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Focus on China

October 13, 2009

Many Germans are interested in Chinese culture, but that doesn't mean they read Chinese novels. This week at the Frankfurt Book Fair, little-known literature from China is thrust into the spotlight.

A woman prepares a book for the Chinese pavilion at the Book Fair in Frankfurt
German writers are better known in China than Chinese authors in GermanyImage: AP

Chinese culture is no longer a closed book to Germans. The number of students studying the language is increasing and more and more members of the general public are showing an interest in China.

Chinese films are popular, as are traditional martial arts and Chinese food. But what about literature? Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and even Patrick Suesskind are all well-known in China but can German readers cite a Chinese writer?

DW asked passersby and received some uncertain replies: ”Someone who has written a Chinese book? Don’t know.” ”A Chinese writer? I know some Japanese cartoonists – but that’s it.” "Confucius was also an author, wasn’t he?”

Exotic and little known

Chinese writer Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize in 2000, remains a stranger to many - not like his compatriots, the actress Gong Li and the martial arts fighters such as Bruce Lee, whose faces are well-known.

Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian
Gao Xingjian received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000Image: AP

"Chinese literature, more than Asian literature in general, is still considered pretty exotic on the literature scene in Germany," Hans-Peter Hoffmann, who translates Chinese books into German and lectures on Chinese literature at the University of Tuebingen, told Deutsche Welle.

There are plenty of books about China on the German market, ranging from manuals on Chinese business rules to guides on how to invest in the country, to cookbooks and calligraphy manuals. Chinese fiction is rarer, however.

It is not only a question of language, said Hoffmann, who read Gao Xingjian’s novel “Soul Mountain” with his university students. “My students faced a lot of problems because there are allusions to Chinese tradition and also to contemporary issues, from today and from the 1950s.”

“It was hard for the students to understand the various references because it is a novel that takes place in our time but also looks at issues from the past.”

Short-lived interest

This week at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Chinese literature has the chance to reach a wider international readership. The works of many authors have been translated into German ahead of the book fair.

About 120 German publishing houses have announced new China-related releases ahead of the fair, including over 40 novels.

Still, Hoffmann said he isn't necessarily expecting a boom in Chinese literature as a result of the fair.

“I recently spoke to a publisher who has published China-related books over the past 10 to 15 years; he complained that in the past 20 years no-one had been interested in them," said Hoffmann. "Neither the press nor anyone else had noticed them. But now all of a sudden everyone is talking about it and interested.

"I am afraid that when the book fair is over the interest in Chinese literature will also be over.”

Author: Chi Viet Giang

Editor: Anne Thomas / Kate Bowen