From Jean Jacques Rousseau to Charles Bodelaire, from Thomas Hardy to JK Rowling, from Earnest Hemingway to Arthur Heiley, almost every Chinese who loves reading knows something about these western authors. Yet how many non-Chinese have looked beyond Confucius, to explore the works of Cao Xueqing, Wang Shuo, or Su Tong? Over the years, Chinese literature has enjoyed pitiful and incompetent world coverage, while a yawning deficit continues in terms of the export and import of translation rights. To reverse this situation, the Chinese government has taken a number of promotional measures, including subsidized translation fees for foreign publishers interested in Chinese cultural and literary books. Half a year after the project's initiation, we sent out our reporter to take stock of the current situation.
Reporter: The Chinese Books Overseas Promoting Project was launched last July by two government departments, the State Council Information Office and the General Administration of Press and Publication. Under this project, the government will subsidize translation fees for foreign publishers who have obtained translation rights for Chinese books. These publishing houses can apply for the subsidy directly, through agents or via their Chinese partners. They have also been given a recommendation list of some 1200 books from 20 Chinese publishers, while the majority of these works are literary in tone and devoted to traditional Chinese culture.
In fact, these measures are long overdue, since the Chinese publishing industry has already been seriously undermined by an inability to procure foreign interest. In 2004, the trade ratio of translation rights was 8 to 1 in favor of imports, while exported books accounted for little more than 1,300 titles. Breaking down that figure, the East Asian market accounts for 70% of these exported titles, while only a minority of the books went to the western market. Arguably, the consequences of this imbalance in cultural trade are far more than just economic; some would say that China's failure to promote its culture has impeded on the global understanding of this nation.
Wu Wei is a senior officer with the State Information Office, which has taken charge of promoting Chinese literature. She recounts the reasons for such a huge trade disparity and outlines the urgent importance of this project.
"China's trade in cultural products has constantly been in the red over the years and the gap is threatening to get larger if we don't start to do something about it. The language barrier is the main deterrent for foreign publishers. Government subsidies for translations, as found in our new project, are very common in other countries, such as Great Britain, France, and Ireland. Therefore, we're just borrowing from other countries' positive experiences."
The benefits of exporting literature are quite obvious, as an economical way of promoting Chinese culture. With the sale of translation rights, the Chinese side doesn't have to worry about transportation, publishing, promotion or logistics. Indeed, foreign book dealers have already established extremely mature channels and methods for distribution, against which the efforts of domestic publishers would be far less effective.
One of the major coups of this new project was a special section at the Beijing International Book Fair last September. With the intention of promoting the project and high-quality Chinese works to foreign publishers, this section enjoyed excellent results. Li Yingqing, director of China Books Import and Export Corporation, was in charge of one of the stands at this book fair.
"Our exhibition section was one of the most brisk. Book dealers from the U.S., Britain, France, the Netherlands, the Philippines and India all engaged in lively discussion with us on how to introduce Chinese books to their respective countries. We signed more than 70 Letters of intent during that exhibition, while 11 of them ended in contracts for translation rights. Right now we're helping these publishers to apply for translation fees from the State Information Office."
Li Yingqing cited some books that were most favored by the foreign publishing companies, including the Chinese classic Art of War by SunTzu, the True story of Ah Q by Lu Xun, We Three by distinguished scholar Yang Jiang, and Yao: A Life in Two Worlds by basketball star, Yao Ming.
Needless to say, this promotional program has gained the full support of foreign and domestic publishers, especially since the Chinese government picks up the bill. Take for example, the reaction of Xie Ying, as director of the International Cooperation Department of the Beijing Normal University Press:
"When we first heard the information, we were very happy about it. If our books can be included in the government recommended list, that'll cover some of the costs of translation. Secondly, once the foreign publishers learn this information, if we can then help them gain grants from the government program, this will encourage their interest in the books. With government support, more books can be translated for foreigners and make into others countries, including the USA and the European market."
Yet this is not the first attempt by the government to promote Chinese literary culture. As early as 1999, the government subsidized various French firms to publish roughly 70 China-related books, with each book completely selling out, although only 3000 copies were printed of each. Following that, subsidy deals were signed with nine famous publishing firms from the U.S., Britain, France, Singapore, Japan and Australia, with total subsidies equaling two million yuan, or some 250,000 dollars. Last September, the government also organized and subsidized Chinese publishing firms for a collective show at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest occasion of its kind. The effort also gave the copyright export of Chinese books an amazing turnaround.
Certainly, these are the signs of initial success, yet the overseas dissemination of published Chinese works still requires a great deal of work, preferably on the back of publishing initiative rather than government interference. Wu Wei from the State Information Office takes us over one of these hurdles:
"Since China has such a large population, publishers are easily content with the huge domestic book market. Therefore they don't feel the urge to go international. What we're hoping for is to have the domestic publishing sector take action themselves, to push for the export of Chinese cultural products. They will certainly benefit from this process themselves."
In fact, publishers are finally beginning to realize the importance of the international market. As Xie Ying of the Beijing Normal University Press states, the publishing sector needs to make its own efforts to propagate Chinese books abroad, by maintaining close contacts with foreign counterparts and considering the reading habits of Westerners. After all, books can provide a vital source of cultural communication. Therefore, with this attempt to bring international coverage to Chinese literature, China may soon regain its world cultural prominence, and no longer remain a land of mystery for so many foreigners.