China has the largest book production industry in the world today, in terms of numbers if not in turnover, and it is quickly becoming the largest market for cinema and internet literature. The import-export imbalance of these Chinese industries with the rest of the world is one of the reasons for the push for greater soft power from the Chinese government. We should not analyse this phenomenon strictly from a writer/translator or publisher point of view but from a systematic government/industry approach.
Internet and soft power
The Nobel Prize awarded to Mo Yan in 2012, the controversy caused at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009 when China was invited as guest of honour, the implementation of Confucius Institutes all around the world, have all been considered significant milestones of China’s soft power. But not generally mentioned is the enormous expansion of two internet companies, Alibaba and Tencent, which have become leaders in fiction on the internet emulating successful strategies devised by Google and Amazon.
This specific development is far more important than the simple numerical position of Chinese firms in the publishing industry. China South Publishing ranks sixth globally but Alibaba and Tencent are internet giants who have the financial means to acquire publishers and large distribution outlets. To date, they have not yet done so and perhaps the reason is less obvious than we think: they may actually consider that the traditional book industry is an activity of the past while online literature is the future.
China Reading for example, a subsidiary of Tencent, owns eight websites with 600 million registered readers, 4 million writers and 10 million book titles! On China Reading platforms, payments to contracted authors amount to 140 million Euros yearly. In addition, the company derives revenues from payments by readers and substantial revenues from TV shows, films and games. Piracy is their key problem; domestic politics and violent content are shunned.
Other platforms are developing outside China: Wattpad in Toronto has 45 million active users with two million stories uploaded for free every month. Wuxiaworld.com, the largest novel-translating forum in the world with 200,000 users boasts 14 teams of Chinese, Singaporeans and Chinese Americans all translating wuxia
They are rewarded with bonuses from the readers.
These numbers remind us that fantasy, mystery, court drama, time travel, tomb-raiding and science fiction are the main areas of interest in popular literature amongst Chinese readers and the core of the Chinese publishing business. The themes and narratives that we broadly associate with literature
in the West are actually very marginal in Chinese popular literature!
Translated Chinese literature in Europe: state of the market and trends
Markets in Europe are very different. The French market for example is quite distinct. It has administered prices: price controls on books which protect margins and support an important network of bookstores (1,100 in Paris vs. 360 in London). The French market remains highly concentrated across a number of publishing houses (as it is in the UK: in both countries the top five publishers own 50 percent of the market share) but e-books such as Kindle remain quite unpopular. Ebooks in France have five times less market share than in the UK. Translations nonetheless are very popular: they amount to 17% of all titles (a proportion six times as large as in the UK).
France has historically enjoyed a kind of leading role in Chinese literature in Europe with many strong publishers. Unfortunately, this is changing. For example, Bleu de Chine/Gallimard which had released 20 Chinese titles is no longer active. Takeovers are raising new questions as to how vibrant Chinese literature will remain in France: the major publisher of Asian books, Philippe Picquier, with 1,200 titles (80 for Chinese literature) is now controlled by the Chinese publisher Thinkingdom. The largest bookshop in Paris in Asian literature (Le Phénix), has been acquired by Chinese International Book Trading Corporation (CIBT). Several major French publishers still have a strong Chinese department: Le Seuil translates Mo Yan (17 titles), Gao Xingjian and now Su Tong; Actes Sud with Yu Hua, Chi Li and high quality literature from Taiwan. Some new developments raise hope: Hachette, one of the largest publishers globally, publishes titles with Ming Books, a joint venture with Phoenix, though numbers remain limited.
Chinese literary agents are becoming accepted on the French market: agents from Hong Kong and Taiwan have convinced French publishers previously not involved in Chinese literature, to publish their first books from Chinese authors (A Yi, Wu Ming-yi, Yan Ge, Mai Jia). The release of these books, which receive no promotion nor any real support from the marketing teams of these publishing houses, may well fail, and eventually disappoint readers.
