More read than red

Despite Murdoch's trepidation, Ania Corless found there's much more than Mao to China's bookshops

To walk into a bookshop in any major city in China is to experience the contradictions which will no doubt persist throughout the People's Republic for some time to come. You can find Marx, Engels and Mao in one corner, Michael Crichton in another. And, under a sign saying "Non-Fiction", The Making of An American Capitalist by Roger Lowenstein - the best-seller.

That was what I discovered on a selling trip to China. I was there at the same time as the HarperCollins fiasco over the Chris Patten biography. As news filtered through to China of Rupert Murdoch's self-confessed "cock- up" over Patten's book, one might have been forgiven a certain confusion over what the term freedom really means and how the concept of "freedom- to-publish" is applied and practised in different parts of the world.

Armed with a box of diverse books for children and adults, both fiction and non-fiction, I hoped to also tempt editors into acquiring translation rights in the work of some of our British authors. I went with perhaps predictable and preconceived notions, expecting to find bookshop shelves laden with voluminous political tracts and had prepared myself to tread carefully across what I thought would be a minefield of political control. The power of books, after all, is still feared in so many sectors and by too many regimes.

What I found was far more complex. The first discovery was the realisation that what drives individuals in our own publishing industry also motivates Chinese publishers - a simple love of books and a deep sense of pleasure and pride in what we do. That established, the discussion of any topic became possible, particularly with young editors brought up during the reforms which began in 1978 and which continue to affect the whole country. They are the products of a successful and continuously developing educational system that has drawn on books bought (and in some instances still pirated), from our foremost educational presses. There is a thirst to provide universities and schools, from primary to senior level, with material from the UK and US.

One such shop displayed a line of enormous portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and, most chillingly, Stalin, along with Mao Tse-tung, but in common with others it had well organised aisles directing the would-be buyer to a wide range of educational books with a strong emphasis on foreign language learning. Foreign fiction in Chinese translation draws richly on European classics with Stendhal, Galsworthy, Jane Austen and James Joyce having prominence. It also includes the works of Nabokov and other western best-selling names such as John Grisham and Michael Crichton. Roots and The English Patient were screened in China with the books enjoying commensurate success.

Shelves of contemporary Chinese fiction contained novels that concerned themselves with the individual - love stories, stories about relationships, ghost tales and adventure narratives. There was even a novel about the pain of being homosexual, a "condition" which is still illegal in China.

There are plenty of books on modern science and technology and the intricacies of running a business coming close behind. In the children's sections, fairy tales and educational books are dominant but the "subversive" Roald Dahl is beginning to make in-roads.

Somehow the political tracts, while certainly existing, do not impose themselves on the casual browser. There is in effect no overt system of censorship within a bouyant and varied publishing industry. China joined the Berne and Universal Copyright Conventions in 1992 and since that year they have been buying and translating books on a wide range of subjects from their foreign counterparts. Nevertheless, it would be ridiculous to pretend that there are no restrictions and certain stringent controls are firmly in place.

The process of establishing copyright in China is arduous, having to be ratified by various ministries; there is a feeling that publishers are expected to act responsibly, putting the interests of the regime first; it will take time for some topics to enter the public debate. Yet the greatest curb on what is currently being published remains China's isolationist policy in recent times. They simply do not know what is available outside the boundaries of their own country. But they are Chinese, they are patient, they are learning, travelling and changing. Indeed, the thought that one day a biography of the most taboo figure of them all, the Dalai Lama, might find its way into the Chinese language, is not as preposterous as it may seem.

Ania Corless is foreign rights director at David Higham Associates, literary agents.

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