The World Has Yet to See the Best of Chinese Literature

The 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, which celebrates works of literature by Asian authors either written or translated into English, was awarded yesterday to Tan Twan Eng for his The Garden of Evening Mists, making him the first Malaysian to win the award. Of the six times the prize has so far been awarded, Chinese authors have taken three: Jian Rong took the initiatory award for Wolf Totem; the 2009 award was given to Su Tong for The Road to Redemption; and the winner for 2010 was Bi Feiyu for Three Sisters. On the eve of the announcement of this year’s winner and as the controversy surrounding Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize for Literature still lingers, The Spectator explains how censorship and recent history is keeping Chinese literature from reaching its apex, and how Western expectations are limiting the world from seeing the best of Chinese literature:

[...]The reasons for this are firstly economic, reckons Julia Lovell, author of The Opium War: ‘Most books have to turn a profit for publishers, and this can make editors and their boards quite conservative about their choices. They need to look for books that seem to recapitulate styles and ideas that have worked in the past. Anything new will, of course, seem a risk.’

One experienced literary agent here puts it more bluntly: ‘For Western publishers and readerships, there’s a certain expectation of what China is, and if they don’t get it they don’t like it.’ While the agent concedes that attitudes are changing for the better, cultural biases coupled with the need for a successful product have nonetheless helped to establish a template for translated Chinese fiction.

The stories usually take place in the past, not the present, and in rural rather than urban settings, according to Thomlinson. The Cultural Revolution memoir is one type. As dominant examples of Chinese writing in the West, books like these have helped to perpetuate a skewed idea of the country’s modern literature and culture.[...]

Similarly, the Global Times mentions how a language barrier keeps the world from seeing much of China’s literary scene, and how censorship threatens integrity in China’s homegrown literary scene:

“It seems that the higher the fluency in English of the writers, the more easily will they be accepted by international readers,” said Peng Lun, foreign literature editor of the Shanghai 99 Readers’ Culture Company.

[...]“India, like China, is a vast territory which is endowed with multiple ethnic groups and diversified cultures. And the fluency of English there has enabled writers to convey their original thoughts to readers,” Peng told the Global Times. “However, most Chinese writers still suffer the challenge of this language barrier.”

[...]Problems of translation are not the only barrier to greater recognition of the current Asian literature scene. Censorship also poses a threat to the quality and integrity of writing on the continent. But although literary works are still being censored in China, Li said that the restraints have loosened a little in recent years.

March 15, 2013 10:34 AM
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