By Eric Abrahamsen, January 14, '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.
By Eric Abrahamsen, January 13, '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 google.cn 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:
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.
By Eric Abrahamsen, January 7, '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…
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".
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 (http://www.rongshuxia.com/) 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!
By Eric Abrahamsen, December 8, '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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org by December 16, 2009.
Download the full submissions guidelines (PDF) here.
Download the CLT styleguide (PDF) here.
By Eric Abrahamsen, November 17, '09
News broke today that Su Tong's novel The Boat to Redemption was chosen by the Man Asia Literary Prize judges as this year's winner. Su Tong was the only Chinese writer on the long list. The book is to be translated by Howard Goldblatt and published in the UK next February by Transworld UK.
Here's an article from the Guardian with more detail. The following is from the press release from the Peony Literary Agency (née Creative Work) which represents Su Tong.
On Nov 16, 2009, the Man Asian Literary Prize announced in Hong Kong the recipient of
the prize. Open to all Asian novels unpublished in English, the prize aims to bring
exciting new Asian authors to the attention of the world literary community.
Su Tong's prolific and provocative oeuvre – six novels including Rice (2004) and My Life as Emperor (2006), a dozen novellas, more than 120 short stories – have earned him a
place at the centre of China's literary scene. His best known work abroad is the novella
Wives and Concubines, which was made into the film Raise the Red Lantern directed by
Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li. The film garnered an Oscar (1991), and won a Bafta
in 1993. Su Tong's Binu – The Myth Of Meng Jiang Nu (2006), the tale of the girl whose
tears collapsed the Great Wall, sold more than 100,000 copies in China within a month of
publication. It has since been sold into 15 countries.
Boat to Redemption which won the award is a raw, charged and unerringly human
comedy of the revolution. It is the story of disgraced Secretary Ku who has been banished
from the Party and leaves the shore for a new life among the boat people on a fleet of
industrial barges. Refusing to renounce his high status, he maintains a distance – with
Dongliang, his teenage son, from the lowlifes who surround him and he takes on Life,
Fate and the Party in the only way he knows…
For further information, please contact Marysia Juszczakiewicz (in Hong Kong) or Tina
Chou (in Beijing) at:
Tel: (852) 2167 8887
Fax: (852) 2167 8885
By Eric Abrahamsen, November 15, '09
EDIT: We've made a permanent home for the materials we brought to the Frankfurt Book Fair, which you can see by clicking here or following the link under the Explore Paper Republic heading on our home page.
So, very briefly: I and Nicky Harman have arrived in Frankfurt, where we'll be attending the Frankfurt Book Fair through the 28th.
In the near future I'll put up a longer, more detailed post about what we're up to here, but the short version is: we've come with a small packet of seven Chinese books that we think the whole world ought to translate and read. The small version of the packet can be downloaded by clicking here (PDF, right-click to download), and in the next couple of weeks we will be uploading substantial translation samples for each of those books, which can be downloaded separately. Take a look at the packet for now, and let us know what catches your fancy!
The sample from Han Dong's forthcoming novel Screwed!, can be downloaded here.
Three essays from Liang Wendao's Common Sense are here.
By Eric Abrahamsen, November 10, '09
Julia Lovell very kindly consented to give us the following interview, on the occasion of the Penguin Classics' publication of her translation of the complete fiction of Lu Xun.
Edit: Great minds think alike, or at least ask their questions of the same folk – Danwei has also posted an interview with Julia.
Lu Xun occupies a transitionary literary period between the classical writing of imperial China and what we consider modern Chinese today. How did you go about choosing an appropriate voice and register in English? What were some of the resources you turned to?
I suppose that when I started I was trying to recreate Lu Xun's own frame of reference. As is well known, he was a voracious reader of foreign literature. He once advised young writers to "read no Chinese books. Or as few as you can. But read more foreign books"; he even advocated something called "hard translation" that imported foreign syntax into the Chinese language through translation. So I thought that an obvious place to start might be some of the (particularly Eastern European) writers that he was keen on, and whose impact on his writing some scholars have studied: Gogol's "Diary of a Madman", for example. My own academic background is also very much in May-Fourth period writing - so I found it helpful to draw on knowledge of that era and of its ideas about the literature it was trying to create. A big part of the May Fourth vision of a new, modern literature was that it should intervene in life, that it should have an edge of political urgency to it - and that's strongly there in a lot of Lu Xun's fiction and essays.