One very positive development in Europe is the sales increase in the UK of translated fiction: 3.5 percent of the overall literary fiction titles and 7 percent of sales in 2015, doubling from 1.3 to 2.5 million copies in 15 years (although the industry itself contracted during the same time period by 4 percent).1 The success of Scandinavian crime novels has perhaps helped break down preconceptions about translated fiction. What’s more, people travel more and small publishers are now dealing with translations. It remains to be seen whether this will impact the readership for Chinese literature in the UK.
Significant also is the impact of Amazon Crossing in Europe. The company represents one quarter of the 40 translations of Chinese authors in English; it is not yet active in France as the association of literary translators there has bluntly refused, in a public statement, to discuss working with this publisher.
New developments in the European market – some positive
Old marketing and publishing schemes do not work anymore. For years ‘Censored in China’ was the main tagline supporting promotion. This has receded although censorship in China today is stronger than a few years ago. A censored book is no guarantee of quality, although this scheme is still being used for writers (such as Ma Jian or Liao Yiwu) whose talent is perhaps questionable.
Highly marketed, Chinese mainstream ‘fast food’ works especially with some American Chinese writers. At the top, Yu Dan and her popular interpretations of Confucius, found significant success (350,000 copies sold outside China), with a book which was rightly labelled by a Chinese critic as ‘chicken soup for the soul’.
Chinese and Asian literary prizes such as the Mao Dun or the Man Asia prize are of limited impact to readers who do not know or care about them. Movie adaptations can help but for Wolf Totem
for example, the rather successful box office numbers did not really boost the sales of the book. Even with a major literary hit such as The Three-Body Problem
by Liu Cixin, with 200 000 copies sold in English translation and notable fans including President Obama or Mark Zuckerberg, the release of the film has been postponed – in all likelihood, until the complete trilogy is translated.
This success of The Three-Body Problem
as well as of Decoded
by Mai Jia, who has himself supported the book with an international tour, are welcome because for once European audiences are exposed to Chinese literature that is actually popular in China today. These novels are far from the traditional canons: long stories with an abundance of characters, peasants in the countryside, the Communist party, 20th century historical turbulences… The question is: can The Three-Body Problem
be considered Chinese novels? Or are they simply successful page turners strongly influenced by the West? Whichever the answer is: readers love them!
Questions for the future
Short stories and novellas are favourites with the younger generation of Chinese writers. Chinese readers enjoy short stories: they are often read on smart phones in the daily commute. Still, publishers remain reluctant to publish collections of short stories which are difficult to sell. The situation is better for novellas which can be published in a stand-alone format.
and its website has done a great job supporting short stories with offerings such as the Read Paper Republic
project. The website enables readers to access a free new short story every week: it has demonstrated the variety of stories in China and the quality of the writers. We hope for a very positive impact on publishers on the long run.
The University of Leeds in the UK has been a tremendous support to contemporary Chinese literature, with its Writing Chinese
project, bringing together writers, translators, literary agents, academics and publishers in Chinese literature.
In France, this type of cooperation is rarely seen: universities and translators are much more on their own. A French Paper Republic
is well needed as promotion is key and has to be done by translators and academics. Support by press and critics is unfortunately vanishing in France where the economic situation of the press is dire, and journalists no longer have time to produce reviews. In many cases, they just copy-paste marketing material released by publishers.
I have been fortunate to write for Rue89
, a major online news portal and magazine in France, for seven years. Rue89
, amongst generalist media in France, has undoubtedly shown the strongest interest in China and Chinese literature. In addition, I have regularly published articles in a blog,
in French and
in English totalling 200 entries to date. Mine is the only bilingual blog on Chinese literature and my readership is 70 percent English speaking.
The popularity of translated Chinese literature cannot be isolated from the overall image and standing of China in the world. This image has become much less positive in recent years in Europe, both for economic reasons – due to job losses to China in a context of high unemployment, but also due to political issues in China: censorship, Tibet, Chinese foreign policy in Asia and Africa. Much still needs to be done in Europe but also in China to improve the overall perception and position of Chinese literature. If we consider the development and success of Japanese literature in the West, despite a culture gap that is as least as wide as China’s, there is hope that this can be achieved.
A genre of Chinese fiction revolving around martial arts, which now often refers more broadly to fantasy fiction.
2 The Guardian
, Alison Flood, 9/5/2016