A Russian reader looks at Chinese books at the 23rd Moscow International Book Fair, which ends on Sept 6. Liu Kai / Xinhua
The nation is increasingly turning to its publishing industry to promote better understanding with the rest of the world and present a mature image.
Wu Wei, from China Book International (CBI), quips that she has become saleswoman par excellence with her single-minded pursuit of one goal: introducing Chinese books to global readers.
The official from the State Council Information Office has been working for CBI, a State-sponsored program launched by the Information Office and the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), since 2004. By the end of 2009, CBI had sponsored 1,350 projects involving 1,910 titles in 26 languages, in cooperation with publishers from 46 countries, Wu says.
Speaking at the just-concluded 17th Beijing International Book Fair, Wu says: "International readers are thirsty for China's stories and presenting an authentic image of the country is key to destroying the myths and stereotypes."
In the past, CBI tried to buy copyrights from Chinese publishers and presented them as gifts to foreign publishers. But that didn't work, so it is now focusing on recommending books that fit the needs of foreign publishers, and helping Chinese and foreign publishers cooperate. It even pays for the translations.
While lauding the success of Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem and Yu Dan's Confucius from the Heart, Wu believes they represent just the tip of the iceberg. The trick is to know what sells.
She says she has turned down a best-selling book on Taoist thinker Zhuangzi, which, unlike Yu Dan's easy-to-read work, is written more academically and presumes a greater familiarity with its cultural premise than most foreign readers possess.
Stephen Bourne, CEO of Cambridge University Press, which has been working with CBI to publish several titles on culture, lauds such sensitivities and reveals that a Cambridge China Library is in the making.
Chen Yingming, deputy director-general of GAPP's department of foreign exchange and cooperation, cautions that it is too early to celebrate.
"We're still looking for world-class Chinese works that tell stories that can be enjoyed by all," he says.
Wu says few Chinese writers now think about a global readership when they write. The absence of writers' agents is also an obstacle to reaching foreign readers, besides the lack of qualified translators who understand both cultures well.
But Wu and Chen say the recent news of China's soaring GDP making it the world's second-biggest economy will offer more opportunities as all eyes are on the country.
However, they are also quick to add that, "the real opportunity will come only when the per capita GDP has advanced, meaning everyone is better off".