Penguin blazes trail to Chinese literature

Chinese modern literature may not be at the top of your last minute holiday shopping list, but Penguin Books would like to change that. The publisher is building a niche in Chinese fiction in English.

Penguin’s efforts to spread Chinese literature may be helping to its parent company, German media conglomerate Bertelsmann gain ground with Chinese authorities. Penguin China’s managing director Jo Lusby acknowledges that publishing Chinese novels in English fits Beijing’s objective of spreading Chinese cultural globally in an interview included in the Asia Times article. But she adds that the Chinese works Penguin chooses meet literary standards for publication and are expected to succeed commercially.

In 2012, Penguin published Northern Girls, the contemporary story of a young woman who leaves her village in northern China to work in the factories of the south by young novelist Sheng Keyi. (See an interview with Sheng from her visit to the 2012 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.) It’s a rollicking good read that runs the gamut of emotions.

This year, Penguin has published a pair of novels from the early 20th century by Lao She. Mr. Ma and Son move to 1920s London to run an antique shop inherited from Mr. Ma’s elder brother.

As I wrote in Asia Times, the book reflects Lao’s experience as a Chinese teacher in London, as well his love of English literature, with echoes of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw. A work about culture and generation gaps with entertaining characters, it’s easy to see why Mr. Ma and Son remains one of Lao’s best loved books in China.

Penguin also published Cat Country, more difficult to understand, both as a literary work and a commercial choice. A fantasy work about a dysfunctional society of cat people stoned on reverie leaves, Cat Country was intended as a political satire of China in the 1920s and 1930s.

First released as a serial in 1932, Cat Country can also be seen as a Chinese version of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s tale of drug-addled utopia gone wrong published in the same year. Lao’s novel also anticipates another anthropomorphic critique of Communism, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, published a decade later. Eerily, Cat Country also anticipates China’s Cultural Revolution that drove Lao, tormented by Red Guard radicals, to suicide. Lao has since been politically rehabilitated and his birth centennial was celebrated with Chinese television miniseries version of Mr. Ma and Son.

Penguin says it plans to publish more classic and contemporary Chinese literature in the years ahead. Whatever the company’s political and business motives, these books provide a welcome window in the Chinese society with a degree of honesty that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.