Jeffrey Wasserstrom on Censorship and Translated Literature in China
This Week on Underreported with Nicholas Lemann
from Columbia Global Reports
This is Underreported with Nicholas Lemann, from the publishing imprint Columbia Global Reports. We don’t just publish books; we use books to start conversations about topics that weren’t getting the attention they deserved. At least, until we took them on. This podcast is your audio connection to these important topics.
This season, we’re is focusing on our upcoming book, The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters. This three-part series will explore not only the content of the book, but the issues surrounding it.
In The Subplot, journalist and critic Megan Walsh takes the reader on a lively journey through the last two decades of China’s literary landscape, illustrating the country’s complex relationship between art and politics. She also dispels assumptions Westerners make about censorship, and opens up a view of Chinese society that you don’t see through conventional news coverage.
Before we speak to Megan Walsh herself in upcoming episodes, we want to set the stage, so we’re joined by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine. He’s one of America’s leading China specialists and has written several important books, including Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, also published by Columbia Global Reports. There’s no better guest to help us wade into the intricate and nuanced realities of China, a country that the US has locked in its gaze.
From the episode:
Nicholas Lemann: If there were a sort of typical urban Chinese citizen, can that person walk into a bookstore? What would be for sale?
Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Yeah, it’s a great question. And I will bracket off this sort of—when we talk about typical, clearly urban is different from rural. But let’s just imagine walking into a bookstore in Shanghai or Nanjing or Beijing. There are amazing bookstores in terms of just varieties of things that you can buy. Some of the things that would be probably surprising, and radically different from the United States in a positive sense, is there’s much more translated literature. There are plenty of books by Chinese authors, but there are also really quite extraordinary selections of translations of Western fiction, and fiction from many different languages. Fiction in Eastern European languages and novelists from Africa.
I mean, in some ways, though we can go into a kind of feeling superior to people who are living in a censored society, there’s another way in which at least the kind of intellectually curious Chinese reader has an amazing number of choices. There are lots of popular genres there, and this is something that The Subplot goes through very well. So it’s interesting—it can be in a way a very cosmopolitan thing. Even at this moment when it’s harder to physically have people move across the border, there is plenty of translated literature.
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Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, where he also holds courtesy appointment in law and literary journalism. He is the author of six books, including Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo, and Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink. He is an adviser to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and a former member of the Board of Directors of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Follow him on Twitter at @jwassers