BIBF 2013: Collaborations between Sweden and China


The 2013 Beijing International Book Fair (BIBF) takes place from August 28 to September 1. This year’s Guest of Honor is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but it is the results of a series of collaborative projects between China and Sweden throughout the past year that stole the limelight.

Sweden established a national stand in the BIBF for the first time in 2012. Representatives of the two countries discussed the future of publishing and the possibility of setting up more platforms for cultural display and interaction. One of the Swedish representatives is renowned children’s book author Martin Widmark, who visited Cao Wenxuan, a leading Chinese counterpart, at the latter’s home. They drank Chinese tea together while talking about issues of writing and creativity, and Widmark proposed both parties collaborate on a book about a tea cup.

Results of this collaboration were presented at the 2013 BIBF — a children’s book containing two stories, one written by Widmark and illustrated by Chinese artist Gong Yanling, the other by Cao and illustrated by Swedish artist Helena Willis. The book was published simultaneously by Swedish publisher Bonnier Carlsen and China’s People’s Literature Publishing House.

Widmark’s story, titled “The Sleeping River God” (“Den Sovande Guden”, meaning “the sleeping god”), describes how two kids discover a beautiful cup while fishing by a river. Their grandmother warns that the cup belongs to the River God, and there will be serious consequences when he realizes it is gone. Indeed, the River God falls asleep, and hunger, poverty and other disasters descend upon the world. The kids then embark on a journey to return the cup to its owner.

Cao’s story, titled “The Disappearance of Ting Ting” (“Koppen Som Forsvann”, meaning “cup disappeared”), describes how a girl loves a tea cup so much that she names it Ting Ting. One day she discovers Ting Ting has gone missing. The girl and her parents search everywhere and eventually realize the cup was taken by a salesman who visited their house. So she embarks on a journey to bring Ting Ting back home.

It is interesting how Widmark and Cao, two authors with considerably different cultural backgrounds and writing styles, decided to explore the possible fate of a simple tea cup in a similar way. A cup has gone missing, so who has taken it, for what reason, and how it is returned to its rightful owner become the focus of both stories. Widmark’s story is of a magical nature and explores the consequences of violating Nature’s rules, while Cao’s story displays a sense of realism and highlights the importance of social norms.

And that is just one of the many ways to interpret the stories. More interesting and meaningful is the process in which the two books were illustrated and published. After Widmark and Cao completed their stories, these were translated into each other’s language so that the artists, Gong in China and Willis in Sweden, could do their work. How the two artists represented each other’s culture is an issue worthy of exploration. For example, could and should Willis have received much guidance from the Chinese publisher, and Gong from the Swedish publisher, in their attempts to find the best way to visualize each other’s people and social characteristics? Or should we assume, and even believe, that stories and illustrations in “just the way they are” can and will transcend cultural barriers?

Whatever the answers, they are sure to be complicated. Also worthy of much artistic reflection is this collaboration between Swedish and Chinese publishers, authors and illustrators — a brave experiment that creates new ways to imagine and re-create each other’s culture. In opening a window through which one can observe the outside world, it is how one represents the results of such observation that reveals the most about one’s perceptions of himself and his own world.

Images thanks to: Swedish publisher Bonnier Carlsen.

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