HarperCollins recently announced its purchase of the Chinese novel Zu Jie by author Xiao Bai for $60,000, for publication in English for the Western market. The noir thriller will be published in 2015 under the English name French Concession. The purchase is part of a trend, signaling increased interest in Chinese literature among Western publications and readers.

China’s book market is now the world’s largest, publishing 7.7 billion books in 2011, a 7.5 percent increase from 2010. Of those books, 48 sold more than one million copies. Most of those titles were written by Chinese authors for Chinese readers, but Western books translated into Chinese also feature prominently.

LKYOf all the themes of the book (LEE KUAN YEW: THE GRAND MASTER’S INSIGHTS ON CHINA, THE UNITED STATES, AND THE WORLD BY GRAHAM ALLISON, ROBERT BLACKWILL AND ALI WYNE, MIT PRESS), the single most important, of course, is China, and its global equation with the United States. And who better to discuss that than Lee, who has been a mentor to Chinese leaders going back to Deng Xiao Ping, as well as to American presidents going back to Nixon. We can, he cautions us, expect to see China assert itself as the No. 1 power in Asia—and ultimately in the world. The Chinese have calculated that they need perhaps fifty years to build up their capabilities—economic, technological and military—and then make the ultimate transition from communism to the market system. Until then the dictum is, apparently, “Keep your head down, and smile for forty or fifty years”. But after that, perhaps circa 2060, the smile is likely to be switched off. China cannot forget its dominant historical position as the ‘Middle Kingdom’, to which lesser nations offered tribute, Lee explains, and a sense of reawakened destiny now drives them to reclaim that position.

Mo Yan

Mo Yan: no dissident. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Mo Yan, China’s first Nobel laureate for literature, has been greeted with some extraordinary hostility in the west. This week Salman Rushdie described him as a “patsy” for the Chinese government. According to the distinguished sinologist Perry Link, “Chinese writers today, whether ‘inside the system’ or not, all must choose how they will relate to their country’s authoritarian government.” And, clearly, Mo Yan has not made the right choice, which is to range himself as an outspoken “dissident” against his country’s authoritarian regime.

But doesn’t the “writer’s imagination” also conflict with the “imagination of the state” in a liberal capitalist democracy? This was broadly the subject that John Updike was asked to speak on at a PEN conference in New York in 1986. Updike delivered – to what Rushdie, also in attendance, described as a “considerably bewildered audience of world writers” – a paean to the blue mailboxes of the US Postal Service, which, he marvelled, took away his writings with miraculous regularity and brought him cheques and prizes in return.

The sensation caused by Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize in literature is one thing, what it means for Chinese literature and the writer himself is another.

Mo’s win seems to have stimulated Chinese people’s appetite for serious literature. But the enthusiasm is superficial, mostly out of curiosity and some organisations’ pursuit of economic interests, and it will definitely fade.

Compared with the readership for popular magazines and the huge number of people who surf the Internet, the readership for serious literature has been declining over the past few decades, and sales of literature magazines and novels have continued to drop. Little wonder that many Chinese people did not know who Mo Yan was when it was announced he had won the Nobel Prize.