Sunday, December 10, 2006

 
At the Library
A little more than three years ago when I first crash landed in Shenzhen, fresh western reading material was extremely hard to come by. At the time I relied on subscriptions to Sports Illustrated and the New Yorker supplied by my doting father that, thanks to China Post, the mainland postal system, usually arrived 3 -to- 6 weeks late, if at all. And there were several gratefully received CARE packages (eternal gracias to Dad, Mattydred and Janeen) that I fell upon and devoured like a baboon eating its young.

Shenzhen had one major book store. Like all the other large ones in China it was named Book City and owned by Xinhua, the PRC's major news/propaganda outlet. The English language section, such as it was/is was comprised largely of vocabulary and English learning books, some glorified outdated computer/software instruction manuals ("Open BEAGLE, version 0.16.1 (ALPHA) -- It's the Future for Six Months!"), dusty self-help and business tomes (still one of the largest selections in any English section at any book store here) pirated, mangled versions of bios such as The Bills: Clinton and Gates, and a smattering of "the classics," some abbreviated (Frankenstein or Moby Dick in 78 pages) and the others -- save Twain and a carefully combed selection of Hemmingway, Austen and DH Lawrence -- mostly a reading list of The Best of Wheezing, Tubercular Western Lit.

Indeed, I counted myself lucky to find Madame Bovary which I purchased and read halfway through until I went blind and it literally fell apart. Cheap bindings and pages printed in miniscule font on paper that makes tissue paper seem like cardboard are a constant. In between, I relied on yellowing, tattered copies of mostly Brit-published thriller paperbacks passed from expat-to-expat-to-expat like illicit zamizdat before the Soviet Union held its closeout sale.

And so it came to pass that several months ago, a longtime SZ pal o' mine, James "The Temple Guy/Laughing Buddha" Baquet, told me about a new Shenzhen library and Book City. He swore up and down that the selection, while not up to that of Barnes and Noble or Denver's Tattered Cover, at both was miles ahead of what we'd encountered on splashdown. "There's even an English language magazine reading room at the library!" he babbled like a junkie who'd found a reliable, trustworthy source for his Ibogaine habit. "Rolling Stone! Harpers, Atlantic I think I even saw a current Esquire!"

I initially and cynically dismissed his report as delusional. A native Angeleno and theme park freak, born on the same day as Disneyland opened, James is naturally given to illusion and false optimism. Then, prodded by C who was yearning to check out the "new" Book City, I made the plunge today.

What I found mostly astounded me. To whit, at the new Book City English store (a separate store!) while browsing through coffee table bios of Beatles and Elvis, 100 Best Erotic Internet Sites ("All blocked in China," I quipped to C, who replied, "Only 99 of them...") I picked up fresh paperback editions of Carl Hiaasen, TC Boyle and Martin Amis. Sure, sure, I could've also snagged Last of the Mohicans, and Ethan Frome but, hey, a man has his limits. Too much, too soon, too fast, moderation in all things etc. There were a few "typically Chinese" quirks to the place, though, enough to jolt me out of my reverie.

"Staff Selections" read the pre-printed cards pasted to the sides of the book racks, just like in London, New York or even Des Moines. There you get enthusiastic minimum-wage lit major store employees such as "Jason," "Dylan," "Leigh" or "Heather" enthusing about graphic novels like Jaime Hernandez's Love and Rockets series or a lesbo-vampire post-modern western and occasionally something relatively mainstream like Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. At the new Shenzhen Book City it's kinda, sorta of the same thing, except none of the touted books were available, none of the employees were named Sean, Ian or Bridget and no editions cost "287 pounds."

Next stop: the new Shenzhen Library. Visually it's quite impressive. Kind of Star Ship Enterprise, all blossoming glass and aluminum or steel frame, sloping entrance ways which you approach over newly laid, dipping and already caving-in concrete sidewalks (some with gaping un-barricaded three foot drops into the nether-world of the Shenzhen sewer system). But content-wise, I've been in worse American libraries. The Fort Leonard Wood army library in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri during my basic training comes to mind as does the Boulder County Jail...that just for research purposes, mind you.

It was jammed, testimony both to the thirst of literate Shenzhenites for reading material and free Internet access, though on the 2nd floor (English literature) and 5th (English periodicals) there was room to move and browse. The English lit section was spotty to say the least. As if 4 years worth of expats had suddenly fled, leaving behind their odd selections, ranging from mucho tatttered John Grisham, Dean Koontz and Judith Krantz to Duke: The Life and Times of John Wayne and Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole. Leading off the stacks, though, were "Marxism, Leninism, The Thoughts of Chairman Mao, The Theories of Deng Xiaopeng."

"Remember, you are in China," C, reminded me before we headed to the periodicals. There, I found a slew of trade manuals and mags, electrical, software, chemical, engineering and otherwise, but was gratified to see one patron leafing through a current Sunday edition of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post (increasingly a commie boot-licking rag, but still not one deemed safe enough for mainstream mainland circulation) and, though no Rolling Stone or Esquire, fresh editions of Harpers and Atlantic. I settled in to read the Harpers Index as C browsed some more.

