When Luo Xuanmin, a professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University, received a telephone call in March 2008 from a publisher asking him to translate the memoir of an up-and-coming U.S. politician, he had only the vaguest idea who the guy was. "Barack Obama?"
To the extent that people in China follow U.S. politics, most assumed that Hillary Rodham Clinton would win the Democratic nomination for president. Not only was Obama an unknown, the Chinese press hadn't even figured out yet what Chinese characters to use to spell his first name.
Now, as China prepares to welcome President Obama, who is scheduled to arrive Sunday, few educated Chinese do not recognize his name. The Chinese edition of "The Audacity of Hope," which Luo translated, has sold more than 130,000 copies, and also is widely available through pirated versions downloadable on the Internet, a sure sign of success here. "Dreams From My Father" was also a bestseller.
But people are still asking: Who is Barack Obama?
The fascination now is as much about curiosity as admiration. It is not just that he looks unlike any other American president. Everything about him -- his relative youth, his charisma, his background as a community organizer -- is the polar opposite of China's gray, staid Communist Party leaders.
"When [Chinese President] Hu Jintao meets Obama, I'm sure he will feel a little nervous to be with somebody who is such a great example of a new kind of leader who knows how to use the new media," said Bei Feng, a blogger in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou who has been pushing for the U.S. Embassy to report highlights of Obama's visit live on Twitter.
There is little doubt that the Chinese government had a higher comfort level with Obama's predecessor, despite ideological differences. George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, who was the U.S. envoy to Beijing in the mid-1970s, were known quantities for a government that puts a high premium on predictability and stability. The Chinese credited the Bush dynasty with cementing trade ties that brought about prosperity here.
In fact, China is one of the few places in the world where George W. Bush was popular. Albania is another.
"It wasn't that the Chinese government really loved the Republicans' administration, but they understood them. The Republicans were very clear about what were their interests," said Michael Anti, a Chinese blogger and social critic. "Obama is a man of ideas, and the Chinese government doesn't know how to deal with ideas, only with interests. There is too much guesswork with Obama."
Li Datong, retired editor of Freezing Point, a supplement of the China Youth Daily, concurs.
"I do think that the Chinese government prefers Republicans. They are more realistic. The Democrats are always very idealistic about human rights, and that creates a headache," he said.
Obama doesn't have quite the rock star following here that he commands in France and Germany, even among young intellectuals. U.S. tariffs on Chinese tires and steel pipes have spurred resentment among young nationalists.
"He is a fresh, new thing, but the young Chinese don't understand the political culture of democracy, so they don't react to him like in Europe," Anti said.
Nevertheless, the government appears jittery about giving the U.S. leader a chance to speak directly to the Chinese people. The White House has been trying to schedule a town hall-style meeting in Shanghai with students that would be broadcast live on Chinese television and the Internet. As of Friday afternoon, no agreement had been reached, according to the U.S. Embassy.
Similar requests during past visits by U.S. presidents have been denied.
Although the Chinese are reluctant to speak publicly about it, the issue of race lurks in the background.
A 20-year-old Shanghai woman with a Chinese mother and an African American father faced a torrent of racist invective after she appeared on an "American Idol"-type show in August. "In the same year that Americans welcome Obama to the White House, we can't even accept this girl with a different skin color," social critic Hung Huang said.
Even at high levels of the Chinese government, people often have difficulty grasping the complexities of American racial issues.
An example was a ham-handed comment during a briefing Thursday by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman who was trying to explain why Obama should not meet with the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama.
"China abolished the feudal serf system [in Tibet] just as President Lincoln freed the black slaves. So we hope President Obama, more than any other foreign state leader, can have a better understanding of China's position," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters.
During the presidential primaries, Chinese tended to express a strong preference for Hillary Clinton, praising her husband, her looks and even her blond hair.
Obama was such an unknown that Han Manchun, an editor at the Law Press, a state-owned, Beijing-based publisher, managed to buy the Chinese rights to "The Audacity of Hope" in March 2008 for only $3,000.
No one else was interested. "They only wanted books about Hillary," Han said.
Translator Luo was inclined to turn down the book, but read a third of it, was captivated, and signed on. It turned out to be a daunting translation project, not only because of cultural references that included "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Father Knows Best," but because of the style of writing.
"The way that Obama writes about politics uses a strong rhetorical style," Luo said.
For example, Luo cites a section of "The Audacity of Hope" in which Obama writes of his reservations about globalization, which he says has brought both benefits to U.S. consumers and costs to American workers whose jobs disappear overseas. This is perhaps the same complexity that has made it difficult for the Chinese at times to figure out what Obama is all about.
Where does he really stand on free trade? What are his positions on human rights? What position will he take toward the issue of political rights for the Tibetans?
The Chinese translation of "The Audacity of Hope" faithfully followed the English original. According to Luo, Obama's agent was so concerned about censorship or slanting that the publishers were instructed to remove footnotes explaining terms like Iran-Contra and Whitewater to Chinese readers.
Nevertheless, Obama soon got his opportunity to be censored in China.
Just a few minutes into his presidency, Chinese television's live coverage of the inauguration address suddenly cut off when Obama made a disparaging reference to communism.
Chinese news media also deleted the following remark: "Those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent -- know that you are on the wrong side of history."
Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.