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UPDATED: April 23, 2012 NO. 17 APRIL 26, 2012
The People's Author
Lambasting social injustices, Charles Dickens' fame lives on in China
By Bai Shi

CLASSIC TALE: The drama Oliver Twist adapted from Charles Dickens' novel of the same name debuts at the Capital Theater in Beijing in March 2007. Many works of Dickens are still popular in China (REN FENGTAO)

By some standards, China today may be going through the best of times and the worst of times: The nation's economic power has resulted in one of the fastest growing economies in the world with the side effects being environmental degradation and the people's growing obsession with money. The country faces the challenges of industrialization and urbanization and some of their ugly by-products, much like London did in the 1800s, as illustrated in many works of Charles Dickens (1812-70).

Modern China and the 19th century England, despite time period differences, share many of the similarities associated with great social and economic upheavals—a rush of workers from rural to urban areas, changing relations between the people, and numerous reforms—that tie the two countries together across the ages.

This year marked the bicentenary of the birth of Dickens, who is widely regarded as the greatest English novelist of the Victorian period. Under the current social environment, the celebration held special significance in China. While a major producer of everything from bullet trains to cellphones, China has yet to produce writers with skills on par with Dickens in terms of critical works pointing out the shortfalls of society.

Common commemoration

In celebration of Dickens' 200th birthday last February, people around the world commemorated this English novelist by holding a number of activities and events. For instance, a global read-a-thon of Dickens' works was held in 24 countries over 24 hours.

Many Chinese authors and readers also took part in the international celebration. Since last October, a number of seminars about Dickens were held in Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing. In February, the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy in Beijing invited Chinese writers and readers to commemorate Dickens and announced the winners of Dickens 2012 Creative Writing competition. Chinese applicants wrote about their cities as Dickens did about his own hometown of London.

Although a writer from the Victorian era, Dickens continues to be one of the best known and most read English authors. His works transcend his time, language and culture and have a huge impact on Chinese literature.

Dickens' novel David Copperfield was first translated into Chinese by Lin Shu (1852-1924) and Wei Yi (1880-1930) in 1908. At that time, China was oppressed by imperialism and people were suffering. An unprecedented literature reform was needed. Thus, Dickens' critical realism and satirical writing aroused the keen interest of Chinese readers and were widely praised by Chinese writers. The humanitarianism and critical realism have a positive influence on Chinese modern novelists. In the following decades, well-known Chinese writers, such as Lu Xun (1881-1936), also wrote a lot of novels of critical realism. All 15 novels and most other works of Dickens have been translated into Chinese today. Moreover, in respect of quantity of the translation works, Dickens ranks the second in the Chinese book market following William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

Sympathy for the weak

Dickens gave much depiction of children and the downtrodden poor. He created some of the world's most memorable fictional characters in his works. Readers can feel the author's deep sympathy and mercy for the miserable figures, such as the orphan Oliver Twist. This can be due largely to Dickens' own experiences during growing up.

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