The world’s most populous nation, the world’s biggest consumer of raw materials, and now the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, China strides irresistibly towards its economic and political destiny. But as Beijing prepares for its Olympic extravaganza this summer, the cultural life of the 1.3 billion people who live and work in this economic superpower remains a closed book to many in the west – their bestselling authors unfamiliar, their most exciting writers untranslated.  

‘China has one of the three great book publishing industries in the world. Along with the UK and the US it publishes around 200,000 new titles and new editions a year, well ahead of the nearest rivals, Japan, Russia and Germany. It is by far the largest publishing market by volume – officially about 6bn units a year, but many more when pirated copies are taken into account. In terms of value the market will probably amount to around £4-5bn in 2007, which would put it fourth in the world – behind the US, Germany and Japan and ahead of the UK.’ says Paul Richardson, an international research fellow at the Chinese Institute of Publishing Sciences in Beijing. 

The Chinese literary world is like a parallel universe, almost invisible to many in the west, complete with big hitters (Su Tong and Jia Pingwa), innovators (Xi Chuan and Che Qianzi), and bestselling superstars (Han Han and Annie Baobei), some of whom are earning more than £1m a year. Though as the Beijing-based translator and journalist Eric Abrahamsen points out, these figures should be taken with a pinch of salt. “The number of books sold is a mystery to everyone,” he says. Underneath the confusion, however, there is an unprecedented opportunity for publishers to break into an underdeveloped market, and one which, according to the translator Nicky Harman, has an undeniable thirst for books. 

When you go to big towns you see these huge shops called shu cheng – book cities – which are the size of department stores.” she says. Beijing Book City, for example, employs about 700 people and carries 230,000 titles on the shelves. “Last time I was in Wuhan people were queuing up on a Sunday morning, waiting for the shop to open. You find people sitting on the floor reading books, squatting on tables, crowding the aisles, filling trolleys. They’re stuffed with people.” And in contrast with the west, it’s mostly young people. “The older generation matured through the Cultural Revolution,” says Richardson. “They grew up in a very different world. So far as they do read books for pleasure, they’re likely to read the classics.  

This rush to the market has led to a “huge explosion” in genre fiction, according to Abrahamsen, with martial arts, sword and sorcery, romance and crime fiction very popular. “It’s sort of a release,” he says, “as if people are saying ‘finally we can sit down and read a romantic novel in the afternoon, rather than worrying’.” He is less optimistic about the prospects for literary fiction, suggesting that authors are “writing for a population that doesn’t want to think about their lives” and would rather just get on with making money. There is a small group of “very smart, very brave” writers trying to understand what’s happening to China in a period of change so rapid that “people are living differently now to how they were even six months ago”, but it is increasingly hard for them to find an audience for their work. “Almost nobody else is interested. The government’s implicit deal is ‘Don’t ask too many questions, just do your thing’,” he explains. “There are a lot of really disheartened writers who would like to put their heart and soul into writing, but who aren’t doing it because most people aren’t reading it.”  

The Nanjing-based poet and novelist Han Dong is equally pessimistic. “The fact is that readers’ interest in contemporary literature is waning, the number of people who read any kind of literature is dropping, and the number of those who read contemporary work is dropping even more,” he says. “If a writer is only motivated by the desire to be read, then the current environment is disastrous.” “It’s possible to do good work, but it’s hard,” agrees another poet Yang. “I was among the so-called Misty Poets – we were the founders of contemporary Chinese poetry after the Cultural Revolution. We had this magazine called Today, which began in 1978. Among our group were five or six important poets. Now, apart from me and one other, all the others have stopped writing.”