China's Orwell

Roger Viollet Collection / Getty Images

The modernist
Lu Xun's unadorned style, breadth of thought and progressive stance established a new benchmark for Chinese literature

In 2005, Penguin paid $100,000 for the English-language rights to Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem, a coming-of-age tale set in Inner Mongolia. It was a record sum for a Chinese novel. In 2008, the same publishing house issued, amid much brouhaha, Zhu Wen's I Love Dollars, a lively look at the dark side of China's boom. And it has just announced plans to bring more Chinese writers to the attention of international readers by expanding its Beijing operations.

Clearly, Penguin is bullish about Chinese literature — good news if you think, as I...

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