (36,381 volumes) and the Yongle Canon (30,000 volumes), and the Dunhuang Manuscripts and the Zhaocheng Tripitaka are not far behind. If this is what the librarians are spending their time doing, I guess we can shelve our complaints about the impossibility of checking a book out of the library.
  • Is it that time of the year already? The 2007 Wealthy Writer's List has been unveiled (English summary here), and the suspense is finally broken. Guo Jingming takes top place with 11,000,000 yuan in royalties, followed by some famous academics and many unfamiliar names. Poor Jia Pingwa comes in last, at number 25. What a waste of time this is. And yet, we link to it.
  • Lastly, the Mirror publishes a list of untranslatable words and phrases taken from the book Toujours Tingo, apparently we were too late with our niubi entry. Some of the words really do seem untranslatable ("Tartle - Scottish: to hesitate when you are introducing someone whose name you can't quite remember.", "Pisan Zapra - Malay: the time needed to eat a banana.") others seem to have been chosen just for their weirdness ("Bayram Degil Seyran Degil Eniste Beni Niye Optu? - Turkish: there must be something behind this. Literally 'it's not festival time, it's not a pleasure trip, so why did my brother-in-law kiss me?'")


More than you ever wanted to know…

By Eric Abrahamsen, November 8, '07

…about the Chinese publishing industry, right here. The Arts Council England has published a 300+ page report on the state of Chinese publishing, and its ties to the UK in particular. It's positive, overall, but there's still plenty of gory depictions of an industry deformed and contorted by the conflicting pressures of politics, inertia and market forces. We'll be up late with a flashlight under the covers!

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The Unspeakable Bi

By Eric Abrahamsen, November 1, '07

The idea of ‘untranslatable words’ is very nice. It’s a token of value; it adds a touch of solemn mystery to the work of translation, which otherwise consists mostly of nose-scratching, window-staring, and finding something to weight the book down with. But look, you see? We also have an ineffable something; a tragic ideal; we’re not simply pulling a plow.

Sometimes I think there’s actually such a thing as an untranslatable word, sometimes I don’t. On a good day it seems that any word or phrase could be rendered into English with enough care, even if the word itself vanished and were detectable only through a subtle ruffling of the surrounding text.

But on a bad day, I'm trying to translate níubī.


Jung Chang… Attack!

By Eric Abrahamsen, November 1, '07

The slow pre-Olympics ramp-up continues, now with a lengthy Guardian article on Jung Chang, in which she has harsh words for Mao and China in general. I'll admit that, when I see things like this, I get nervous. It's not that what she's saying is incorrect, but I worry that this is only a warning rumble before the avalanche…


Man Asian Literary Prize Shortlist

By Eric Abrahamsen, October 26, '07

The shortlist has been announced for the Man Asian Literary Prize: of the twenty-three names on the long list five have been selected, including Jiang Rong (Wolf Totem) from the home team. Xu Xi (Habit of a Foreign Sky) also counts, depending on your definition of, erm, the home team. Wolf Totem, translated by Howard Goldblatt, will be published by Penguin in March, 2008. The shortlist is as follows:

  • Jose Dalisay Jr., Soledad’s Sister
  • Reeti Gadekar, Families at Home
  • Jiang Rong, Wolf Totem
  • Nu Nu Yi Inwa, Smile As They Bow
  • Xu Xi, Habit of a Foreign Sky

The winner will be announced in November.

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The New Jia Pingwa

By Eric Abrahamsen, October 25, '07

Joel Martinsen had an excellent post on Danwei yesterday about the new novel by Jia Pingwa, called Gaoxing (Happy). I haven't gotten around to picking up a copy, but I am halfway through Jia's previous masterpiece, Abandoned Capital, and absolutely loving it (more on that in the next week or two). Gaoxing is apparently the fictionalized life story of one of Jia's old childhood friends, and looks at first glance as though it might be similar to Jia's last novel, Qinqiang. We'll have to read it to see…

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From the Archivists

By Eric Abrahamsen, October 23, '07

We recently received word from an undercover Paper Republic field operative in the world of American academia, code name Julie H. (alias J. Hackenbracht). Pursuant to our earlier post on road literature she sends us links to two fascinating books available on Google. While they both fall squarely on the travel literature side of the travel literature/road literature divide, they’re not the average travelogues.

