< November 2010 - Artspace China
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November 2010


In 2005, when Penguin opened their first China office, there were no other foreign trade publishers in the country. Books had never been branded, good literary translators were scarce, and the government maintained a tight control on the publishing industry. This was unfamiliar territory for a Western publisher, and those seeking to get a foothold would need a careful and unconventional approach.

Jo Lusby was Penguin’s appointed scout, employed initially for a scoping mission and later to run the Penguin China office. Lusby’s first move was to publish the Chinese bestseller, Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong in English, a book that went on to win the Man Asia Literary Prize and earn Penguin China a reputation both within China and internationally.

Since then, Lusby has made Penguin China an integral part of China’s publishing industry, building the relationships and making the investments necessary to make joint-publishing with China viable. While last week’s post looked at the globalisation of Chinese literature, this week’s looks at the globalisation of its publishing industry, in an interview with a pioneer.

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Boat to Redemption.jpgThe Boat to Redemption, by Su Tong, published by Doubleday

What is the status of contemporary Chinese literature within world literature as a whole? Should contemporary writers look towards the world or to local traditions for inspiration? And how to account for the apparent mismatch between China’s economic power in the 21st century and its cultural influence in the world? Around 50 speakers and another 250 listeners addressed these and other questions at the International Conference on the Global Significance of Contemporary Chinese Writing, held 29-30 October 2010 in Beijing.

Bonnie S. McDougall, eminent scholar and translator, attended the conference and has provided a report for Artspace China. This piece gives a broad overview of the themes and debates currently defining China’s literary scene, and of the authors engaged in these discussions. Many of these names and arguments will be picked up on in future posts, but you can start here for a lay of the land.

Apologies that I can't provide links for more of these authors and scholars - the English language websites often just don't exist. It's a sign of how small a percentage of this literature and intellectual discussion is available in the English language, i.e. to a global audience.

Bonnie S. McDougall is Visiting Professor in the Department of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney. A former student and lecturer at Sydney, she also taught at Harvard, the College of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, and Oslo University before being appointed founding Professor of Chinese at the University of Edinburgh. After retiring from Edinburgh in 2005, she was also Visiting Professor at the Chinese University and City University in Hong Kong. Many thanks to Professor McDougall for her account.

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Drawing on the musical traditions of ancient China, Central Asia, and contemporary rock, Song Yuzhe’s compositions are a heady mix of the wild and the spiritual. In his ten years playing Beijing’s independent music scene Song has dipped into folk, religious music, and the experimental, forging a highly-charged style of his own.

With his band, Song Yuzhe plays as Dawanggang, and has just released an album that I am featuring as this week’s post (click 'more' below to see how you can listen to this). The album is called Selections, its songs taken from a broader ongoing project called Huang Qian Zou Ban, or, Wild Tune, Stray Rhythm, which does a good job of describing its loose but virtuosic tracks.

These recordings feature instruments such as the Uyghur ghejek, a horse-head fiddle, a shaman drum, the organ, saxophone, and some instruments that Song Yuzhe created himself. Dawanggang often play these songs live in front of audio-visual projections of traditional Himalayan, Xinjiang, and Mongolian musicians, the band essentially jamming with the musicians playing on the big screen behind them, engaging them in the live performance. This is something to see. These recordings are just a taster ...

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Gao Shiqiang, still from Total Eclipse, 2010. Image: Courtesy of the Artist and Magee Gallery, Beijing.

What system of classification separates an animation or documentary film from video art? None really, if you're looking at China and the screen-based work being shown and created there. China’s is an art world still building its institutions, and with this comes a freedom from such expectations or constraints.

Laurens Tan is a digital media artist and sculptor, based in both Australia and China. With Chinese parents, but a childhood spent in The Netherlands, Indonesia, Singapore, and Australia, Tan’s background also defies simple definition. In 2006 Tan moved to Beijing, to learn the language of his family heritage, and make work as part of the thriving contemporary Chinese art scene.

Tan and I spoke recently about the flux and energy of today’s Beijing – a city Tan’s calls ‘a great little research site to consider what will happen with contemporary art.’ More specifically, we discussed Tan's curated exhibition of Chinese video art, Arena: A Post Boom Beijing, currently at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery in Sydney . This exhibition is both beautiful and provocative, and I seriously recommend seeing it if you’re in Sydney.

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