Getting Chinese readers beyond the British Classics and Harry Potter

Sophie Rochester, The Literary Platform

The Chinese people are enchanted by British literary classics, including the works of William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. And they love pieces of modern British art, such as Cats, James Bond movies, Harry Potter, Sherlock and Downton Abbey,” stated Chinese President Xi Jinping at a banquet hosted earlier this week by Alderman Alan Yarrow, the Lord Mayor of the City of London.

The opening up and continued growth of markets for cultural products in China, and vice versa, have not passed by Britain’s cultural industries, and book publishing is no exception.

To promote literature during the Chinese President’s visit, the UK Publishers Association and Guo Guang, president of China Youth Press International, met to launch the London China Book Festival at Hatchards Piccadilly.

The festival is part of the ongoing UK-Chinese Year of Cultural Exchange and aims to enhance mutual understanding between the UK and China. The Bookseller reported the speeches highlighted a “unique relationship” and the importance in “building closer ties that extend beyond just the economic and trade benefits and beginning to usher in a new and deeper understanding of the cultural differences and the similarities.”

China’s Global Times observed this week,

“Britain may be more than 9,000 kilometers from China, with a time difference of seven to eight hours. But for many people, the two countries seem much closer; bridged by the power of literature.”

Zhang Hua, a professor with the Institute of Comparative Literature and Culture Studies with the Beijing Language and Culture University explains that British literature has exceptional influence in China, saying, “Among all countries, Britain’s literature perhaps has the greatest influence on the Chinese.”

It’s not just classic British literature, however, that is making an impact with contemporary Chinese readers. Following his trip to China in 2012 as part of a British Council initiative, David Mitchell, the award-winning novelist of Cloud Atlas said, “It’s the closest I’ve ever been to being mobbed.” The mobbing, which saw Mitchell being chased down a street in Shanghai, was, in part, due to a number of superfans finding out about his visit through China’s social media platform Weibo.

Earlier this year nesta and The Literary Platform published the results of a two-year study that investigated how China’s social media platforms could hold the key to a broader number of British publishers and contemporary writers finding Chinese readers. The research also looked at how interactions through social media reveal the wider cultural tastes of those reading British literature.

Working with the Chinese online platform for culture, Douban, the nesta research examines how British publishers and writers can negotiate some of the market uncertainties of doing business in China by using social media platforms. Douban, a social media platform, a publisher and a retailer, permits rights holders to take a data-driven approach to engaging with readers, understand their wider cultural preferences and behaviours, and identify – and exploit – their social networks.

The Literary Platform’s own report, The Publishing Landscape in China: New and Emerging Opportunities for British Writers, explores how the disruption of China’s own publishing system, new translation initiatives and process, social media and the prominence of online literature sites are all impacting on how British writers and discovered in China.

UK publishers and writers can learn from innovative business models and revenue streams around online literature models, and how China’s social media platforms with their sprawling reach into corners of China offer British publishers and writers a place to engage with Chinese readers. Perhaps, if a growing number of British publishers and writers are able to reach Chinese audiences in these new ways, then our British literary heritage might not always be reduced down to the same three of four names.

Both reports are free to download here: http://theliteraryplatform.com/collective/2014/10/03/china_research_2015/

Reports are the result of a collaborative research project led by Nesta, and funRded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), working in collaboration with The Literary Platform and Chinese social media reading site Douban Read, to better understand new and emerging opportunities for UK publishers and writers in China as a result of digital transformation.

 

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