The first is The Silent Traveler in London, published in 1938, mostly interesting because it reverses the Theroux/Hessler paradigm of the western traveler writing for an audience back home. Here, Chiang Yee (presumably Yi Qiang in pinyin) describes London and British society for his compatriots. He comes off as having a delightfully turn-of-the-century combination of pluckiness and delicacy; I can’t tell if it’s because of the contemporary translation, or because of sensibilities that really were common to many nations at that time. He’s very sensitive to the weather (the book is arranged according to seasons), and provides many little prose passages and poems describing parks and wind and leaves – the Chinese and the British may have this in common. Somewhat surprising were his very modern meditations on the plight of British women:

Oh, life, it is difficult for everybody. But I am inclined to think it has been always even more difficult for women than men. Our Chinese women may have suffered a great deal from lack of freedom in the old days, but they all hoped to become the rulers of houses and to be served and highly respected by their sons and daughters. Now they enjoy equal rights and as much freedom as English women enjoy, and they can still expect to become rulers of houses as well, and to have filial children.

The second book is Great Women Travel Writers, which includes a tantalizing, sadly truncated chapter on Xie Bingying (1906-2000). Two pages are all that Google allows us – just enough to know that Xie was forced to experience footbinding as a child, but not enough to tell us where her damaged feet nevertheless managed to take her.

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Letters and Paintings

By Eric Abrahamsen, October 23, '07

ESWN, the first place to look for all things Zhang Ailing-related (as well as a good deal else), posts a transcribed letter from Hu Shi to Zhang Ailing (aka Eileen Chang) on the subject of her novel Qiuge (秋歌). This is part five of a series of reproductions of Zhang Ailing’s letters…

The South Bend Tribune carries an article on an ink-and-wash art exhibit by Gao Xingjian at Notre Dame University. A nice background on Gao is accompanied by a really rather astonishing sample of his painting.

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Back from vacation…

By Eric Abrahamsen, October 14, '07

The Beijing Foreign Languages Printing House, once the country's sole purveyor of Communist propaganda, is struggling for solvency.

Upcoming: the shortlist of the Man Asian Literary Prize (aka the 'Asian Booker') will be announced on the 25th of October.

Rejoice, for Jonathan Spence hath published another book. This one is on the 17th-century historian and essayist Zhang Dai, and sounds excellent.

More soon…


We're Translators, Don't Hurt Us!

By Eric Abrahamsen, October 1, '07

Who knew? Apparently a shady consortium of literary types known as the International Federation of Translators pulled some strings in the UN, leaned on a few world leaders, and got September 30th (that’s today) declared International Translation Day. Good to know we’ve got the clout of a transnational cartel behind us! Ruining the effect slightly is this year’s rather apologetic theme: “Don’t Shoot the Messenger!” Granted, there are incidents of violence against translators (though I can only think of the Rushdie situation at the moment), but this is hardly the way to signal our pride. Rectify the situation! Today’s your day to read a book in translation, brush up your foreign languages, or kiss a translator.

If you’re curious, September 30th was picked because it was originally the day sacred to St. Jerome, best known for translating the Bible into Latin.

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What did you say it was?

By Eric Abrahamsen, September 28, '07

Recently my in-laws came to visit, and while they were here we found ourselves, as is our wont, singing old Cultural Revolution songs. So far 物产阶级文化大革命 The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is Good is my favorite, in part because it’s got a great bouncy rhythm, but mostly because the lyrics are batshit insane. Here’s the chorus:

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is Good,
It is Good,
It is Good,
It is Good.

How’s that for nuance? More comes later, about overthrowing the imperialists, but really all you need to know about the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is in the first, second, third and fourth lines of the chorus. The curious thing about this song is the phrase 就是好, which translates most simply as ‘It is Good’, but actually conveys something along the lines of ‘It is Good (And That’s Final – No Matter What Anyone Says)’.

The point of the song, in other words, is not simply that it’s good, but that it is a priori good; it is good without needing any reason to be good; the answer to the question ‘is it good?’ is already ‘yes’ before the question is even voiced; in fact, we’d really rather you didn’t ask that question, because simply asking sounds suspiciously like doubt. You wouldn’t be looking to get struggled against, would you?



By Eric Abrahamsen, September 19, '07

Last Tuesday, the 11th, brought the publication of a 'China’s Strongest Writers' ranking, put out jointly by Sina’s book channel and something called the ‘ranking list website’. Specifically it seems to be the handiwork of a guy named Wu Huaiyao: as a related Phoenix TV article puts it, we’re seeing the creation of a “new internet career – the professional ranker.” It was Wu who brought us 'China’s Most Wealthy Writers' last year; that key issue out of the way, we’re now getting around to their actual strength as writers.

Much as the whole thing reeks of media circus, it’s still worth a look. Wu Huaiyao, no dummy, went to ten of China’s most influential literary critics to nominate the 58 writers who formed the basis of the list. Zhu Dake and Xie Youshun (who has a blog post about it) are probably best-known among the critics, and Zhu gets most of the media attention. He warns that strength does not equal influence does not equal earning power, and gets a few digs in at the inanity of last year’s wealthy writers ranking.

The list itself is here (scroll down past the Lord of the Rings splash page; it’s all in Chinese but there are pictures!). The top ten writers are as follows:

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