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March 10, 2012

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China a hot topic at literary festival

THE ongoing Shanghai International Literary Festival includes many books related to China from the latest eye-opening economic theories to imaginative children's stories about the zodiac animals. Yao Minji flips through the pages.

The ongoing 10th Shanghai International Literary Festival features many books related to China in some way or another.

This reflects the increasing attention China garners around the world as one of the fastest growing major economies.

The books, everything from serious economic arguments to funny stories for children, help improve China's exposure to foreigners as the country moves toward the center of the world stage.

With the festival ending on March 18, various sessions by foreign authors who have written China-related books have discussed issues including the influence of China's economic growth, the history, culture and politics of the country and successful cases of foreign companies in China.

Today, Michael Dunne will speak about his book "American Wheels, Chinese Roads," which retraces how General Motors became one of the most recognizable foreign brands in the Chinese market while facing great challenges at home.

In the evening, Jonathan Campbell, a Canadian promoter and veteran of China's rock music scene, will share his insider stories, complimenting his book "Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock."

Next weekend, best-selling author Amy Tan, writer of "The Joy Luck Club," will be in town to share her Shanghai connection. Her most recent novella "Rules for Virgins," her first published fiction in six years, is set in Shanghai in 1912.

Other upcoming China-featured sessions include German author Steffi Schmitt's "Shanghai Promenade," which takes readers on a tour of the city's streets to reveal its history. There's also "Shanghai Skyscrapers: The Big Three," where a panel of architects who have designed Lujiazui's three tallest skyscrapers - Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center and the unfinished Shanghai Tower - will talk about their vision of the city.

Despite the variety, most of the international attention zeroes in on China's economic growth and its influence on the world. This includes famous economist Arvind Subramanian's session at the festival last weekend.

He has made a bold and highly controversial projection in his recent book "Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China's Economic Dominance," to be published in Chinese in a few weeks. The former International Monetary Fund employee predicts the yuan will become the world's dominant currency in the next 10 to 15 years. At his session, Subramanian presented his statistics and models to convince readers. He also discussed how other countries should react to China's expected dominance.

Some writers add Chinese elements in their books that have nothing to do with economic theories. Children's writer Sarah Brennan has published adventurous tales of Chinese zodiac animals that have tickled both Chinese and foreign children. Meanwhile, novelist Kunal Basu encourages readers to ponder upon the clash of Chinese and Western civilizations through their two distinct medical systems in his most recent publication "The Yellow Emperor's Cure."

Both writers share some thoughts with Shanghai Daily about their interest in China, future plans, opinions on the cultural gap and other issues.

Sarah Brennan

"Happy Year of the … Panda!"

This is how Brennan signs her book "The Tale of Pin Yin Panda," which follows a wickedly ambitious panda who plans to take over the Chinese zodiac by calling all 12 animals to a meeting.

It is the most recent in Brennan's Chinese zodiac series. The former medical lawyer who moved to Hong Kong with her family 13 years ago says she has always had a secret ambition to become a children's writer. She cites her biggest influence as Dr Seuss, whose books inspired her interest to write in rhymes and become a children's writer.

She started in 2004, with a story completely not related to China.

"I was going to many schools with the story and many of the kids were Chinese," she says. "So I wanted to do something relevant to Chinese kids."

Her first inspiration was a book about a Chinese dragon who ate children, which sold very well. This encouraged her to write a story about a rat who goes to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Brennan saw a gapping hole in the market.

"It is quite hard to get things written in English about Chinese subject matters that's funny for kids," she says. "There are books about serious subjects for children, but they are not funny."

She soon decided to do a story for every Chinese zodiac animal.

"I strongly believe that if you can get the kids laughing, then they'll learn. My mission is to teach them a little about Chinese history and culture," she says.

"As China grows greater on the world stage, people want to know about Chinese history. So it's good if their kids can read something about it, that's fun, a non-threatening way of learning a completely different country."

As China attracts more attention from the world, her series has also grown, with children in different parts of the world loving the stories. Brennan has found no cultural gap between their senses of humor.

"It's universal," she says. "Children have a wicked black sense of humor. They love things that are ridiculous. You can do very scary stories as long as it's funny."

Kunal Basu

Kunal Basu got his inspiration for "The Yellow Emperor's Cure" a few years ago when he was visiting a traditional Chinese medicine museum in Beijing.

He was astonished by the various items in the museum and thought to himself, "If I, a citizen of the 21st century, when we know quite a lot about Chinese medicine, like acupuncture and yin and yang, am still so bewildered and perplexed by these things, just imagine what a European traveling in the 19th century would have felt about these things. And what if he was a doctor?"

The inspiration was extended to the story of young Portuguese doctor Antonio Maria going all the way to China in the late 19th century to find a cure for the then untreatable syphilis - the "French Disease, Spanish Itch, German Rash, Polish Pox or Canton Rash," as various books described it.

"One of the very fundamental things about human beings is our health and sickness," Basu tells Shanghai Daily. "People are concerned about health and sickness in every culture. But different cultures see it very differently, and they do not trust the system of others."

The native of Calcutta, best known for his collection of short stories "Japanese Wife," was born in his parent's library at home. His father is a publisher and his mother a writer and both were early communists in India. One story from "Japanese Wife" takes place in China, in contemporary times. His first fiction "Opium Clerk" follows the tales of a young Indian who finds himself in the middle of China's opium trade just around the Opium War.

He grew up surrounded by books from around the world, including a significant collection of Chinese books.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, China had a very special and big attraction to young Indians like myself," he says. "It is getting a lot of attention from India and elsewhere in the world now, largely due to its economic growth. People want to know how can we grow as fast.

"But I'm not particularly interested in that aspect. I'm interested in civilizations. What do they mean? What do they want? And what do young Chinese people want today?"

He adds it is a pity that young Chinese today are not so different from young Indians, young Americans or young British people, who are becoming very homogeneous with the desire to own high fashion brands, live in nice houses, drive flashy cars and dine in fine restaurants.

"China gets a lot of attention now," he says, "but the connection in literary terms between China and the world is not very high at the moment, partially due to the translation culture, which is a very specific skill and craft."

? Michael Dunne: American Wheels, Chinese Roads
Date: Today, 11am

? Jonathan Campbell:
Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock
Date: Today, 5pm

? Steffi Schmitt: Shanghai Promenade
Date: March 17, 11am

? Shanghai Skyscrapers: The Big Three
Date: March 18, 5pm

Venue: 6-7/F, M on the Bund, 20 Guangdong Rd
Admission: 75 yuan


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