"Find anything?" I asked a few minutes later. "There's no American Vogue!" she snapped mock-churlishly.

"Remember, you are in China," I replied.
Comments:
It's amazing, but one day in the shanghai main library i found a dictionary that had pictures and a short discussion of a picnic in beijing back in '89. I left it opened on a desk and walked away...
 
I'll have to check out that Book City one of these days. But I still have a stack of books I arrived with (lack of reading time and receiving lots of pass along books and Chinese translations).
I was surprised to find a copy of Ellison's Invisible Man at Book City in Nanshan. I was even more surprised when I was given a copy of Lolita straight from my school library (and this is not a university).
 
The Shenzhen Book Center (at the Ke Xue Guan aka Science Museum metro station) has Murakami's _Kafka on the Shore_, a number of books by Dai Sijie, Ha Jin and other expat writers, and occasionally even items you won't see at Swindon Book Co. in Hong Kong.

Regarding the new Book City in Futian, Shenzhen is still catching up with Guangzhou, which has had a dedicated English book store in its Book City for some years - which offer a variety of contemporary academic books including trendy subjects such as postcolonial/feminist/queer theory, etc. Don't ask about Shanghai and Beijing.

Finally, the new Shenzhen Public Library building was designed by Arata Isozaki, which explains its impressive appearance. The English books in the collection appear to be little more than odds and ends. As you mentioned, the periodicals and reference sections are overwhelmingly focused on engineering. It's the typical SZ story: lots of money for buildings, limited content (visit the Science Museum mentioned above for a case in point).

This is partly because the primary purpose of many projects is to offer officials and those who collude with them opportunities to pocket money, partly a result of a blinkered bureaucratic consensus in which form is conflated with content, and partly a constraint imposed by simple funding limits, as with any institution - key industries are emphasized, which should come as no surprise.

Speaking of disparities between form and content, I'm surprised you didn't mention that children under 14 years of age were prohibited from entering the new library building within one week after it opened, due to the damage they had already caused to the collection and computer terminals.

At the time, the SZ Daily ran a number of photo essays on the new library. I still clearly remember a photo of an adult sitting with a child as the child ate ice cream while looking at a book in the library. My thought at the time was "that book is doomed." Days later, children were banned from the building. Perhaps I should mention that adults were sneaking in food past the security guards.

Shenzhen is still basically a collection of farmers in new suits. When I visited the new library some months ago, certain patrons were eating, while others graced all those in their vicinity with the music on their mobile phones. Steps and aisles were filled with seated students chatting and reading translated manga. Many of those patrons with desks were sleeping.

That said, China is quickly catching up with more developed countries. The most popular sections of the library were the multimedia and internet terminals. Shenzhen is arguably already ahead of other cities in limiting the size of its collection and focusing on what users want most.

I'd like to close with the observation that an informed assessment of the more techinical collections (including English publications) at the SZ library is conspicuously missing from your entry. You chose to focus on what you are able to recognize based on your own literacy. We all have areas of illiteracy, and Americans are typically scientifically illiterate. Many Chinese have a much stronger education in fields such as engineering. If they could only do as well in areas such as basic biology....
 
I wouldn't call rote memorization of facts and figures "literacy". Instead, they are simply depositories of facts waiting for a "lao ban" to tell them what to do, and today's little emporers have crap social skills. Also, I wouldn't say that having shiny buildings makes china closer to developed countries. Compare the group behavior of the people in China and see how far China has to go.
 
@themuttonkebab

You have successfully missed both my points.

It is simply false to assert that Chinese scientific literacy consists of nothing more than collections of facts. I suggest you check the graduate departments in technical fields at all major US universities to determine how many mainland Chinese are involved, in spite of visa restrictions. This is not simply a coincidence. At UC Berkeley, for example, foreign graduate students now account for more than 20% of the total. China and India are major contributors. Last I read, one in five foreign grad students at Berkeley was from the PRC, and heavily concentrated in technical fields, as well as mathematics.

At many US universities, the first two years of study (freshman & sophomore) are basically remedial, teaching students things they should have learned in highschool. A little rote memorization can be useful.

General American scientific illiteracy is well established. Talk to any professional scientist working in the US if you don't believe me. I entirely agree with you that the PRC educational system is a mess, but the US system is far from perfect.

The point you made that shiny new buildings per se don't make 'China closer to developed countries' simply reiterates one of the main ideas in my comment (cf the third and seventh paragraphs). My snide comment about Shenzhen being 'ahead of other cities' in its library's emphasis on multimedia and internet facilities was intended to demonstrate that young westerners often show as little interest in old-fashioned books as young Chinese. Surprisingly (for me), Shenzhen apparently actually has the highest per-capita book-buying rate of any city in the PRC, including Shanghai and Beijing.

Shenzhen is certainly a work in progress. For what it is worth, my opinion is that the United States is not as far ahead as some of us might like to think.
 
