Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, based on a story by Wang Du Lu, was one of the highest-grossing foreign-language films ever and won four Academy Awards. My literary agency, Peony, recently sold world rights to its sequel, The Green Legend, to Little Brown UK/Weinstein Books, and the English-language publication of the title will coincide with the release of the movie, produced by Weinstein Films. Hollywood, with its sights on the Chinese box office, is now very much looking for Chinese stories.
Another case in point is The Flowers of War, a film starring Christian Bale and based on the novella by Peony writer Yan Geling. Yan is a bestseller in China, and we manage her international and Chinese rights; The Flowers of War went to Harvill in the U.K. and Other Press in the U.S., and it was sold in other territories as well. We are currently translating her next novel, Sojourners, and several Hollywood producers are considering adapting it. Film rights are represented by Creative Artists Agency.
Whenever China is the guest of honor at international book fairs—Frankfurt, London, and, most recently, BEA—there is interest in Chinese writing, followed by a flurry of articles on China’s human rights record. Chinese dissidents speak out, and human rights groups demonstrate. Politics should not be forgotten when dealing with China, and censorship of foreign-language material imported into China has always been an issue. This will not change for as long as the political system remains the same. Whereas in the past, most Chinese publishers were state run, now there is a mix of private and state-run houses; but only Communist Party members tend to rise through the ranks in the industry.
Publishing houses protect themselves against fines (and being closed outright) by self-censoring foreign-language material before sending it for approval to the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film, and Television, which can deny ISBNs to books. There aren’t specific requirements that books must meet in order to be published, but many titles deemed problematic deal with religion, Tibet, antigovernment views, explicit sex, or sensitive political or historical content.
We had, for example, problems with When Google Met Wikileaks, by Julian Assange (published by OR Books in the U.S.). Tina Chou, who manages Peony’s Chinese subrights department, accepted the Chinese publisher’s offer—but the publisher then had to retract it, deciding it wouldn’t pass the censors.
When I think back to pitching my first English-language sale, a two-book contract for Su Tong (for Boat to Redemption, winner of the Man Asia Prize, and Madwoman on the Bridge, a collection of short stories) with Overlook Press, I remember editors looking at me a little blankly. Author representation in China is still a fairly new concept.
The goal when looking for material in China is the same as in the West: to find stories of universal appeal. But there are issues of translation to contend with as well. Chinese is a powerfully visual written language, and the conventions of narrative structure and characterisation differ greatly from the West, so finding stories that bridge that cultural gap take a little more digging. But there’s a lot of American interest in Chinese literature. I sold Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death to the University of Oklahoma Press, and interest has grown since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The range of Chinese fiction being published in English is increasing, as seen in the rich diversity of writers attending BEA. Currently, the success of a Chinese novel is determined by the number of translation rights sold, rather than the number of copies sold in English. For example, we sold rights in nearly 15 territories to The Fat Years, a dystopian fantasy by Chan Koonchung (Anchor published the book in the U.S.).
Though we haven’t had a breakout Chinese novel topping Western bestseller lists, I think it will happen, although it will likely take a Chinese nonfiction title a little longer to hit a list. I am delighted that two of my authors attended BEA: A Yi, whose noir novel A Perfect Crime has just been published in English by Oneworld, and Su Tong, one of the greatest storytellers in China today.
I have just returned from one of my regular trips to Beijing. With each trip to China, I learn something new: how to increase digital and audio sales, how to combat piracy more effectively, and how to work more closely with Chinese publishers.
Marysia Juszczakiewicz lives in Hong Kong and is the founder and owner of Peony Literary Agency.