Tocqueville, James Joyce enjoy a Chinese resurrection

Two very different books are enjoying a sudden, unexpected spurt in popularity in China. No, neither are written by new Chinese Noble Laureate for Literature, Mo Yan.

If the popularity of French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville’s “The Old Regime and the French Revolution” could be explained because of its political content, the reason behind the increased sells of a translated version of Irish author James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake – considered to be one of the most difficult books to read in English – is yet to be explained; it’s a mystery.

Tocqueville’s political writings have always been read in China. But when in December, Wang Qishan, a new member of the powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC), advised officials in a meeting to read “The Old Regime and the French Revolution, a new print of the book began to appear in book shops. His suggestion was also reported in the state media, possibly adding to its new found popularity.

Many found similarities between the current situation in China and that of France before the Revolution, which Wang – also the Vice Premier and head of the Party’s discipline committee — had apparently emphasised while asking his colleagues to make the book a must read.

“Many of Tocqueville’s insights remain highly relevant to today’s China. For example: “People profess that they love freedom, in fact they just hate their rulers,” and “People are ready for change, but not necessarily for democracy.” His famous thesis that revolution takes place when living conditions are improving not when people are dirt poor shakes complacency. As a government continues to incite the desire for wealth accumulation, which breeds corruption and saps its moral credibility, prosperity actually plants the seed of the regime’s demise. Economic growth, instead of keeping people content, makes them restive. Thus the 8 percent rate of GDP growth, long perceived in China as sine qua non for stability, may have the opposite effect,” Nailene Chou Wiest, visiting professor at the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-sen University, wrote in the website Caixin online.

The state-run Global Times newspaper while reporting on the Wang’s advice to read the book, said: “The referential and practical significance of this book to China is that this book does not have an ideological bias. It provides with a realistic way of thinking to analyse the current situation in China and resolve problems. Wang’s recommending of the book reflects the Chinese leadership’s sense of crisis.”

Okay, so the Frenchman’s political thoughts found an echo not only among officials but also among the public. But why did the Chinese wake up to Joyce’s work?

“The Chinese-language version of the first volume of Joyce’s masterpiece, translated by Dai Congrong, a professor from Shanghai-based Fudan University, after eight years of hard work, sold out within three weeks of its unveiling last month – quite an achievement for a Western novel in China, let along one that is infamously hard to understand,” People’s Daily online reported.

Dai told a forum in Shanghai that since the book was supposed to be difficult in English, she kept difficult to read in Chinese as well.

“I would not be faithful to the original intent of the novel if my translation made it easy to comprehend,” Dai said, according to a transcript the Shanghai People’s Publishing House posted online, was quoted by Time magazine as saying.

Some said the marketing of the book was done in a manner that caught the attention of the public.

People may have noticed huge outdoor billboards advertising Joyce’s work in major Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing. According to state-run news agency, Xinhua, “Finnegans Wake” was the first book to be promoted in this way.

Online discussions tried to analyse the book’s popularity; curiosity or real interest in literature itself?

“Luozhiqiu,” a Weibo, Chinese microblog, user verified as an English teacher at Nanjing University, questioned the publisher’s marketing approach. “He said excessive marketing is tantamount to fooling readers into buying a complex work they cannot understand. Only a very small minority of readers in any country are interested, he said, adding that they will buy the work on their own, without any marketing to encourage them,” Xinhua said.

“The work occupies a preeminent place in English literature despite its difficult language and structure, so Chinese readers, whether they can understand it or not, are willing to buy a copy and have a try,” Chen Xin, president of the Shanghai Century Publishing Group, one of China’s major publishers, told state media.

Whatever the reasons might be, the authors wouldn’t be complaining anyway.

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