@ duyisa

Having a diverse graduate school population is just part of life in the US, our society is also diverse (and polite, clean, open and free). Those chinese students in US/western schools represent the cream of the crop of chinese students and by no means are representative of the typical chinese student, which sits around on standby awaiting step by step orders and does everything he/she can to avoid responsibility.

China's current technologies and money came from the west, management practices...west, your roads, buildings, computers, everything...west. Your society is still far, far behind the west.
 
@thekebab

I agree with your general assessment of PRC students. Arguably, it demonstrates their intelligence, since the educational system overwhelmingly fails to reward proactive learning. It's sad, but I feel compelled to add that the average US university student is barely able to compose a grammatically correct sentence - in fact, this problem is not limited to students.

Not having conducted a scientific survey, my impression is that Chinese in general are aware of the deficits in their society, and also that the knottiest problems - such as widespread corruption - can't easily be resolved. Similar problems plague many other countries, including developed western ones. It's true that such problems are less severe in the US, but they were pretty bad as recently as Boss Tweed, Al Capone, etc.

Finally, China is quickly catching up with the west. For example, cultish 'Bible-Belt' Christian beliefs are currently spreading rapidly. If this trend continues, we might soon be as highly developed as Kansas, and reject proven scientific facts like biological evolution.

My personal perspective is that far behind in China is in some ways far ahead of where the west is now.
 
"Arguably, it demonstrates their intelligence, since the educational system overwhelmingly fails to reward proactive learning."

That kind of intelligence is hard to repress. Those kinds of people in the West are often junior executives or well off entrepreneurs by 30.

"It's sad, but I feel compelled to add that the average US university student is barely able to compose a grammatically correct sentence - in fact, this problem is not limited to students."

Yes, the under 25 crowd in the west are lacking but it is not due to national education policy, but whiny baby boomer parents and local politicians. Europe's kids aren't that impressive either. However, competition from India and China is spurring change and improvement.

"Not having conducted a scientific survey, my impression is that Chinese in general are aware of the deficits in their society, and also that the knottiest problems - such as widespread corruption - can't easily be resolved."

Like here, those that pay attention are aware, those that don't...aren't. But they can't do anything about it. But awareness doesn't mean anything can be done about. Also, Chinese stubborness, thin skin and pride means any change even at the family level is difficult. Corruption happens, corrupt western politicians go to jail, in places like China just be good friends with the current leadership.


"Finally, China is quickly catching up with the west. For example, cultish 'Bible-Belt' Christian beliefs are currently spreading rapidly. If this trend continues, we might soon be as highly developed as Kansas, and reject proven scientific facts like biological evolution."


You need to leave whichever big east coast city you live in. The country side is stone age backwards, thus the continue infanticide of girls despite the massive gender imbalance. Foolish beliefs in "the mandate of heavan" and being "the middle kingdom" are also deeply rooted problems. Kansas will simply be bypassed by the marketplace, with religiously feverish kids turned adults not good for much besides working with migrant labor forces while scorning people they consider to be "non-believers".

"My personal perspective is that far behind in China is in some ways far ahead of where the west is now"

And what areas would those be?
 
Agree with you completely about Chinese libraries and book stores being outwardly impressive but lacking in content. The bok store on Nanjing Lu in Shanghai looked very impressive from the outside, but when I tried to track down [Chinese language] books the stock proved to be the same old stuff you find everywhere else in the PRC.

As for Chinese being ahead of the US in science, well I have had some Chinese graduate students working for me in my lab and they ARE scientifically illiterate. They simply do not comprehend the scientific process and how to
conduct a basic scientific study [methods results discussion]. They can reel off a whole string of 'correct' answers, but that is not science. It usually takes about 18 months for them to grasp basic skills such as the null hypothesis and confidence intervals. They are profoundly un-sceptical and their thinkiing skills are in direct proportion to their swollen but fragile sense of nationalistic pride.
 
"Finally, China is quickly catching up with the west. For example, cultish 'Bible-Belt' Christian beliefs are currently spreading rapidly. If this trend continues, we might soon be as highly developed as Kansas, and reject proven scientific facts like biological evolution."


I am sick of these statements! The kind of mentality that spews this kind of nonsense is the cut from the same cloth that he/she is raging against. Your are saying believe what I believe or get out! Just as a creator can't be proven so is the evolution debate. You say it has been proven. You can show tonnes of publications but each step opens up a smaller door and those doors will just keep on getting smaller. Keep on looking. I am not against it as long as people show real respect for each other. You can't do that.

Some people have been chosen to believe one thing and others have been chosen to believe another.

What you said is not from a scientific mind but the same minds that started the inquisition. Arrogance and hate for something you can't understand. You are NOT really talking about "cultish" Christianity you are talking about ALL Christianity (you hate it if it is in YOUR almighty way) you just use the word cult to hide behind and make it all sound so evil and ignorant.

"Theoretical science" the new church, savoir and big brother.
 
OK, discussions of theology and development and educational quality aside, just where the hell is this new English Book City? I'm out of literature!

Sam in Shenzhen
 
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