Jeffrey Wasserstrom on Censorship and Translated Literature in China ‹ Literary Hub

It is Underrated with Nicholas Lemann, from 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 take them. This podcast is your audio connection to these important topics.

This season we are focusing on our next book, The Subplot: What China Reads 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 spirited journey through the past two decades of China’s literary landscape, illustrating the country’s complex relationship between art and politics. It also dispels Western assumptions about censorship and opens up a view of Chinese society that you don’t see through conventional media coverage.

Before talking to Megan Walsh herself in future episodes, we want to set the stage, so we’re joined by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s History Professor at UC Irvine. He is one of America’s leading scholars of China and has written several important books, including Vigil: Hong Kong on the brink, also published by Columbia Global Reports. There is no better guest to help us delve into the complex and nuanced realities of China, a country that the United States has locked in its gaze.

From the episode:

Nicholas Leman: If there was some sort of typical urban Chinese citizen, could that person walk into a bookstore? What would be for sale?

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I’m going to bracket that kind of — when we talk about typical, clearly urban is different from rural. But just imagine walking into a bookstore in Shanghai, Nanjing or Beijing. There are amazing bookstores in terms of the varieties of things you can buy. What would probably be surprising, and radically different from the United States in a positive sense, is that there is a lot more translated literature. There are plenty of books by Chinese authors, but there are also some truly amazing selections of translations of Western fiction and fiction in many different languages. Fiction in Eastern European languages ​​and African novelists.

I mean, in some ways, while we might feel superior to people who live in a censored society, there’s another way that at least the kind of intellectually curious Chinese reader has an incredible amount of choice. There are a lot of popular genres out there, and it’s something that The subplot going very well. So it’s interesting—it can be kind of a very cosmopolitan thing. Even at this time when it is difficult to physically get people across the border, there is a lot of translated literature.


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Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, where he also holds a 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 Manchukuoand Vigil: Hong Kong on the brink. He is an advisor to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and a former board member of the National Committee on US-China Relations. Follow him on Twitter at @jwassers

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