Pirates threaten power of Harry Potter's spell to woo China

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The Independent Culture

He is your average, 11-year-old Muggle. An only child, prone to mischief, Lui Muran prefers computer games to books. Or at least he did, until he became a guinea-pig for 300 million other children.

He is your average, 11-year-old Muggle. An only child, prone to mischief, Lui Muran prefers computer games to books. Or at least he did, until he became a guinea-pig for 300 million other children.

"He was being very naughty, spinning round on a swivel chair," said a family friend, Yang Jing. "Then we gave him the 'Mirror of Erised' chapter. He soon stopped spinning, and went quiet. When I tapped him on the shoulder later, he jumped, and said 'You frightened me!'"

Granted a privileged preview of the soon-to-be-published Chinese version of the children's book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J K Rowling, Lui shared the addictive fear the books have inspired worldwide. He was doubly fortunate because he had the real book, not the counterfeit Chinese version where the Hogwart's magic is lost in the translation.

"My heart was beating so fast," Lui said. "When Harry was in the tunnel by himself, he was so brave. As soon as I read it, I wanted to read number two and number three." All of which is music to the ears of Lui's father, head of distribution for the People's Literature Publishing House, the official state-owned publisher of Harry Potter.

All four Harry Potter titles, poorly translated into Chinese, have suddenly appeared ahead of the authorised release bearing the name of the Tibet People's Publishing House. The books also carry the name of the translator who worked on the Taiwanese edition of The Sorcerer's Stone. But the books cannot be traced to Tibet or Taiwan, says Wang Ruiqin, children's editor at People's Literature.

"Nor is it a leak from inside People's Literature - they only released a few chapters to guinea pigs like Lui Muran, and the clumsy translation of the counterfeit copy betrays another hand," Ms Wang told The Independent. "The bootleg transliterates the feared 'Dementor' into the meaningless 'demengte'. [Our] version carries the almost poetic 'shehunguai', or 'soul-absorbing demon'."

With 35 million copies of the Harry Potter books sold worldwide, Rowling has few contemporary rivals - and now the biggest potential market of all is about to fall under the young wizard's spell. Britain's richest woman writer may never overhaul the 40 billion volumes Mao Tse-tung shifted in his lifetime with his Little Red Book, but China has never witnessed a book launch on the scale planned for Harry.

On 12 October 600,000 copies of the first three Harry Potter books - The Sorcerer's Stone, The Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban - should hit the shelves in most of the big cities. However, after the first bootlegs hit the streets of Peking this week, the launch date may be brought forward to 6 October.

People's Literature has known nothing like it in 50 years of producing more sober works, such as its series on the Marxist Theory of Literature and Art. First came the battle with a dozen other Chinese publishers to win over Rowling. "We have never had to fight so hard to get a copyright,' said Ms Wang. "But we believe in the story. It's so funny and exciting."

Ms Wang's hopes were raised in April when Rowling requested more information about People's Literature. Communist China's first publisher of foreign works, the publisher has translated authors from Shakespeare to Hans Christian Andersen. Secret negotiations on royalty payments began in June. Rowling cut the field to a shortlist of three publishers, before handing Ms Wang the prize in mid-August. At the Peking International Book Fair this month, Nie Zhenning, editor in chief of People's Literature, announced his coup.

The publicity machine is whirring into motion in China, where ignorance of Harry Potter reigns in most households. Yesterday, the China Children's Paper, with a circulation of more than one million, featured the "Mirror of Erised" chapter that bewitched Lui Muran. Under tight security, in Peking the 600,000 copies are being printed and bound.

But now Harry and his Chinese mentors face perhaps their greatest challenge yet: defeating the evil counterfeiters who wish to spirit away the legal profits. There seems little point queuing at midnight for a bookshop party when you can buy a bootleg version on the streets three weeks ahead of the official launch. "Our worst fear has come true," Ms Wang said yesterday.

It may be of small consolation to Rowling that Harry is not the first boy wonder to suffer from China's counterfeiters; the widespread availability of bootleg Tintin books has enfuriated his Belgian minders. And there are already pirate versions of Rowling's works in India. But at least the counterfeiters' efforts reinforce Ms Wang's belief that Harry Potter can bridge the cultural divide, as he has in Taiwan and Japan.