As the first Chinese author to receive the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award (in 2016), Cao Wenxuan is now considered the standard-bearer for Chinese children’s literature, both in his native China and abroad. At the recent Bologna Book Fair, where China was the guest of honor, his presence graced many of the major panels and forums hosted by Chinese publishers.
Cao’s session at “A Chinese Story that Moved the World” forum was one of the highlights at the China Pavilion. The event was hosted by Phoenix Juvenile and Children’s Publishing, which has launched many of Cao’s popular works. The publishing house sold more than 700,000 copies of Bronze and Sunflower in 2017—an increase of 100,000 copies over the previous year—with a total figure of 3.5 million copies in circulation since the book’s 2005 launch. The rights have been sold to 14 countries (Candlewick is the U.S. publisher). Another Cao novel, The Straw House, sold 1.2 million copies last year (and one million in 2016) and is now available in nine languages.
Wang Yongbo, president of Phoenix Juvenile and Children’s Publishing, attributed the success of Cao’s books to its literary roots. “The source of his books is the land and people in his hometown, Jiangsu, where our publishing house is also based,” he said. “His stories are essentially the stories of China in that they express the Chinese spirit, thoughts, and feelings. They touch thousands of Chinese readers, and appeal to countless readers around the world.”
During an interview with Cao at the recent Bologna Book Fair, PW asked the author if the Andersen Award and numerous international accolades have in any way affected his literary style, which is known for its lyrical prose depicting challenges facing children in 1950s and 1960s rural China (i.e. during the Mao Zedong years). “I am a stubborn writer, and these awards only strengthen and consolidate my understanding of literature,” he responded. “They allow me to adhere even more explicitly to the principles I have held about my literary works. So, no, they do not sway me in changing myself as a writer, or my writing style.”
As a professor of Chinese and children’s literature at Peking University, Cao has come across, and systematically studied, a wide range of literary works throughout the course of his professional life. “My background in literary history differentiates me from most writers, whose exposure to, and studies of, literary works is probably not as varied,” he said. “It has led me to intuit that literature should be written in a specific way. For instance, there are constant elements in such classics, and these elements, I believe, make for great literary works. And for a literary writer, such elements must be continuously reflected in his works.” Many critics have attributed Cao’s success to his grasp of these fundamental elements, which include universal values and humanity.
Cao acknowledged that his view of literature, even within the Chinese literary circle, was deemed conservative a decade or so ago. “Most writers were then busy testing new literary concepts and becoming mainstream. Bear in mind, though, that it is my basic knowledge of literature that is very conservative, not my thinking.”
Literature, said Cao, has been spared the Darwinian theory of evolution. “Literature has not changed since day one, and this is a wonderful phenomenon that continues to puzzle me. Let’s think about this: If literature has evolved, then my novel should be better than Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber. After all, my works come along hundreds of years after his, and have had time to evolve and adapt, and become even better than what was published previously. Similarly, in the Western world, top dramatists today should have works way better than those of Shakespeare’s. But that is not the case. Dream of the Red Chamber and works of Shakespeare remain the indisputable gems of the literary world. So the basic elements in great literary works have thus remained unchanged.”
China, said Cao, “is the largest children’s book market by virtue of its population of 1.3 billion. There is no other market bigger than that, and Chinese children’s book authors are having the best time ever with huge sales and royalty income. In other words, these authors are benefiting from the demographic dividend, and more authors will continue to appear to compete for a share of this dividend.”
In such a market-based society, literary works are naturally hitched to the commercial bandwagon, Cao added. “Recently, I have begun to distinguish ‘product’ from ‘work.’ Now that we have many children’s writers, there is a stream of production and reproduction of an image, story, or theme. Hence, the ‘product’ is characterized by reproduction.” Then there is another kind of writing, he continued, where “the writer creates a unique piece of work. For me, I am more inclined to create ‘work’ rather than ‘product.’ ”
Cao, for one, said he is not going down the commercial route. “I already have enough money—and I do not need so much—and so following the commercial trend is unnecessary. What I do see clearly, which many writers have yet to realize, is that the real ‘bestseller’ is the long-selling book. Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber is not a bestseller but a long seller. There is Qian Zhongshu, whose Fortress Besieged sold over one million copies in China annually without any promotion or marketing—again, a long seller. Bestsellers may not be able to achieve those kinds of numbers in the long run.”
Cao’s The Straw House, for instance, has gone back to press more than 500 times, with print runs ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. “That is a long seller, and I want to create more of such works,” said Cao.