Chinese Fiction Is Hot

A Nobel prize pits the focus on Chinese writers
Shanghai Book City Photograph by Karl Johaentges/Getty Images

On the evening the Nobel Prize committee crowned magical-realist novelist Mo Yan as the first laureate living in China (outside a prison), Alice Xin Liu, managing editor of Pathlight, a new magazine of Chinese literature translated into English, was downing homemade ale at Vine Leaf, a Beijing bar. Her smartphone lit up with ecstatic text messages. “But I wasn’t really surprised,” she said. “Mo Yan’s name had been floated for a while, and in the past year the international buzz around Chinese literature has grown really loud. It felt like it was time.” Liu, who is 26, spent her early childhood in Beijing before moving to the U.K. at age 7 and then back to China after college—just in time to witness the blossoming of interest in Chinese authors.

This April, the celebrated London Book Fair featured 21 invited Chinese authors (including Mo Yan) as part of its “2012 China Market Focus.” To be sure, as Liu relates, there was “a bit of a culture clash,” with the Chinese officials accompanying the literary delegation usurping more podium time than the actual writers. (“Predictably the British media had a laugh about that,” says Liu.) Yet the book fair’s decision to showcase writers from China is indicative, she says, of growing interest from international publishers and audiences.

“In the past, people tended to see China as speaking with one voice, having one experience,” says Jo Lusby, managing director of Penguin Books China. “But what [global] readers are beginning to glimpse now is the great diversity of voices and opinions within China. It’s true that when addressing foreigners, there can be a tendency to speak on behalf of the Chinese nation. But in their own writing for a domestic audience, Chinese writers show a great range of perspectives and often a willingness to tackle difficult topics, like forced abortions and trafficking of women, especially in novels. There’s more freedom in fiction: On one level, it’s not true. On another level, it’s all very true.”

Lusby opened the Beijing office of Penguin, the U.K.-based publishing house, in 2005 and has since been at the forefront of identifying novelists whose works might resonate outside China, as well as within. In 2008, Penguin China released an English-language version of Wolf Totem, a bestselling Chinese novel about a Beijing intellectual’s yearning for spiritual redemption in the wilds of Inner Mongolia.

Currently, Penguin China releases about four Chinese novels in English per year. “It used to be assumed that [Western readers] were interested in books about China, but not necessarily from China. Now that’s changing,” Lusby says. She declined to release sales figures on individual titles, but said: “Seven or eight years ago, there wouldn’t have been the market to sustain what we’re doing. Today it’s a challenging business, but it’s commercially as well as literarily worthwhile for us.” In particular, she seeks out “the kinds of books and perspectives that only a Chinese person could write.”

Take, for instance, the novel of political intrigue The Civil Servant’s Notebook, published in English on Oct. 10. The author Wang Xiaofang once worked for the vice-mayor of Shenyang—before his boss was sentenced for accepting $1.55 million in bribes and executed in 2006. “I left politics to begin a writing career because I could no longer continue to be a spiritual eunuch,” Wang says. “How religion saves believers is how literature saves me.” Based in part on his own experiences, the novel recounts the corrupt scheming of political rivals vying to replace their retiring boss. “My work reveals the psychic condition of politicians who have no faith in ideals.”

The novel belongs to the distinctively Chinese genre known as “officialdom fiction,” which the book’s translator, Eric Abrahamsen, defines as “fiction that’s designed to reveal inner workings of Chinese society, particularly corruption in government. It gives average people a better handle on how decisions are actually made.”

Abrahamsen, a young American in Beijing, is a founder of Paper Republic, a collective of literary translators that is also co-publisher, with the state-run People’s Literature magazine, of the translation magazine Pathlight. Skillful translation—which gracefully conveys literal meaning, the author’s voice, and interprets cultural context—is a demanding if underappreciated art. Most literary translators do it for love and receive only minimal outside recognition.

Other subgenres specific to China are popular, Abrahamsen explains. There’s wuxia —“historically based martial-arts fantasy, where everyone belongs to secret societies and practices special moves learned from their bearded master on his deathbed. … In the West, we’ve got our Arthurian legends and Tolkien-style fantasies. In China, there’s wuxia.” Then there’s tomb-robbing adventure stories—“people finding treasure and secrets in old dynastic tombs; it’s Indiana Jones-type stuff, but historically and culturally rooted in China.” Then more seriously, there are stories of new migrants from the Chinese countryside adapting to urban life.

Sheng Keyi, a writer born in the 1970s, left her northern hometown and moved to the southern boomtown of Shenzhen in search of work—part of the first wave of young, working migrant women. That experience informed her novel Northern Girls, which was published in English translation by Penguin this spring. While shifting between temporary jobs, her protagonists fall in and out of relationships in a city fast becoming known as a cauldron of sex and instability.

“In China, the upper classes and middle classes don’t know such a way of life exists [as in the factories],” she says. “Yes, it’s a big country. In its different corners, people silently experience their own angers, sorrows, fleeting happiness, and great pressures. … How can people know unless it is put in writing?”

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