But finally, and at the risk of sounding lazy, I think that Lu Xun does a lot of a translator's work for him/her. There's a tightly controlled fury bound up in his best, most powerful stories (I'm thinking particularly of pieces such as "Medicine", "Tomorrow", "Kong Yiji") that simply asks to be recreated in the target language. (Though I'm not saying I've succeeded at that.)
By Eric Abrahamsen, October 30, '09
There's plenty more to say about what went on at Frankfurt, but I said most of it in an article for the Abu Dhabi paper The National, which I will link to and leave it at that!
By Eric Abrahamsen, October 19, '09
Thursday night was China Literature Night, the largest gathering of Chinese writers during the fair. Mercifully, most officials had gone home at this point, and we enjoyed the rare treat of a major cultural event that did not begin with long-winded speeches by someone with a title. It was a thrilling sight for a Chinese literature fan: the front row of seats were occupied by Liu Zhenyun, Su Tong, Xu Zechen, Li Er, Ah-Lai , Yu Hua, Mo Yan, Tie Ning – I'm finding it difficult to avoid the words "power lineup". They jumped right into it. The first round was a conversation between Tie Ning and a German sinologist named Ulrich Kautz. I'm not too familiar with German sinologists, but he had snow-white hair, a Zhongshan suit, and a bit of an attitude – clearly a sinologist.
By Eric Abrahamsen, October 19, '09
Here are a few images from the recently-concluded Frankfurt Book Fair, starting with the positive:
This is the main China Forum, where many of the big-ticket events took place. It was well designed, well-lit, interesting to look at, and while most of the displays featured the usual subjects ("trace the transmission of printing technology from China to your country!"), they were the usual subjects done well.
By Eric Abrahamsen, September 8, '09
So that's over with. I have no hard figures or statistical summaries to offer, as I'm more of a "soft sciences" guy and spent most of the fair moderating/participating in/eavesdropping on various talks and conversations, so I'll just leave a few impressions here.
There wasn't an enormous foreign presence. Domestic and foreign exhibitors were in separate halls (except for the booth showcasing Spain, the Guest of Honor), and the foreign hall was decidedly sleepy. I had spoken with several foreign publishers who had threatened to come but didn't – by far the most common reason was money, and the fact that five weeks hence China will be the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Festival. Why come all the way to Beijing when you can get the best of China next month, whilst attending the world's biggest book fair? Can't say I can argue with this logic.
Despite this, the BIBF organizers made a special effort to bring international exhibitors together. This year was the second in which they held "Ten-plus-Ten" events, where ten Chinese publishing houses get together with ten publishers from one other country and get to know each other. There was even talk of a speed-dating format. I moderated the China-Spain Ten-plus-Ten, and it struck me as something worth pursuing. The two sides are generally so completely lacking in understanding of the other that it can be next to impossible to build relationships or even get a conversation going – this calls for a heavier hand. At first I felt a bit like a chaperone trying to organize a play date between reluctant participants, but things did warm up after a bit, and by the end there was plenty of swapping of name cards and catalogues. More of the same is called for.
There is a fierce curiosity here about what foreigners think of Chinese culture. The little talks I was running were mostly related to the translation of Chinese literature into foreign languages, and there were many, many questions about how Chinese writers are received abroad, and palpable anxiety about why they're not more popular. It was suggested by one audience member that foreign readers who couldn't tell their Wang Meng from their Wang Shuo could be asked to read a short overview of Chinese literature in advance. There were some seriously crestfallen faces in the crowd when Cindy clarified that the three percent problem wasn't that Chinese literature made up a mere three percent of books published in the US, but that literature from all countries around the world had to share that measly percentage among them. I had difficulty handling such questions as "Do you think the anti-corruption genre of Chinese literature would be popular abroad?" and "Do foreign readers only want to read about the Cultural Revolution?" and "I wrote a new version of the Daodejing, do you want to translate it for me?" All in all it was nice to be able to talk about these issues in front of a large crowd. People seemed interested when Barbara Wang (a German translator of children's literature) said that the overbearing didacticism of Chinese children's literature went over like a lead balloon in Germany, and the guy who asked why China hasn't won a Nobel Prize in literature seemed genuinely thoughtful when I said that for one thing, it has, and besides, they give the prize to a writer, not a country.
Good times all around!