With Wolf Totem not doing as well as
expected, the race continues to find the bestselling Chinese writer who
can pull in a global audience.(Photo: China Daily)
BEIJING, Sept. 8 -- Promoting Chinese
literature to the rest of the world was a focus of the Beijing Book Fair that
ended on Sunday. One particular bestseller in China, Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem
(Lang Tuteng), offered insight into how a popular Chinese novel that didn't
create the expected stir, could have another chance at reaching more Western
"I had hoped that Wolf Totem would be the first
really big fiction bestseller in the UK translated from Chinese, but it was
not," says Paul Richardson, chairman of China Publishing Ltd, UK, and member of
the advisory board of the China Book International (CBI) project.
But Jo Lusby, general manager of Penguin China, the
English-language publisher of the book, says she and her colleagues are
"extremely happy" about the book's performance worldwide.
The book recorded the highest sales figure for
Chinese fiction published so far in English since early 2008, says Lusby, but
declined to reveal the exact number.
Both Richardson and Lusby are excited that renowned
French director Jean-Jacques Annaud will turn the novel into a film.
International publishers of Chinese novels have been
looking forward to a genre-defying book. "The film is important in that it might
be an opportunity for Wolf Totem to be the one," Lusby says.
Richardson believes that Annaud could give the "very
Chinese book" a Western perspective, which he thinks could help the film become
a big success internationally.
Published in 2004 in China, the tale of the lives of
rugged Mongolian herdsmen among wolves, set against the "cultural revolution"
(1966-76) in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, swept the Chinese book market
with a total sales volume of 3.1 million copies. It has remained in the top 10
list of fiction bestsellers in China for six straight years.
Wolf Totem is the first Chinese book that Penguin
China bought when it landed in China in 2005, at a record-breaking price of
$100,000. The English translation was done by veteran translator Howard
In 2007, the novel won the first Man Asian Literary
Prize, Asia's answer to the prestigious Man Booker Prize.
Although Richardson "was not disappointed" to read
the novel in English before its publication, he soon realized that it wouldn't
be easy for Western readers to get inside the book.
"The big book is a challenge to readers because they
need to understand contemporary Chinese history and culture to fully appreciate
it," he says, confirming that the novel has not caused a real buzz in the UK,
although it has been received by critics favorably.
Richardson says that while a few Westerners know
China as it was hundreds of years ago, most people's understanding of the
country stops at the 1970s. For the majority of Western readers, who merely know
the names of Confucius and Chairman Mao, a lack of the required cultural
background could come in the way of appreciating the book.
To make matters worse, Chinese and English novel
writing follow different traditions, Richardson observes.
"British novels center on individuals, while Chinese
novels are about groups of people," he says. With Chen Zhen, protagonist of Wolf
Totem, for example, he says, "we know what he did, but we hardly know what he
"Westerners will not buy unknown authors," echoes
Stephen Bourne, CEO of Cambridge University Press.
Whatever the authors may have achieved in China, they
are new to Western readers. Jiang Rong was even more difficult to sell because
"he doesn't speak English and he doesn't travel", Lusby says.
As one of the most efficient ways to promote sales,
international tours help foreign authors reach journalists and meet potential
readers. Jiang Rong, whose real name Lu Jiamin was only revealed years after the
book's debut, hasn't shown any interest in revealing more about himself.
Literature festivals in the UK and elsewhere in the
West are less eager to invite writers who cannot communicate in English.
This stands in contrast to Indian writers who have
made it into the mainstream British literary scene, says Lusby.
Both Richardson and Lusby note that increasing travel
and business exchanges between China and the West will bridge cultural
Penguin is planning "very exciting new projects to
launch more Chinese fiction in the rest of the world", says Lusby.
"The selling of literature is very much driven by
fashion," she notes. And that is what she and others hope the big screen
adaptation of Wolf Totem will bring about.
(Source: China Daily)