Reading in China

When people emerge from feudalism only to find themselves imprisoned once more by pyschopaths dressed as plumbers, it’s difficult to take exception to any desire they may have to change their condition and to make that change permanent. However, there is always the odd Cassandra in trousers determined to find defeat in victory. “In China there are no bestseller lists,” writes Rafael Poch,

but if the bookshop on Beijing’s Wang Fujing may serve as reference, then the hierarchy is clear. First dictionaries, English manuals and never-ending titles promising rapid access to wealth and personal success. Literature is clearly lagging behind.

Since you can’t eat literature, less Gogol and more Google might seem like a reasonable choice, but when Rafael Poch discovers internet searches he’ll also discover that there are in fact Chinese bestseller lists – an inevitable consequence of automated stock control and intelligent consumers – and that, contrary to his belief, China may turn out to be passing through a gold-leafed age of reading.

Firstly, it’s not necessarily true that – as he suggests – people are reading less (or even buying less books). Euromonitor, for example, concludes that the main reason for the drop of 7.9% in volume sales in the period 1998-2002 was “was a decline in textbook sales following a central government ruling to reduce student study loads during the review period” and notes that value sales increased by 31.6% over the same period. When you tie in the huge volume of pirated foreign work (18 million books were seized in 2001) that has appeared on the market as WTO rules and other liberal measures have kicked in, as well as the availability (and popularity) of literature available through the internet, I think that a more intelligent conclusion would be that people are not necessarily reading less but that they are reading what they want to read.

It’s hard not to get excited by that, but are they reading rubbish? The answer is – by my criteria – clearly no. The same Euromonitor survey notes that

Study helpers, books on marketing and management, investment, biographies and self-improvement all proved popular with Chinese consumers during the review period, especially copyright-imported titles. Meanwhile, foreign classic novels, books about soap operas, and books about corruption also performed well. The Harry Potter series claimed the four top selling slots in the children’s bestseller list in 2001.

Much smaller surveys, although of no quantitative value, tend to reflect this highly encouraging picture. Here’s an excerpt from a summary by an unnamed American diplomat of what was selling at San Lian in Beijing in mid-1998:

The best seller list at the Beijing Sanlian Bookstore (Meishuguan Donglu #22 just north of Wangfujing and east of the Fine Arts Museum) has three books about the USA on the bestseller list for the week of September 13 – 20. The books, at spots #3, #4, and #5 are “Deep Concerns About History” [Lishi shenchude youlu], “It Doesn’t All Depend Upon the President” [Zongtong shi kaobuzhude], both by Lin Da, a Chinese who emigrated to the USA. and “America Close-up” [Weiguan Meiguo]. I read the first third of “Deep Concerns” last Spring. The book is in the form of letters home to a cousin in China explaining the American political and social system. The book has very acute observations of the U.S. political and legal system. I haven’t attacked the other two yet. “America Close-Up” is by Hu Shuli, an editor of Workers Daily [Gongren Ribao] who spent six months in the U.S. in 1987 and a year at Stanford in 1994 -1995. Having read a good bit of “Deep Concerns” and a few other American books it seems that the quality of information the Chinese get about the USA continues to increase a rapid pace.

While you ponder whether the Chinese public may already be receiving more accurate information about the US and the rest of the globe than readers of La Vanguardia, here’s a top 10 – same bookshop, same source – from 1999:

1) New Capitalism by Feng Yun (Social Sciences Publishing House).. sold out

2) The Coming Conflict with China by Richard Bernstein and Ross Munroe (according to the publication page published in Chinese translation in 1997 in an edition of 6000 copies…. maybe it has been hanging in the back rooms for a while, now the time has come to clean it out?) (#7 the previous week)

3) Class: A Guide to the American Status System by Paul Fussell (originally published in the USA in 1983) (#7 or so last week)

4) New China Transportation Map

5) SAS Survival Manual (Chinese translation of British commando wilderness survivial manual)

6) Poetry by Wang Li (the great Chinese linguist) (no. 2 last week)

7) From Hippies to Yuppies: A Personal Account of the Sexual Revolution by James Clifden (surname retranslated from Chinese, may be off slightly) (also in about this place last week)

8) A book full of the cartoons of Feng Zikai

9) Old Photographs #9 ninth in a very popular series of photographs of late 19th Century and early 20th Century China.

10) New China Dictionary (no. 1 last week)

When you bear in mind the amount of Chomsky lugged over the counters of our main bookstores, then this is excellent stuff, but number five is bothering me. Why?

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