China looms large, indeed. The economic and political influence it wields on global affairs—from earthborn dwellings in central Africa to Manhattan’s tony penthouses—is an incalculable marvel in modern world history. While the United States developed its international preeminence over centuries, for the most part China has made its global mark only in the years following the era of “reform and opening up” beginning in the early 1980s.
But who are the Chinese and what do Westerners really know about their lifestyles and regional cultures, or the natural landscape, flora, and fauna of the People’s Republic of China? Not much, in truth, namely because of the outlandish size of the country, its bewildering languages, and, until recently, its relatively closed society. Quality translation was another problem. Consequently, very few books about China arrived on our shores from Chinese writers living in China. The de Tocqueville-like, foreigner-in-a-foreign-land role filled by visiting writers and scholars has provided a semblance of understanding but will never replace the insights of homegrown talent writing honestly about, well, whatever they care to write about.
There is, of course, a specific reason, both historically and today, for the limited output of certain types of Chinese writing. The communist leadership continues to strive to keep the artistic community on a short leash, and, unfortunately, the great majority of Chinese writers haven’t pushed back very hard. Writing recently in the New York Times, literary translator Eric Abrahamsen said that after the cataclysmic events of 1989, the Chinese Government “has made it very clear that writers (along with most of civil society) were no longer welcome to participate directly in resolving the grand questions of the nation. Literature was pushed back into what might be considered its traditional role: not to launch polemics against specific injustices, but to come at problems obliquely—feeling for root causes, working in metaphor. It’s an approach more conducive to understanding than condemnation, more apt to sorrow than outrage and more likely to lead inward than outward.”
Be that as it may, there are still compelling reasons why a great many Chinese books belong on the shelves of America’s libraries and bookstores: excellent coverage of business, international relations, history, architecture, art, health and medicine, food and cooking, sports, language, culture, and photography. Tens of thousands of books from reputable Chinese publishers, with professional English translations, are distributed in the United States. And, not surprisingly, the Chinese government provides support.
In 2010, China’s publishing industry underwent sweeping reforms to move out of the planned economy into a more centralized structure. Thirty-one publishing groups were formed comprising five hundred and eighty-one publishing houses, all under the supervision of the government. That same year, more than 325,000 titles were published (139,000 of which were new editions or reprints). In October 2011, the Central Committee of the Communist Party formally announced a decision to make its cultural industries a cornerstone of the national economy by 2020. In January 2012, the General Administration of Press and Publication issued a “reaching out” strategic plan for extending the influence of the Chinese publishing industry, including ten new policies to assure that resources were allocated appropriately.
As an indication of how the country is transforming, more than forty media and publishing companies are now listed on Chinese stock exchanges. This fact alone suggests that investors are increasingly confident that government interference is of less concern than in previous years. With rapid growth in mind, three hundred Chinese publishing companies have invested in foreign publishing ventures.
English-language Books about China, from China, with US Distribution
Here’s a sampling of books that are making it out of the Middle Kingdom. Librarians and booksellers seeking quality titles from pedigreed Chinese authors can turn to the following publishers, many of whom rely on amazon.com for distribution.
China Intercontinental Press (CIP)
Established in 1993 and releasing over two hundred titles a year, China Intercontinental Press publishes beautifully packaged books in the areas of literature, arts, culture, philosophy, religion, and travel. Of special note, the China Lifestyle Series seeks to present a modern profile of China and Chinese culture to the Western world. Recent titles include Chinese Language, Chinese Physical Exercises and Health Care, Chinese Folk Customs, Chinese Food Life Care, and Chinese Rites and Rituals. http://www.cicc.org.cn/
Foreign Languages Press (FLP)
One of seven publishing houses under the China International Publishing Group umbrella, China’s largest publisher and distributor of foreign language titles, FLP, was established in 1952. Over the past fifty years, it has published more than 30,000 titles in 43 languages, with distribution in over 160 countries. FLP currently publishes more than six hundred titles on subjects from cultural insight and traditional Chinese medicine to the works of state and party leaders. Its How-To series offers beginners guides to various styles of Chinese painting and calligraphy. http://www.flp.com.cn/
New World Press Limited (NWP)
Launched in 1951 to focus on the humanities and social sciences, NWP has expanded to cover an eclectic blend of genres, including art, travel, memoirs, and academic works. Over the years, NWP titles have won numerous awards, including a 2004 National Book Award for the photo album Ancient Chinese Architecture. The company recently published Chinese Women Entrepreneurs, offering a collection of fourteen profiles showcasing successful women in China’s male-dominated business world. http://www.nwp.cn/
Originally named Morning Glory Publishers, Blossom Press is acclaimed domestically and internationally for books on traditional Chinese culture and history. On occasion, their exquisite art albums are offered as state gifts to visiting dignitaries. In May of 2011, Blossom published Mysterious Sources of Three Great Rivers to showcase the Tibetan people living near the headwaters of the Yellow, Yangtze, and Lancang rivers. http://www.blossompress.org/
China Pictorial Publishing House (CPPH)
Another China International Publishing Group member, CPPH offers vividly illustrated titles in the areas of adult comics, tourism, history, movies and television, fine arts, and children’s books. Chinese Fairy Tales is a twelve-volume collection of some of China’s most famous folk legends. http://www.zbhbcbs.com/
A publisher of leading experts from China, Paths International offers a select collection of books in the areas of business and economics, global security, social change, history, and architecture, as well as a China International Relations series of eight titles featuring review and analysis of China’s relationship with Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, America, Russia, Central Asia, Europe, and neighboring countries. http://www.Pathsinternational.com, http://www.emeraldinsight.com/books (US distributor).