BOOK REVIEW Chinese literature marches West Mr Ma and Son by Lao She;
Cat Country by Lao She
Reviewed by Muhammad Cohen
HONG KONG - China wants to use soft power as a foreign relations tool, and it has found an ally in Penguin Group, part of the global media empire of Germany's Bertelsmann SE and Co KGaA. Penguin China has undertaken an aggressive publication program of modern and classic Chinese works in English for audiences in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
Last year, Penguin published an English translation of Sheng Keyi's Northern Girls, a novel about China's contemporary migrant factory workers. (See China: No country for young women, Asia Times Online, November 3, 2012). The publisher has an extensive catalogue of Chinese classics in translation and promises more titles to come. Penguin China is prohibited from publishing for the mainland market, but it has forged partnerships with local publishers to produce works for the mainland market. The
company's efforts to promote Chinese literature overseas undoubtedly earn guanxi (connections). Guanxi is China's currency for successful business relationships, smoothing the way for its entry into that highly restricted and closely watched media market.
In an interview with Asia Times Online, Penguin China managing director Jo Lusby acknowledges that the Chinese authorities "continue to seek effective ways to engage with publishers and overseas readers. That said, Penguin's English language publishing program is a commercial activity, and we will only publish the books that we believe reach our standards and can successfully find a readership." The full text of the interview appears below.
This year, Penguin has brought out two novels by Lao She, whose work was acclaimed in China before and after establishment of the People's Republic of China under the Communist Party in 1949. Denounced and tormented by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, Lao committed suicide in 1966. He was rehabilitated by the Communist Party in 1979.
Mr Ma and Son is a natural choice to publish in English. It's such a favorite with Chinese readers that it was produced as a 20-episode television series in 1999 to commemorate the centennial of Lao's birth. It has potential to broaden the audience for Chinese literature since it's a tale of East meets West.
In the novel, Ma inherits his brother's antique shop in 1920s London and moves there with his son Ma Wei to oversee it. Thoroughly steeped in Confucian tradition, Ma's great ambition is to be an imperial civil servant - never mind that the emperor's reign ended more than a decade earlier. Ma finds business distasteful, even before he tries it. Thanks to their former pastor in Beijing, the father and son are ensconced as boarders in the home of the very proper widow Wedderburn and her more liberated daughter.
The book, to an extent, reflects Lao's experience as a teacher at the University of London in the mid-1920s. In the wake of the Opium Wars and European partition of China, Chinese were the object of widespread prejudice. Mr Ma and Son highlights those prejudices, as well as Chinese attitudes and actions that inspired them.
The novel even more clearly reflects Lao's knowledge of English literature. As a comedy of manners and social critique steeped in realism with touches of humor, the novel has echoes of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw. It's easy to understand why Mr Ma and Son remains Lao's best-loved work.
Cat Country, which first appeared as a serial in 1932, is a far more difficult book. A Chinese astronaut crash lands on Mars into a nation of cat-like creatures. Main activities for these cat people include eating the narcotic leaves of the reverie tree and "muddling through" their chaotic society around them with little regard to any productive pursuit. There is no sense of duty, morality, or ambition, except among the elite, who scheme to acquire money and power, though it's unclear to what end. Foreigners are revered mainly because they stand apart from this dysfunctional culture.
Echoes of the futureCat Country's education system, where everyone graduates on the first day and teachers starve, unless their students dismember them first, is a chilling precursor of the Cultural Revolution that drove Lao to suicide. Long-winded arguments about "Uncle Karl" and the true path of his philosophy of "Everybody Shareskyism" anticipate the Sino-Soviet rift, with its memorable epithets of "red apple" and "margarine communist".
Extraordinary prescient details aside, Cat Country is firmly rooted in the China of its time, with decadence, poverty and political turmoil enveloping the nation like a cloud of opium smoke. The book was very popular when it appeared, but for modern readers less familiar with China of the 1920s and 1930s, the satire and humor won't hit home nearly as squarely as it must have then.
