China's Joyceans enjoy a belated Bloom boom


"Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crust-crumbs, fried hen-cods' roes. Most of all, he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine."

I heard the above passage from James Joyce's Ulysses read in Chinese the other evening. Joyce is difficult enough to grasp in English. I had never celebrated Bloomsday before this weekend and must admit I have never finished Ulysses. But on Friday, I was proud to partake in the first ever Bloomsday celebration in China.

A large Chinese and Irish audience gathered for the event in the Irish embassy in Beijing. Further south in Shanghai, Mr Bloomsday himself, Senator David Norris, was on hand to host a celebration of the great writer's work, his first time not to be in Dublin on June 16th.

China is among the plethora of symbols you will find in Ulysses. At the start of Leopold Bloom's mock-epic odyssey around Dublin, set on June 16th, 1904, he recalls a book describing an expedition to China. Fifteen hours and hundreds of pages later, Bloom notices the tome on the shelves of his front room.

Three-quarters of a century has passed since Ulysses was first published in Paris, becoming the 20th century's most widely celebrated and closely dissected novel. Ten copies of the original edition were shipped to Beijing in 1922. In later years, one attempted translation was banned by the communist regime on the grounds that Ulysses was irredeemably bourgeois.

Today, however, there is a Bloom boom under way in China and Joyce mania has been sweeping the country ever since Ulysses was finally translated into Chinese by a husband-and-wife team, Xiao Qian and Wen Jiero, in 1995. On that occasion, there were near riots in the clamour for the first copies, which were immediately sold out in Chinese bookshops. Eventually, army vehicles were dispatched to get fresh supplies to meet the phenomenal demand.

More than 200,000 copies of this Chinese version of Ulysses have been sold. Xiao Qian has since passed away but his wife was a guest in the Irish embassy on Friday night for the eve of Bloomsday celebration. A second translation of Ulysses, by Jin Di of the Tianjin Foreign Languages College and published in 1996, has also sold very well. A third translation is due to be published later this year.

According to a Chinese Joyce expert, Prof Chen Shu, of the English department in the Beijing Foreign Studies University, Irish literature is becoming increasingly popular in China. He first became interested in Joyce when he went to Trinity College in 1984 on an exchange programme and he has published a Chinese "layman's" guidebook to Ulysses.

The former Chinese Minister of Culture, and now vice-president of the Chinese Writers' Association, Mr Wang Meng, explained to the Beijing Bloomsday audience how he became familiar with Joyce's A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man when he led a delegation of Chinese writers to Ireland last September. He said he was taken with the description of Stephen as a man of "silence, exile and cunning".

"Joyce must have been Chinese, because these traits so accurately describe my own people," he said to chuckles of laughter from the gathering.

"Bloomsday in Beijing" was hosted by the Irish embassy counsellor and deputy head of mission, Ms Kathryn Coll. Prof Chen Shu read in Chinese from Ulysses while Dr Seamus Ryan regaled the gathering with the same passage in English. The audience included eight Chinese postgraduate students of Anglo-Irish literature.

The Irish writer Mary O'Donnell, the Irish winner of the 2001 Suspended Sentence literary award, gave a short summary of The Dead and read passages. She also read from one of her novels while the Irish poet, Carmen Cullen, director of the Oscar Wilde Autumn School, read some of her poems.

In Shanghai, Mr Norris hosted a Bloomsday breakfast in the Dublin Exchange and made a presentation to the Shanghai library. "It has been wonderful," he said. "To be here on Bloomsday to celebrate James Joyce is a great honour."

He said Bloomsday was now celebrated in 60 countries all over the world and it was only fitting that China, where there was a huge interest in the writer, should formally mark this literary event. For years, Mr Norris has declined invitations to travel to host Bloomsday in foreign climes. "When I got the invitation from Geoffrey Keating of the Irish consulate in Shanghai I thought the time had come to bring Joyce celebrations out of Ireland. And no better place than China."

Joyce said of Ulysses: "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles, it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of ensuring one's immortality."

His immortality certainly seems assured in China. No doubt Leopold Bloom would approve.