The Key to China

In Prospect Magazine, Julia Lovell writes about the contemporary literature scene in China and two new magazines which aim to introduce modern Chinese short stories to an English audience:

It’s now impossible to keep up with contemporary Chinese writing, and about as difficult to pick out decent work. Overwhelmed Anglophone readers should therefore welcome the recent launch of two magazines showcasing contemporary Chinese writing in English translation: Pathlight and Peregrine, an English-language supplement within Chutzpah, a Chinese literary journal that models itself on Granta. (The idea in reverse—of Granta or The Paris Review, for example, running a Chinese-language supplement—is unthinkable.) The magazines have three points in common but diverge in most other ways.

To start with, both are based in China. Pathlight is government-funded, while Chutzpah is bankrolled by Guangzhou’s Modern Media consortium—owned by Thomas Shao, one of China’s leading private media tycoons. The fact that two major new magazines are propelling Chinese writing towards an English-speaking readership reflects the degree to which China has yearned, for much of the last century, for international attention. Since the 1980s, the country has suffered from a full-blown Nobel complex: an anxious desire for one of its citizens to win the Nobel prize for literature.

Both magazines also share a dissatisfaction with the kind of Chinese fiction that usually gets translated into English at the moment. Roughly 2 per cent of the books annually published in Britain or the US are translations, of which work in Chinese forms a tiny proportion of that tiny proportion. And until now, there has been little overlap between what works in China and what sells abroad; a Chinese succès d’estime has rarely recreated that status in an English-language edition. Mainland literati have long complained that anglophone editors look for sensationalism rather than literary quality when they buy Chinese titles. What is arguably being overlooked is a large body of mainland Chinese work that, while artistically accomplished, fails to win over editorial boards in London or New York because it lacks a controversial selling point (either sex or politics; and ideally both). The editors of Pathlight and Chutzpah, by contrast, aim to steer clear of “banned-in-China” hype. “We only look at quality, not the whims of the market,” Chutzpah’s editor has pronounced. “Art is our ruler,” echoes Pathlight.

March 12, 2012 4:05 PM
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