English Version
Chinese Version
 Letter from the Editor
 Cover Feature
 Art Scene
 Book Review
 Film Review
 Fast Facts
 In Short
 About Us
 Contact Us
International: $135 per year
U.S. only: $99 per year

Book Review
What China Is Reading
by Dai Kaili

If your impression of Chinese reading habits is Red Guards poring over dog-eared copies of The Quotations of Chairman Mao, you will be amazed by the hunger of today’s Chinese for the written word and knowledge of the world outside of China. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) now produces and consumes more books than any other country in the world. Bookstores are packed nationwide, with browsers and buyers often sipping espressos and surfing the Internet seeking information on new titles. We Chinese look for pretty much the same things as citizens anywhere when choosing reading material: entertainment and intellectual stimulation.

Beautiful Alien
With SARS fading into the background of China’s collective consciousness, the United States—long one of the country’s primary fascinations—is back in the spotlight. Hillary Clinton’s autobiography has been a top seller this month, with readers here, as elsewhere, viewing the former First Lady’s words on her husband’s philandering with a mixture of sympathy and admiration for the author. Senator Clinton’s stalwart defense of Bill’s public “face” plays well to an understanding Chinese audience.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese reading public is absorbed by a number of books probing the political culture of the United States. Sino-U.S. relations seem to be faring well in the new world order, with 9-11 giving both sides an opportunity to focus on terrorism and take a break from their “strategic competition” for geopolitical influence. Working closely with the U.S. to achieve negotiations with North Korea, Beijing has recently won glowing praise from American leaders, who repeated Communist Party Secretary Hu Jintao’s statement that “the relationship has never been better.”

Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (W. W. Norton) was prominently reviewed in the inaugural (June) issue of the Economic Observer’s (Jingji Guanchabao) book review supplement. This is significant because the Economic Observer is a Chinese business newspaper with a rapidly rising circulation, and a publication that can—up to a point—delve deeply into political issues. This is because the newspaper’s angle is ostensibly economic, not political. Caijing [Finance] Monthly and Ershiyi Shiji Jingji Daobao [21st Century Economic Herald] are two other notable examples of this phenomenon in the Chinese media. These journals boast readerships among the new professional class rather than the old intelligentsia.

Zakaria is a high-profile geopolitical writer and former managing editor of Foreign Affairs. The Future of Freedom presents among its arguments the idea that “democracy itself is not inherently good,” and that democracy can exist independently of the “constitutional liberalism” that underlies many of the West’s freedoms.

This book has aroused passion in the PRC, where it is politically correct to argue that the transplanting of Western democratic institutions into Chinese society will not work.

Hot List
Compiled from discussion with bookworms throughout Beijing, the following six titles are among the most widely discussed books in China this month.

• Yang Jiang, We Three (Women San) (Sanlian Publishing). The original 60,000-unit printing of this autobiographical work was sold out within two weeks of its release. Yang Jiang, widow of acclaimed novelist Qian Zhongshu, published an earlier book, A Cadre School Life: Six Chapters (Tr. Geremie Barmé, New York: Readers International, 1984). The first book dealt with the tragic impact of the Cultural Revolution on a highly educated family of literary intellectuals. Readers found its understated description of this time of turmoil remarkable. In its sequel, Yang endures the loss of her husband and the death of her daughter from cancer.

• Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness (Meiyou kuanshu, meiyou weilai). (Doubleday, 1999). Chinese political culture of the past century has had very few good words to say about the virtues of forgiveness. Hatred of class enemies, traitors, Japanese invaders, British colonialists, imperialists, and more was seen as a vital resource to be nurtured and harvested by the state. Tutu’s writings on forgiveness seem to have struck a chord with present-day Chinese readers.

• Verena Kast, A Time to Mourn: Growing through the Grief Process (Tiyan beiai). Nonfiction by a noted Swiss psychoanalyst about growing through grief.

• New York Times’ 50 Scientists (Niuyue Shibao wushiwei kexuejia). Compiled from the NYT’s “Scientists at Work” column. Chinese reviewers lament that China either does not produce, or fails to celebrate, scientists capable of illuminating the public, which explains some of the hunger for a book such as this one.

• Nobel Prize Winners Talk with Children (Nuobei’er Jiang dezhu yu ertong duihua). This book is filled with earnest questions from children, from “Why am I alive?” to “How long will the earth keep turning?” The responses from Nobel Prize winners are full of humanistic spirit

• Humanism Fully Considered (Rewenzhuyide chuanpan sikao) (Sanlian, 2003). This is a volume of essays on American scholar Irving Babbitt (1865-1933). A Harvard professor of French literature from 1912 until his death, Babbitt helped initiate New Humanism, a movement inspired by classical traditions and literature. Babbitt was deeply opposed to the more relativistic pragmatism of John Dewey, who was quite influential in China in the 1920s and later. The book’s popularity is part of the curious Babbitt Cult in China, which can be read about at greater length at www.nhinet.org/ibdchina.htm

Back to the top

Copyright 2003, by China Now Magazine. All rights reserved.