Promoting Chinese literature to the rest of the world was a focus of the Beijing Book Fair that ended on Sunday. One particular bestseller in China, Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem (Lang Tuteng), offered insight into how a popular Chinese novel that didn't create the expected stir, could have another chance at reaching more Western readers.
"I had hoped that Wolf Totem would be the first really big fiction bestseller in the UK translated from Chinese, but it was not," says Paul Richardson, chairman of China Publishing Ltd, UK, and member of the advisory board of the China Book International (CBI) project.
But Jo Lusby, general manager of Penguin China, the English-language publisher of the book, says she and her colleagues are "extremely happy" about the book's performance worldwide.
The book recorded the highest sales figure for Chinese fiction published so far in English since early 2008, says Lusby, but declined to reveal the exact number.
Both Richardson and Lusby are excited that renowned French director Jean-Jacques Annaud will turn the novel into a film.
International publishers of Chinese novels have been looking forward to a genre-defying book. "The film is important in that it might be an opportunity for Wolf Totem to be the one," Lusby says.
Richardson believes that Annaud could give the "very Chinese book" a Western perspective, which he thinks could help the film become a big success internationally.
Published in 2004 in China, the tale of the lives of rugged Mongolian herdsmen among wolves, set against the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, swept the Chinese book market with a total sales volume of 3.1 million copies. It has remained in the top 10 list of fiction bestsellers in China for six straight years.
Wolf Totem is the first Chinese book that Penguin China bought when it landed in China in 2005, at a record-breaking price of $100,000. The English translation was done by veteran translator Howard Goldblatt.
In 2007, the novel won the first Man Asian Literary Prize, Asia's answer to the prestigious Man Booker Prize.
Although Richardson "was not disappointed" to read the novel in English before its publication, he soon realized that it wouldn't be easy for Western readers to get inside the book.
"The big book is a challenge to readers because they need to understand contemporary Chinese history and culture to fully appreciate it," he says, confirming that the novel has not caused a real buzz in the UK, although it has been received by critics favorably.
Richardson says that while a few Westerners know China as it was hundreds of years ago, most people's understanding of the country stops at the 1970s. For the majority of Western readers, who merely know the names of Confucius and Chairman Mao, a lack of the required cultural background could come in the way of appreciating the book.
To make matters worse, Chinese and English novel writing follow different traditions, Richardson observes.
"British novels center on individuals, while Chinese novels are about groups of people," he says. With Chen Zhen, protagonist of Wolf Totem, for example, he says, "we know what he did, but we hardly know what he feels inside."
"Westerners will not buy unknown authors," echoes Stephen Bourne, CEO of Cambridge University Press.
Whatever the authors may have achieved in China, they are new to Western readers. Jiang Rong was even more difficult to sell because "he doesn't speak English and he doesn't travel", Lusby says.
As one of the most efficient ways to promote sales, international tours help foreign authors reach journalists and meet potential readers. Jiang Rong, whose real name Lu Jiamin was only revealed years after the book's debut, hasn't shown any interest in revealing more about himself.
Literature festivals in the UK and elsewhere in the West are less eager to invite writers who cannot communicate in English.
This stands in contrast to Indian writers who have made it into the mainstream British literary scene, says Lusby.
Both Richardson and Lusby note that increasing travel and business exchanges between China and the West will bridge cultural differences.
Penguin is planning "very exciting new projects to launch more Chinese fiction in the rest of the world", says Lusby.
"The selling of literature is very much driven by fashion," she notes. And that is what she and others hope the big screen adaptation of Wolf Totem will bring about.
(China Daily September 8, 2009)