Tea Leaf Nation
How to Top China’s Best-Seller List Without Really Trying
A celebrity endorsement has fueled "The Kite Runner" nine years after its China debut.
This article has been updated.
In Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong in southern China, 15-year-old leukemia patient He Danting reads The Kite Runner in between chemotherapy sessions. The high school student loves to read and wishes she were back at school, said a March 2 report about He in the local Guangzhou Daily, so nurses gave her Khaled Hosseini’s story of boyhood betrayal and adult redemption set in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, when children at the Bashu Primary School in the megacity of Chongqing were preparing for a monthlong spring festival holiday, parents organized a book lottery. Among the titles given to students for reading over the break was The Kite Runner, reported local news site Hualong Net on March 1. At Tsinghua University in Beijing, popularly known as the “M.I.T. of China,” the third-best-selling book among students in 2014 was also The Kite Runner.
The curious thing is that The Kite Runner is not new to China. It has been in print there since 2006, after being picked up by the Shanghai People’s Publishing House.* It’s long been popular, bouncing up and down the top 30 list compiled by OpenBook.com.cn, but recently it became a blockbuster. Over the last nine years, The Kite Runner has sold more than 3 million copies in China. Nearly a third of that total comes from sales in 2014. On Dangdang.com, China’s leading online bookseller, the most popular fiction title over the last 24 hours (as of March 5), the last seven days, the last 30 days, and for all of 2014 was The Kite Runner. The runaway success of the book means Hosseini earned $1.2 million in Chinese royalties in 2014, propelling him to the top of the country’s foreign author rich list, published annually by Huaxi Metropolis Daily, a publication based in the western Chinese city of Chengdu.
Gray Tan, Hosseini’s literary agent in Taiwan and the person who helped sell the rights to the Chinese publisher, told Foreign Policy via email that the latest royalty reports show 880,000 copies of The Kite Runner sold in China last year, making 2014 “probably the biggest year for the book to date.” Tan said 3.7 million copies have been printed in China, but exact sales figures for each year can be hard to nail down.
Why has a years-old text set in a distant land shot to the top of the Chinese charts? Bookseller Dangdang.com notes that U.S. President Barack Obama bought The Kite Runner for his daughter. That might sway some Chinese readers. But the market-moving endorsement, appears to have come from Beijing-born actress Gao Yuanyuan, who recommended the book during a Nov. 2013 appearance on the hugely popular Chinese variety show “Happy Camp.” Gao is the star of Chinese romantic comedies such as “Let’s Get Married” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” One fawning reader, a woman based in Beijing who blogs under the alias “White Rabbit on the Moon,” wrote in an October 2014 post that she read the book out of curiosity and also “because the goddess Gao Yuanyuan recommended it.”
Tan acknowledged that “Gao’s recommendation contributes significantly to the surge of sales in 2014.” But he added that Gao’s endorsement is part of a bigger snowball effect that has to do with word of mouth and the way books are sold in China today. Online sales mean that regional differences in taste are being minimized. The Kite Runner, for example, is the top fiction seller in poor mountainous Guizhou and in the central province of Shaanxi and in Dongguan, a manufacturing hub next to Hong Kong.
In essence, The Kite Runner is experiencing a China-style version of the Oprah effect. U.S. talk show host Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, launched in 1996, helped catapult numerous books to the top of U.S. best-seller lists. As in the United States, where pundits debate whether television is the right medium to popularize books, some Chinese have wondered aloud whether the general public should be taking reading advice from young starlets on variety shows. On Zhihu, an interactive, online platform similar to Quora.com where anyone can post questions, one user asked in December 2014, “What does everyone think of this phenomenon where Chinese people don’t love reading books and instead only like Gao Yuanyuan and Happy Camp?” They also remarked that it seemed like the only popular books in China were titles that have gotten attention from celebrities like Gao. Chinese people do love to read, one person responded, they simply don’t know what to read — and so are open to suggestions from anyone.
That’s not to say The Kite Runner is without merit. Chinese reader reviews of the book on Dangdang and on popular reader site Douban praise the book’s warmth, its humanity, and the compelling way Hosseini paints the protagonist’s struggle to discern what’s morally right. One person on Douban wrote that reading The Kite Runner marked the first time in a long while where he didn’t watch television or go online at night, but instead stayed up late reading. “I have finished with the book, but the reverberations in my soul are like the ripples from the stone thrown into a lake by Hassan,” a character in the book. “They will take a long time to disperse.”
Few readers mentioned, and perhaps few are aware, that the Chinese publisher has removed certain politically sensitive details. Though the English version refers to Afghanistan’s “Soviet puppet government” of Mohammad Najibullah in the late 1980s, the Chinese edition just calls it a “puppet government.” In the same paragraph, a passage about 1989, there is another missing bit: “That was the year that the cold war ended, the year the Berlin Wall came down. It was the year of Tiananmen Square.” The final sentence, referring to the democracy protests on Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the bloody military response, was cut from the Chinese edition. Wang Lei, the general manager of Horizon Books in Beijing, which co-published the book with the Shanghai People’s Publishing House, said via email that the changes were “necessary adjustments made to comply with publishing rules.” “We certainly didn’t make any drastic cuts,” she told FP. Such censorship is routine in China and is carried out by publishers in order to avoid getting in trouble with the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, which doles out the ISBNs required for all books and also issues publishing licenses.
Other potentially problematic content survived. Chinese publishers can be very squeamish about sexual content in books but, interestingly, a rape scene and frank references to the event are translated faithfully. (Then again, it’s hard to imagine the book making sense if those details had been removed since the violence is central to its theme of sin and redemption.) In China, instead of shielding children from this story, parents and teachers seem to have embraced the tale. Tan said Chinese students are often assigned The Kite Runner as extracurricular reading.
Jynne Martin, the director of publicity for Riverhead Books, which published The Kite Runner, told FP that Hosseini does not do interviews when between books, as he is now. She said Hosseini has never done a book tour in China. But he has visited; The Kite Runner’s movie adaptation was actually shot in the far western region of Xinjiang in the fall of 2006 because shooting in war-torn Afghanistan was out of the question. Scenes set in Kabul were filmed in Kashgar, a Silk Road trading city with a large Uighur Muslim population. (A Uighur-language edition of The Kite Runner was published by Xinjiang People’s Publishing in 2008, Hosseini’s foreign rights agent Chandler Crawford said.)
Jody Hotchkiss, Hosseini’s film agent, said that Hosseini spent about a month with the crew in Xinjiang and Beijing, rewriting scenes as needed. Hosseini’s father also went along. Hotchkiss said that, for Hosseini, the experience of making the film in China was “absolutely wonderful.” “This is a father and son story. To have his own father there was very meaningful,” Hotchkiss told FP. This was well before Hosseini became China’s top fiction author. “Nobody knew who he was on the set,” Hotchkiss said. “It wasn’t like people were saying ‘Oh wow, The Kite Runner is coming to Kashgar.’” Thanks in part to the power of Chinese celebrity, things have changed.
*Correction, March 11, 2015: The Shanghai People’s Publishing House published the Chinese edition of The Kite Runner. An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the publishing house as the Shanghai People’s Press. (Return to reading.)