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Middle Kingdom Muggles Fall Under Harry Potter Spell

Chinese line up for translations of the first three books about the boy wizard.

October 07, 2000|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — He's conquered virtually the entire Western world, but can a boy wizard from fair England work his magic on the Middle Kingdom?

If the scene Friday at Beijing's famous Wangfujing Bookstore served as any sort of crystal ball, then Harry Potter has a more than decent shot at bewitching young readers across China.

By the time bundles of the first three Harry Potter installments went on sale at 10 a.m., more than a hundred parents and kids had lined up to grab their share of books, stickers and other merchandise devoted to author J.K. Rowling's best-selling creation.

It may not have been the mania that greeted the recent publication in the West of Harry Potter IV, but it was a respectable showing after a publicity campaign remarkable for China, including teasers in children's newsletters, intense secrecy over the books' packaging and plenty of media coverage.

"I guarantee I'll like these books," 12-year-old Zhang Shuo declared Friday before she had even seen a copy, basing her enthusiasm solely on what she had seen advertised on TV.

Her confidence may have said as much about the dreary state of current children's literature in China as it did about the seemingly unstoppable Harry Potter phenomenon.

Still reflecting a surfeit of Communist ideology, Chinese children's books brim with grim didactic purpose, intent on showing readers the path to becoming a Communist golden child.

The books bear such inspiring titles as "Warmly Love the People and Show Concern for the Collective" or--another sure-fire hit with the under-12 crowd--"Respect Your Elders and Passionately Love Labor."

"There's a lot of doctrine in ordinary Chinese reading material," said Ye Xianlin, an editor at the People's Literature Publishing House, which issued the Chinese editions of "Ha-li Bo-te." "The Harry Potter books also teach you about justice, loyalty and bravery, but the qualities come through in the story itself. The books don't tell you what to do."

Still, the Harry Potter series might seem an odd and perhaps risky choice of imported reading material amid the Beijing regime's crackdown on quasi-religious groups such as Falun Gong, which authorities accuse of spreading superstition and other unscientific, "feudalistic" practices.

After all, just as young Harry exemplifies "justice, loyalty and bravery," Falun Gong advocates a blend of "truth, benevolence and forbearance." Harry whizzes around on his Nimbus 2000 broomstick; Falun Gong's founder, Li Hongzhi, claims to be able to levitate through meditation.

But editor Ye doesn't see any danger from Rowling's world of dungeons and dragons.

"In many Chinese classical works, there are gods and demons, but that doesn't mean people will become followers of superstition," he said.

In fact, the publishers hope Rowling's books will attract youngsters because of their similarities to ancient Chinese folk tales that draw on semimystical elements of traditional Chinese cosmology.

Harry's broomstick, they say, isn't that different from the wind- and fire-powered foot-wheels that propel a well-known boy of Chinese legend into the air.

The books were rendered into Chinese by a team of translators who first brought such Western classics as "Alice in Wonderland" to Chinese readers. Some of the translations are quite clever, such as ma-gua--which rhymes with the phrase for "silly fool"--for "muggle" (nonmagical humans in Harry-speak) and Fu-di-mo, meaning "creepy-crawly devil," for Harry's nemesis, evil Lord Voldemort.

All three books were translated by the time People's Literature finally beat out several competitors for rights to the titles in August. Rights for the fourth installment are still up for grabs.

Given the rather boring nature of regular kiddie lit, the biggest competition for Harry Potter may actually come from pirated versions of Rowling's books, which local media say have already appeared on bookstore shelves, and which even Harry's wand, unfortunately, can't make disappear.

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