Spreading the word
Two Chinese novelists, Su Tong and Wang Anyi, have just been named finalists for the biennial Man Booker International Prize, the first Chinese writers to receive this honour. This is, therefore, something of a milestone. Yet, even while savouring the reflected glow of this accolade, those familiar with contemporary Chinese literature might wonder why it has taken so long. One explanation might be that this prize, like many international prizes, is based on works in English, and the English-language publishing world has been slow to produce Chinese novels or, indeed, much of anything in translation (a situation that, fortunately, seems to be improving somewhat).
This particular prize, furthermore, is awarded not for a single book, but for a writer's entire corpus. China's recent history has been such that it has not been possible for a long time to publish novels; these two authors are, by the standards of such lifetime prizes, relatively young, Su Tong particularly so.
Some things, in other words, take time. And by other measures, this has all happened rather quickly. It has, after all, only been four years since the Man Asian Literary Prize was first awarded. The award, the first explicitly pan-Asian prize, was established (quoting the original press release) to 'recognise the work of Asian writers and to bring them to the attention of the world literary community', something which has arguably already been accomplished to some considerable extent.
One will never know, of course, the degree of direct causality here. It is likely that greater international recognition of Asian literature would have come about of its own accord, Asian literary prize or no; certain national literatures - Japanese and Indian come to mind - had long been established and, sooner or later, the rest of the world - even the admittedly somewhat insular English-speaking world - would have cottoned on to the fact that Chinese writers can be very good indeed. Let's just say that an Asian literary prize of global standing didn't hurt and that this process is by no means finished yet.
The Man Asian Literary Prize, which Su Tong in fact won in 2009, was a Hong Kong born and bred initiative and so the recent short-listing of Su Tong and Wang Anyi for the Man Booker International is of more than mere passing interest. Hong Kong can evidently punch above its weight in cultural matters when it puts its mind to it.
It just has to do what Hong Kong does best: organising, managing, communicating, leveraging, motivating and achieving to a standard that few places in the world can match.
The Hong Kong International Literary Festival is, likewise, Asia's most venerable. While Asia now has a multitude of international literary festivals, from Jaipur to Bali and Shanghai, the one in Hong Kong, it seems, came first. Several of the others were started by people who had previously experienced the festival here. As legacies go, this isn't a bad one.
Somewhat more prosaically, or at least commercially, the annual Hong Kong Book Fair is staggeringly huge, belying the common (mis)conception that Hong Kong and books don't mix.
These are not the only examples, of course, of a Hong Kong cultural activity having significance beyond our borders: Hong Kong film has long been influential, and the city has an increasingly important role in the global art market.
Literature, however, is not an area for which Hong Kong has traditionally been renowned. Few people outside a narrow group of cognoscenti can name a Hong Kong author, and Hong Kong publishers are tiny by international standards. Yet Hong Kong has spawned literary activities which span the continent and which have proved to be of not inconsiderable benefit to the cause of wider international recognition of Chinese literature. Who'd have thought it?
Yet, upon reflection, where else in Asia could this have happened? Hong Kong is not a country; being international comes naturally - indeed, it usually has little choice. And when the success criteria are entrepreneurial and managerial, Hong Kong is second to none.
Compared with the West Kowloon Cultural District, these literary successes - or regional leadership, for such it is - are perhaps small beer, but they nevertheless demonstrate that Hong Kong's traditional strengths are as applicable to at least certain cultural activities as they are to, say, finance.
If any place has a claim to be Asia's literary 'hub' (a dreadful - and dreadfully overused - term which is nonetheless descriptive), it is Hong Kong. If this sounds like a somewhat narrow objective, then it is worth remembering that literature is to communication as finance is to business: the presence of excellence in the written word catalyses excellence in media and education, among other industries. At this time, when the new technologies of electronic publishing and distribution are turning the publishing world inside out, Hong Kong has a clear opportunity - as Harvard's Harry Lewis noted in these pages several weeks ago - to take a dominant regional if not global position in what will be a reconfigured industry.
The first chapter of this story, a prize-worthy tale if ever there was one, has been written. I can't wait to see how it turns out.
Peter Gordon was inaugural chair of the Man Asian Literary Prize and one of the original organisers of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. He edits the Asian Review of Books