Beijing: When it was suggested to Indigenous Australian author Bronwyn Bancroft that her picture books for children be translated into Chinese, her first thought was the size of the population.
“Being able to take a story, especially the images, to another country that large,” she recalls.
The Mandarin translation of Big Rain Coming, one of 30 children’s books Bancroft has created, was launched on Thursday as part of Australian Writers’ Week in China.
On her first morning in Beijing, she said the reception had been “just crazy”. She was moved to tears at the response to her bright images of bush and home at a Beijing primary school.
Seven and eight year-olds gasped at photographs of giant eucalypt, and family anecdotes of swimming in creeks, watching out for the platypus.
But it was when her paintings of life as a Bundjalong woman were projected onto the big screen that spontaneous clapping thundered in the Fangcaodi school hall.
She told the children she created them with a tomato sauce bottle. “What!” they shrieked.
“In Australia we fight so hard for recognition as creators … I don’t have an ego, but I was overwhelmed by the emotional response from the kids and the spontaneity,” Bancroft said.
Last year, China became the top overseas market for Australian book rights deals, beating Britain and the United States based on the number of deals signed.
A look at China’s book sales figures explains why Australian publishers are beating on Beijing’s door. Book sales in China rose 12 per cent in 2016, to reach 70 billion yuan ($13 billion), according to the Publisher’s Association of China. Children’s books surged 29 per cent.
Xiao Liyuan, the deputy editor-in-chief of the People’s Literature Publishing House, said online shopping was the main driver of the surge, making up 70 per cent of book sales.
The value of the book market was increasing because the watchdog had tightened checks on quality, Ms Xiao said, causing an increase in prices.
Children’s books were the fastest-growing sector because of the attention Chinese parents pay to their children’s education. Reading for pleasure is being encouraged under a reform to the school system to move away from learning just to pass exams.
To compete with online sellers, and boosted by government tax breaks, book stores are transforming into cultural hubs and designing new spaces that appeal to the cashed-up middle class.
Bookseller Zhongshuge attracted a queue of 20,000 people when the independent chain opened a new store in Hangzhou inspired by an amusement park.
The grande dame of state publishing, Xinhua, will launch a 4000-square-metre store in Shanghai in September designed by Japan’s most famous architect, Tadao Ando.
The CITIC book chain says it will open 60 new stores this year.
Thomas Keneally, one of four Australian authors touring China for Australian Writer’s Week, said he recalled from his earlier visits to China: “Books were important but very poorly produced, and now the production is improving in standard and surpassing Australia.”
He said it was “a wonderful thing” that readers would be introduced to another culture via Mandarin.
“It is a great thing for Bronwyn to have so many readers, given our entire continental population is the same as two Chinese cities,” he said.
Since 2009, 40,000 copies of Keneally’s Schindler’s List have been sold in Chinese. His latest Chinese title is Woman of the Inner Sea.
Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks and top-selling young adults writer John Marsden are also part of the Australian cultural promotion.
The first pieces of Australian literature published in China were poems by Mary Gilmore, Hugh McCrae and Roderic Quinn, selected for a Chinese magazine in 1921.
Between 2002 and 2015, there have been 3200 Australian titles translated into Chinese and published in China.
There were 404 Australian titles published in 2015, up from 105 in 2002.
By Kirsty Needham
Sydney Morning Herald