Finding Zen and Book Contracts in Beijing

On the New York Review of Books blog, Ian Johnson profiles Bill Porter, an American translator of Chinese poetry and religious books, who has become a minor literary celebrity in China:

For Porter, it all started several years ago, when he was visiting the Monastery of the Cypress Grove (Bailinsi) in Beijing to research Zen Baggage. He happened to meet Tang Xiaoming, the manager of Beijing Reader Publishing, a private press dedicated mostly to topics. Like many entrepreneurs, Tang was developing an interest in religion and was fascinated to hear that Porter had found hermits in China’s Zhongnan Mountains—a range south of Xi’an long famous as a home for recluses seeking enlightenment. In fact, Porter’s book had been published in China in 2001—as Secluded Orchids in a Deserted Valley (空谷幽兰), a poetic reference to people of noble character—but had only sold a few thousand copies. Tang thought that it had been poorly marketed.

“I knew it would work if people realized what he had found,” Tang told me. “It seemed like the time was ripe.”

The book, which Tang re-released in 2009 under the same title, became a sensation in China, selling 100,000 copies and spurring interest in hermits and other traditions that many Chinese assumed had vanished. The book launched hermit tourism and turned Porter into a celebrity, with his own page on Baidu Baike, China’s version of Wikipedia.

That prompted Tang to publish Zen Baggage last year, which has sold 50,000 copies, and to commission from Porter an original work on his travels through China’s cultural heartland that has not appeared in English, Yellow River Odyssey, which has an initial press run of 20,000. Another new work of Porter’s is due out in Chinese later this year on the . Best of all, the publisher is paying advances and royalties. Last year, Porter says, he earned $30,000 from his China book sales, pushing him out of the world of stamps and into the realm of the tax-paying lower-.

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