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