April 3, 2013

Chinese government funds books that support claims of Chinese government


Books about barren worthless islands are so hot right now.

Monday we wrote about the benefits of arts funding for the book world, in particular France‘s impressive new efforts to defend bookstores and thus all of literary culture.

Today we look at another angle on government funding for the arts: the obtuse arithmetic by which the Chinese National Publication Foundation unabashedly pushes territorial nationalism through the books it funds and promotes.

The National Publication Foundation has enough funding to make even Dohle look twice—according to Xinhua they’ve been given 174 million dollars over four years—and it’s it using it to push a strong agenda. They’ve announced their funding recipients for 2013: 340 projects receiving a total of 57.8 million dollars.

With those kinds of numbers, the work being funded is extensive in range. As Bruce Humes notes, for the first time all of China’s westernmost provinces have funded projects on the list (and many of them have more than one). A few of the works being funded from Western China include such future bestsellers as Complete Works of Elshir Nawa’I (Vol 5-29), Complete Yungang Grotto Carvings, and, significantly, at least ten books about Tibetan culture.

This is a significant move for the funding organization, and notable enough. Any book about these poets, this art, is surely a step toward the continued cultural survival of the area’s increasingly homogenized minorities. But the truly interesting part of the hefty funding is in those projects that the National Publication Foundation themselves have chose to highlight first.

In their own analysis of the funded projects, the foundation picks out six characteristics they find remarkable, including the smaller projects that have been funded (food safety books are their chosen example, interestingly) and the general quality of projects overall. But they also emphasize the value of projects that deal in current events, specifically a documentary history of China’s claim to the Diaoyu Islands, the “strong physical information to prove the legitimacy of our territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea islands” (Google Translate can be rocky with Mandarin).

This is the same territorial dispute, you’ll remember, which has led the Chinese to ban Japanese books from stores and to protest Japanese paper mills, alongside equal nationalist ‘hysteria’ in Japan.

These projects aren’t being mandated by the government—they’re merely approved—but it’s interesting to try to read the government’s agenda in the books being published. By this metric, this year China is obsessed with territorial claims in the South China Sea, with issues of food safety, and with obscure Turkish poets from the 15th century.

Okay, it’s not a perfect system. And it’s not as if China alone is guilty of this. After all, something like half of the history books funded in Washington work to legitimate U.S. rights to Isle Royale (you can pry it from our cold, mosquito-bitten wolf-gnawed hads, Canada!). It is, however, an interesting and unembarrassed opening onto the role politics plays in cultural funding.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.