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What are the Chinese reading? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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File photo of Chinese students brandishing Mao Zedong’s little Red Book. (Asharq AL-Awsat)

File photo of Chinese students brandishing Mao Zedong's little Red Book. (Asharq AL-Awsat)

File photo of Chinese students brandishing Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Shanghai, Asharq Al-Awsat—For decades, Sinologists have wondered whether China could build a capitalist economy without adopting the political culture that goes with it. The answer to that question is still pending. However, a survey of the political literature that the Chinese elites are reading may offer some clues.

Forty years ago, when I first visited the People’s Republic, the only book readily in evidence was Mao’s famous Little Red Book, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Every hotel room came equipped with a copy in the same way that one gets a Bible in Western hotels. There were no bookshops but all the Chinese who we came into contact with had a copy.

I have a special affection for the little book. As a student in 1962, I spent a weekend in Surbiton on the Thames translating it into Persian along with poems by “The Great Helmsman.”

Last month, however, the cute catechism that reminded me of my aunt’s words of wisdom was nowhere to be found. A tour of several bookshops—yes, these days bookstores are sprouting up everywhere in China—failed to uncover even one copy of the book. Even in the seven-story “Book City” in downtown Shanghai, the shop assistant could only promise that copies would arrive at an unspecified time in the future.

In this case, just what exactly are they reading in China?

The answer is simple. The Chinese are reading works by Western philosophers, both old and new. Classics like Plato and Aristotle have established a readership niche of their own, as have old bourgeois philosophers such as Hegel and Feuerbach. More surprising is the popularity of conservative and neo-conservative philosophers such as Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Nietzsche and Heidegger. This is not to mention Hanna Arendt, Theodore Adorno, Carl Schmitt, Karl Popper, Leo Strauss and Raymond Aaron.

Why should the Chinese be interested in this last batch?

One reason may be that they have all grappled with the complex issue of the relationship between individual freedom and political order. To many Chinese, the worst nightmare they can imagine is the collapse of the state and the onset of chaos. Even the worst dictatorship is better than anarchy! However, dictatorship is an exception and thus, by definition, transient. The trick is to move from dictatorship to freedom without passing through the purgatory of disorder, or “troubled times,” as the Chinese say.

Another reason may be the fact that all of the authors mentioned above—each in his or her own way—regard man primarily as a political rather than a social creature. Hobbes and Schmitt assert this by referring to man’s ability to distinguish friend from enemy while Strauss emphasizes man’s ability to choose between right and wrong.

Schmitt is of interest for another reason. As early as the 1950s, he was one of the first Western philosophers to foresee the coming globalization and, unlike most of his peers, believed that it would heighten rather than lessen conflict across the world. Many Chinese wonder whether globalization will end by dragging China into wars.

Believing that the Western democracies have found the magic political formula, many Chinese are looking for it in books written by Western authors. That quest produces some interesting quirks. To Western readers, Henry Kissinger’s On China may be little more than a collage of banalities. The Chinese, however, are devouring it in search of coded insights into their own affairs. Barack Obama’s two autobiographies, George W. Bush’s Decision Points and Dick Cheney’s memoirs have also found a market in China, as has Mitt Romney’s biography—and why would the Chinese want to read a biography of Mitt Romney?

Interest in political books does not mean indifference to literature. A stroll through bookshops in Shanghai and Beijing reveals a growing taste for Western classics, especially works translated from Latin, Greek, French and English. More interestingly, there are “teach-yourself ”books for those who wish to learn Western languages. For some reason, Latin and German appear to be especially attractive to the Chinese.

Western best-sellers, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, have also found an audience, while the biggest bookshop in Beijing specializes in translated works on management, business administration, marketing and related subjects.

Lovers of poetry will be disappointed to learn that few books of poems are on sale, although many local poets publish their work on the net. An estimated 25 million Chinese own an ebook reader or use their smartphones to read ebooks, a medium that favors short stories and poems.

As someone who devours thrillers and mysteries, I was surprised at the absence of the genre in Chinese bookshops. One reason may be the difficulty that many Chinese feel in relating to Western detective stories, with their own experience of the police.

Are translated books censored? Some publishers insist that there is “little censorship these days,” if only because government censors would not know what to cut out.

Although 80 percent of the books published in China are textbooks, the non-academic section of the industry is expanding rapidly. This year an estimated 30,000 new titles will be published, almost a fifth of what is published in Great Britain. However, at least 10,000 authors also publish their work on the Internet for free.

Though the thirst for books is spreading fast, the Chinese still lag behind their neighbors as far as reading is concerned. Each year, the average Chinese reads just two books. The figure for the Japanese is 9 and for South Koreans 12.

Like its capitalist economy, China’s reading habits appears to be eclectic and unplanned. The Chinese reader is like a hungry man who is suddenly transported to a banquet where the table is laden with all manner of delicacies about which he knows nothing. Hungry and curious he starts gulping down whatever he can get hold of. The could result in intellectual indigestion. However, this is something that may be overcome in the course of time. What is important is to read, even if that means reading the Paris telephone directory for a start.

The good news is that the Chinese are reading, and are allowed to read pretty much what they like. And they are not reading the Little Red Book.