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


FCCC Frankfurt Discussion

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.


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.


Su Tong wins 2009 Man Asia Literary Prize

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

Mobile: 137-1866-7210


In Frankfurt

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.


Interview: Julia Lovell

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.)


China Literature Night

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.

Chinese Literature Night, audience


Around Frankfurt

By Eric Abrahamsen, October 19, '09

Here are a few images from the recently-concluded Frankfurt Book Fair, starting with the positive:

Forum Hall

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.

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Beijing Book Fair Post-Mortem

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

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Beijing Book Fair – Translation Related Events

By Eric Abrahamsen, September 3, '09

This nudge from Bruce is timely – the Beijing Book Fair is indeed going on over the weekend, we are indeed attending, and even hosting some events.

The events we think you'll enjoy the most (ie, the ones we're involved in) are four small talks on topics related to translation. The schedule is as follows:

  • Saturday, Sep 5

    3pm The translation process: the changing roles of author, translator, agents and publishers.

  • Sunday, Sep 6

    10am Translating culture: When is simply translating language not enough, and is the translator justified in "helping" his/her readers to understand unfamiliar cultural content?

    3pm Foreign perceptions of Chinese literature, and how that affects what books get translated/published, and how they're received.

  • Monday, Sep 7

    10am Translation of foreign literature inside China: Quantity vs quality.

Tickets to get into the fair are 20 RMB. You're all welcome to come and heckle; the events are taking place in Building 8 of the International Exhibition Center (the building where the foreign publishers are located), in the section reserved for countries to display their literary promotion programs. We're right next to the coffee.


David Hawkes Passes Away

By Eric Abrahamsen, August 26, '09

Yesterday the Guardian posted the obituary of David Hawkes, translator and scholar, and one of the giants of Chinese literary studies. His translations of the Songs of Chu and the first 53 chapters of the Story of the Stone are definitive, and beautiful, but more than that he was an influential guide and teacher for many of the great Sinologists and translators of the past fifty years. He passed away July 31 in Oxford, aged 86.

John Gittings' obituary contains more detail and personal insight than we, who belong to a different generation, could hope to provide, but I did have the pleasure and honor of meeting Hawkes briefly this past spring, while passing through Oxford. He and his wife Jean were thoroughly gracious hosts; they fed us, showed us pictures of their lives in China at the dawn of the PRC, and talked to us about Chinese literature and translation for the few brief hours we were able to stay. My overwhelming impression of Hawkes was of a translator sustained and nourished by his love of literature, whose humility was touchingly complete, who had reached a point in life where he took everything lightly, particularly those things that brought him joy. When it came time for us to leave he took up his hat and cane to see us off at the bus station, and stood there waving until we had moved out of sight.

I think we're planning a small memorial gathering in Beijing for this Friday (August 28), anyone who's in town and wants to attend please email me.


Capital, Re-Ruined

By Eric Abrahamsen, July 30, '09

Yesterday's big news was the announcement of the republication of Ruined Capital by Jia Pingwa, one of the major novelistic works of the past few decades, and a perpetual lightning rod for controversy and criticism. The Writers Publishing House is doing the honors.

The book has for some years been under something like a soft ban: no new editions have come out for a while, and it was getting harder and harder to find a non-pirated version of the book. The 'controversy', based almost solely on the fact that there's sex in the book, was pretty silly from the beginning: it was an awfully prurient read when it came out in 1993, but the constitution of the modern Chinese reading public is highly fortified compared to what it used to be, and it's hard to imagine anyone really raising an eyebrow at the steamy scenes today.


Mo Yan Interview Translation

By Eric Abrahamsen, June 30, '09

Following this previous link to an interview with Mo Yan in French, Igor Yegorov wrote in with an English translation so we didn't all have to suffer through the Google translator. Thanks Igor!

Writer Mo Yan : From dictatorship of the Party to that of the market

By Bertrand Mialaret | 24/06/2009 | 12H57

The Chinese writer Mo Yan is spending a week in France to talk about his books and his new novel, due to be published in late August. The meeting with him in Beijing was facilitated for Rue89 by Bertrand Mialaret, chronicler of Chinese literature, and Pierre Haski. The exchange was rendered possible by Chantal Chen Andro, translator of several books by Mo Yan.

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BIBF Special Publisher Program

By Eric Abrahamsen, May 31, '09

Foreign publishers considering attending the 2009 Beijing International Book Fair might want to know about the Special Publisher Program, aimed at publishers who want to attend the fair but are a little tight on funds. The application deadline for this program has been extended to the end of July, so if you're interested click here for more details and application instructions.

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