Penguin China's interest in publishing Chinese classics in English stems from the here and now, as its managing director Jo Lusby explains in the following interview.
Asia Times Online: Why has Penguin chosen to try to carve a niche in Chinese literature in English? Was there a particular success or opportunity that led Penguin to make this decision?
Jo Lusby: Penguin's approach to its global business is based around local publishing, whether we are operating in India, South Africa, Australia, or China. We are very proud of our commitment to international authors, and we see no reason why our work in Asia should be any different. There is a rich pool of Chinese writers to draw upon, and working to bring them into the English language is a real privilege.
ATol: What are the principal target markets (geographically) for these books?
JL: These books are initially published for English-language readers in the Asia Pacific, and will be made available internationally as e-books. We then hope to nurture these writers more widely as their reputation grows.
Language barrierATol: Is Penguin and/or its parent company Bertelsmann publishing Chinese literature in other languages?
JL: Penguin Books publishes in the English language.
ATol: Is Penguin also publishing Chinese literature in Chinese? Are foreign companies allowed to publish Chinese language books in China?
JL: Penguin is not permitted to publish books in China. We do, however, partner with publishing houses on Chinese language books. These are, in the main, works from overseas that are translated into English - a mixture of classics; lifestyle, such as the recently released 30 Minute Meals by Jamie Oliver; and children's [including] Peppa Pig, Angelina Ballerina, Peter Rabbit, and more. One important exception is the autobiography of tennis superstar Li Na, which we developed in partnership with CITIC Press and published in 2012. We will be publishing this book in English at the end of this year, as well as releasing the updated edition in Chinese.
ATol: Has there been feedback or encouragement from Chinese officials about publishing Chinese works in English?
JL: There is, of course, a clearly stated government agenda to see Chinese works "go out" to the rest of the world, and they continue to seek effective ways to engage with publishers and overseas readers. That said, Penguin's English language publishing program is a commercial activity, and we will only publish the books that we believe reach our standards and can successfully find a readership.
ATol: Why did Penguin decide to publish the works of Lao She?
JL: Lao She is arguably China's greatest modern novelist, making him a perfect fit for the Penguin Modern Classics series. Mr Ma and Son and Cat Country display the range in his writing, and both look at the themes of China's place in the world and China's self-image with depth and humor. This feeds into our aim to publish a wide range of unique voices and perspectives on China.
ATol: What other Chinese classics literature has Penguin published or plan to publish? How do copyright considerations figure into those decisions?
JL: Eileen Chang, Qian Zhongshu, Lu Xun, Shen Fu, Lao Tzu, Li Po and Tu Fu are amongst some of the writers works published in translation as Penguin Classics and Penguin Modern Classics. China has a rich literary history, and we plan to continue to publish translations of novels, short stories and poems including new translations of Eighteen Springs by Eileen Chang and Journey to the West. Rights figure in those decisions just as they do in all of our publishing. The titles published as Penguin Classics are largely out of copyright, and we acquire all relevant rights to other titles before publishing.
ATol: What are the pros and cons of publishing Chinese classics compared with contemporary authors such as Sheng Keyi?
JL: Different books present different challenges. Of course, for contemporary writers, you have the ability to employ the author in the promotion of the book, meeting the media and participating in literary events to introduce their work. For the Classics, there is the sense of legacy and endorsement that their status in the canon provides to the reader that compensates for the lack of a living author. Voice, authenticity, and linguistic dexterity are essential for all literary translations; Classics do also generally require a level of academic rigor as well to ensure the translation is true to a time and place distant to the present.
Mr Ma and Son by Lao She (Beijing, Penguin China, 2013). ISBN: 978-0-143-20811-2. AU$13; 318 pages (paper). Kindle edition: US$8.79. Cat Country by Lao She (Beijing, Penguin China, 2013). ISBN: 978-0-143-20812-9. AU$13; 222 pages (paper). Kindle edition: US$8.79.
Muhammad Cohen told America's story to the world as a US diplomat and is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. Find his blog, online archive and more at www.MuhammadCohen.com, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.