The car drove slowly into the early spring night of Hangzhou. The person who had come to fetch me is a new acquaintance named Wang Qixian. As a member of the post-1980s generation he has worked as a white collar worker in the private sector, in Chinese state-owned enterprises, as well as in Taiwanese enterprises in various cities before coming to Hangzhou to start a publishing career.
He has just published a book called “Settling in the Cities.” I asked Qixian why he has chosen to go into a sector where it is notoriously hard to make money, and in particular by specializing in publishing humanities and the social sciences? Unexpectedly, his answer opened up for me a historical window, and allowed me a glimpse into a brief history of China’s intellectual and social changes.
Qixian grew up amidst stacks of books in Zhengzhou city, Henan province. His grandfather had worked for the railroad. Retired in 1978, his hobbies included raising birds and reading, so he set up a small bookstall at the entrance of his alley. In 1983, however, Qixian’s aunt had more than one baby, so both she and her husband were expelled from their work as civil servants.
Qixian’s uncle had the idea of moving the grandfather’s bookstall near the entrance of a park on a big street. The bookstore has branched out since then. At its best, even books such as Freud's "The Interpretation of Dreams" could sell as many as 30 to 40 thousand copies. When the books were all sold out, the readers came and waited at the doorway and grabbed the books on their arrival.
A new hunger
That was in the mid-80s. People were desperately eager to pursue what they had so long been deprived of. They were eager for information and knowledge to understand their times, to fill up their minds, whether the reading was entertaining or thoughtful, utilitarian or literature, art and philosophy. After all, they had nothing at that time.
Yu Hua, author of “China In Ten Words” described a similar scene in his book. In the late 70s, in the little town where he lived, more than 200 people would queue up each morning before dawn to buy books in front of the Xinhua Bookstore. The sensation that Tolstoy and Balzac's literary works brought to the town was like the effect of an opera singer suddenly belting one out in a quiet village.
Qixian’s uncle started his own publishing business in 1988. He published everything including the pirated, the translated, and original Chinese creations. Publishing was an amazingly good business then, before everything came to a sudden halt in the late 80s.
After that, partly because of the political environment, and partly because China joined the Universal Copyright Convention, not all books were allowed to be published any longer. The first generation of Chinese booksellers scattered and encountered various fates. Some had made enough money and switched to other businesses, others specialized in piracy or specialized in school textbooks, translation or publishing local authors.
For his part, Qixian first worked as a white collar employee for a few years, before realizing that it was not for him. He was influenced by the non-mainstream rock 'n' roll culture that challenges the establishment. Meanwhile, the lingering smell of books remained in his orbit.
Qixian quit his job and invested in this business that has changed the fate of his whole family: publishing. He is very aware of the fact that it is no longer the 1980s, and it is particularly hard to be doing it all alone. However, there’s a special significance to being engaged in publishing at this time.
This young man spoke with a sage tone: “China is like a house of mirrors. On one hand, Big Brother is watching you; on the other hand, it’s entertainment to death. Nonetheless, whether we call it education or knowledge, or even common sense, this is the foundation of this country. Some demonstrate on the streets, some study theories, I choose publishing to spread knowledge.”
Qixian feels that transforming China requires the spreading of a lot of basic knowledge. For instance, he has published “Settling in Cities,” a book that aroused enthusiastic discussion. He believes that the issues concerning migrant workers and the growing amount of low-level social violence is a big challenge facing China, and will get people thinking.
At the same time, he also sees rising levels of Chinese anxiety and confusion. Indeed, since the rapid economic development of the 1990s, Chinese people's basic material desires have been met. However, most people do not yet know where to find their happiness. They experience Chinese society’s spiritual emptiness as well as the festering nature of institutional life, but they don’t know where to initiate changes.
In different seminars in different cities, I see this enthusiasm for knowledge among many Chinese youngsters. They raise questions passionately and they want to know where China should go.
As a Taiwanese author, I look with envy at China where so many intellectual books make it to the bestseller list. This atmosphere has largely disappeared in Taiwan. After all, Taiwan has already passed its major period of social transition.
Though China’s current publishing market is full of bizarre speculation, I also see many publishers trying their best to come out with books that can help the nation's transition and cultivate Chinese people’s civic thinking.
Qixian moves me most with his words. “In the process of publishing books, we gain a bit more sense of awe. I regard it as repaying the debt of China’s past.”
I asked him finally whether he believes that knowledge can change China. “This is certain,” he said. “Though for the moment, I feel helpless.”
*Zhang Tiezhi is a Taiwanese columnist for Caixin.