A paean to Chinese bookstores

April 29, 2008, [MD]

I absolutely love Chinese bookstores. They are often huge, and buzzing with activity. The biggest are often called “book cities”, and the one I visited in Shenzhen a year ago was about six huge floors. On the Sunday that I visited it, it was packed with people, sitting on everywhere voraciously reading. A big difference between Indonesian bookstores is that in China, the books are almost never wrapped in plastic, and it is totally accepted to spend hours sitting in the bookstore reading books.

When buying any book, but in particular when buying a book in a language that I am still learning, it’s very important to me to be able to look through the book and see the contents, and the level of the language. In Indonesia, I often had to surreptiously take the wrapping off books, without the attendants noticing, so that I could examine the contents (everyone did this), but in China you can collect a few books that look interesting, sit in the window sill, and spend a leisurely half an hour looking through to determine which you would like to buy.

The range of books is amazing, and almost absolutely everything is in Chinese, of course. There are usually extremely few English books, except for a few out-of-copyright bilingual versions (Wuthering Heights, etc) for language learners. (I wonder if CC China could work with publishers to publish bilingual versions of some modern CC licensed novels? It ought to be a lot more interesting for the young English learning audiences to read Cory Doctorow novels, than Gone With the Wind… Not sure if he is using non-commercial though).

English-language intro to Chinese ideologies?\ I always find it interesting looking around in the government section, with lot’s of training material for government exams for people who want to work at different levels - this of course includes political exams. I thought it was very fascinating, the first time I came to China, to see their extensive multiple choice exams on Marxism for example.

One thing that I have thought before, and which I was reminded of looking through the political books is this: Are there any books in English at all which attempt to explain the ideologies of China? I remember when I first lived in China, wishing that I could one day meet a Chinese who was a convinced communist, or convinced of the ideology of the party, and could really explain to me. I wouldn’t even try to argue - just listen and try to understand.

Because for someone who knows at least a little bit of Marx, and has been active in left-wing political parties in Norway, where this was discussed, it is very interesting to see how China’s ideologues can justify China’s current development. Once again - I am not trying to attack or ridicule, but rather to understand. I know that in Chinese there is a huge amoung of ideological training material, political philosophy books etc, but the language is quite confusing, especially for someone who didn’t go through political education in high school and university.

With the increasing importance of China, you’d think that it would be important to really try to understand these ideologies for Westerneras. Even if most Chinese might not actually believe in them, they still function as the official guidelines of the government, and are still taught to hundreds of millions of people every year in schools and workplaces.

New developments\ The bookstore I visited in Dalian was quite similar to what I remembered from 7 years back, but there were two new developments. One was a number of Lonely Planets in Chinese. I am quite sure these did not exist back then, and they are an interesting indicator of the greater wealth of Chinese, and thus the much larger group of Chinese who are able to travel overseas. As well - how many choose to, and are able to do so, independently - because a Lonely Planet is not that useful, if you are on a tour bus the whole time.

I am wondering whether the content is simply the normal Lonely Planet translated, or whether there is stuff added/edited to suit a Chinese audience (Chinese restaurants?). I also wonder whether most of the people who buy them are actually going to backpack overseas, or whether it’s also bought by people who like to dream about doing so. (I’ve certainly enjoyed reading the Lonely Planet for India long before I actually got a chance to go there).

The other thing I noticed was a series of Chinese-language graded readers for Chinese learners. This is a brilliant development, which might be very useful for students of Chinese. The introductory text explained that they had produced 60 titles, with different levels of difficulty. The easiest books only use the 300 most common words in Chinese (not sure how many characters this corresponds to), as well as introduction 1-2% of new words that are glossed at the bottom of each page. There are also introductions to each story in the beginning, to set the context. The most advanced books include up to 5000 words (or characters?).

I am a huge believer in getting people to “break the reading code” in Chinese as early as possible, and I think these graded readers can be a very useful tool. I really hope that Chinese institutions around the world will stock up on these - they certainly are not expensive.

Stian\ (PS: I wrote this a few days ago on my laptop, but this is the first internet cafe that actually would read my USB key and let me post it).

Stian Håklev April 29, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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