Book Trade Between China and France An Assessment Essay

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The Nature of the Book Trade between China and France


In the past, it was apparent that the Chinese government’s approach to matters culture and art did not significantly differ from its stance on a variety of other factors that involved various internal affairs of the nation. However, while it may have exercised some control on the distribution aspect of culture and art, it has largely remained ineffective as far as control on the consumption front was concerned. In general terms literature has always been an important item of culture and art. In recent times, more and more current authors are exploring modern literature. Towards this end, geographical boundaries no longer act like a limiting factor. As a matter of fact, this is increasingly becoming a competitive frontier amongst contemporary authors. Chinese authors, who have been missing in action in this particular case, are catching up. In addition to highlighting the nature and conduct of book trade between China and France, this text will assess the system of publishing in Sibao. In so doing, it will highlight both the physical manufacture of books at Sibao, as well as the structure of the Sibao publishing industry.

I. What Types of Books are Traded Between China and France?

i. What Books are Published in France from China?

It is important to note that in essence, China’s desire to see its literature presented to a global audience of readers is further enhanced via the publication of literary pieces in France, from China. France provides a welcoming platform in this endeavor. The fact that significant progress has been made in seeking to showcase Chinese literature at the global scene could be gleaned from, amongst other indicators, the winning of a Nobel Prize for literature by Mo Yan. Further, it is also important to note that writers of global repute have paid tribute to Chinese writers in the past. In basic terms, contemporary Chinese literature has seen more active translation within the last two decades. The said translations have gone hand in hand with the acceptance of the Chinese literary pieces in France. These advances are not merely a consequence of greater focus on readers in France. Instead, it is born of the convergence of Chinese and French interests – in which both countries seek to engage in mutually beneficial cultural exchanges. It is important to note that thanks to editorial policy changes, most particularly the follow-up policy, it has become possible to shorten the translation period.

Some of the literary pieces published in France are largely controversial, with some largely dwelling on China’s past policies, family life, and the communist way of life. A good example on this front would be Frog by Mo Yan. In essence, this is a book that attempts to highlight the workings of China’s one-child policy. In so doing, it assesses the controversies of this particular policy and enforcement concerns at both the state and familial level. Published in China in 2009, the same book made an appearance in France two years later. In a sense, it brings to the fore the desperation of most of the families and the forced abortions that results from a policy of this nature.

Another set of texts published in France from China seek to define Chinese history from a modernist viewpoint. In so doing, the evolution of the country is clearly brought out, while at the same time alluding to a society that is constantly undergoing some form of metamorphosis. The China of today differs very significantly from the China of yesteryears. While the country was more focused on the enforcement of policies that were largely coercive and against the wishes of the general public, i.e. the demographic policy, the China of today is presented in a more tolerating and accepting light. It is, however, important to note that there are some like Mo Yan who have in some instances criticized the modern China – in which the Chinese authorities in general are presented as a contradictory formation that does not have much regard for basic human rights. This is more so the case with regard to the state’s constant censorship of viewpoints deemed to be critical of its operations.

Next, there are also literary pieces that address contemporary Chinese issues and societal concerns. This is more so the case with such books as Mo Yan’s collection of short stories, titled The Beauty Riding a Donkey on Chang’an Avenue.

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Some of the short stories contained therein focus on the complexities of life and the weaknesses of human nature. This is particularly the case with The Woman with Flowers and The Fight in the Popular Forest – where, without going into much detail, the frailties of men and the timid nature of the adult world are highlighted. Through fictionisation, most of the books published in France from China, such as Mo Yan’s pieces, effectively uncover various social deficiencies and moral decay. It is, however, important to note that although the imagery used appears to be extreme on some fronts, i.e. with regard to cruelty and violence, it manages to present the author’s viewpoints and stimulate the reader’s imagination.

ii. What Books are Published in China From France?

With the opening up of China in the 1840s, there was marked development of western studies in China. The said development assumed three formats, i.e. instrumental or technical approach, political or institutional approach, and cultural or intellectual approach. It is important to note that after the first two approaches, China effectively transitioned from the ancient imperial regime. It is the third approach that ushered in a period of ‘global’ enlightenment, with the focus being on familiarization with the way of life in the ‘West.’ For this to happen, Western literary pieces had to be translated into Chinese. With the West being widely regarded as a beacon of science and democracy, most translations at this time largely focused on scientific articles and works. Most specifically, a variety of books translations of Western literature were for natural science genres. As a matter of fact, between 1912 and 1949, a total of 1,121 literary pieces that largely had a natural sciences bias were made available in the Chinese language and format (figure 1). This period is largely seen as having experienced a boom in Chinese language translations for scientific texts.

Figure 1: Chinese language translations between 1912 and 1949

It is, however, important to note that apart from translation, dissemination of the literary pieces also became widespread during this period. The greater number of scientific publications in a language the local population could understand and relate to meant that readership would expand. It is also this period that saw a marked increase in the diversity of topics covered in the translations, and the more active participation of specialists. However, the increased translation undertakings and the further enhanced readership did not have meaningful impact on the staying power of the said scientific journals. In most cases, scientific journals did not last more than a decade. It was during the 1930s that scientific journal translations and coverage peaked – with a total of 33 titles being in circulation as of 1936 (figure 2).

Figure 2: Scientific journals broadcast between 1912 and 1948

The significant number of titles in circulation is an indicator of the extensive, as opposed to intensive, nature of focus that was being adopted at the time. Although many regions were able to interact with the Western scientific culture via the said publications, not all regions were welcoming of the said literature. The most embracive regions, which also turned out to be the most active as far as readership of western scientific literature is concerned include, but they are not limited to, Nanjing, Peking, and Shanghe cities.

It is important to note that most of the translations into Chinese were undertaken in diverse ways. While during the initial stages of translation the actual translation was conducted by two persons working in collaboration, i.e. a Chinese and a Westerner, during the MinGuo years, scientific translations were largely the work of Chinese scientists cultured in the Western way of life and scientific thinking.

At the time, scientists coming back to their home countries could only find work in three fields – i.e. politics, teaching, or translation. There were no research fellow jobs available and hence this enlightened cast could only exercise their intellectual capabilities in very few settings or setups. Some of the more popular ones in this case include, but they are not limited to, Yang Zhongjian (a paleontologist), Zhou Changshou (a physicist), Wang Jin (a chemist), amongst others.

As I have pointed out above, the sheer number of titles in circulation is an indicator of the extensive,….....

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Brokaw, C.J. (2007). Commerce in Culture: The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and Republican Periods. London: Harvard University
Asia Center.

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