16 January 08 | Chad W. Post

Along with a few other independent booksellers and librarians, Karl Pohrt—owner of the amazing Shaman Drum Bookshop in China for the Beijing Book Fair, where he’ll be giving this speech on independent bookselling in America.

Additionally, he’s writing a daily blog about the trip, which can be found in its entirety “here.”:http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/?s=tag&t=karl-pohrt

January 12, 2008, Part 2: An Interesting Conversation

“In this world, things are complicated and are decided by many factors. We should look at problems from different aspects, not from just one.”—Mao Zedong

On our way to dinner we pass the stunning CCTV building designed by Rem Koolhaas, still under construction. It dominates the skyline in this part of Beijing and looks like something straight out of Blade Runner—a gigantic black building (or buildings) set at odd and unexpected angles.

I’m tagging along with Rick and Paul to a restaurant inside the Beijing Opera House for a small dinner with three Chinese writers. The dinner turns out to be one of the most interesting experiences of the trip.

When we get to the restaurant, Rick introduces me to our host Zhou Zan, a young woman who has written a book of poems and another book of criticism. Last year she was a visiting scholar at Columbia University.

Ms. Zhou introduces us to two people she describes as very famous poets in China.

Xi Chuan is the author of many books of poetry, essays and translations, he has won numerous international prizes, and he’s taught abroad. He currently teaches at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, which is located near District 798, the arts neighborhood in Beijing that is so hot right now. He is an intense man who is deeply committed to the poetry scene both nationally and internationally.

Zhai Yongming, a feminist poet, has published six books of poems, 3 books of prose and a collection of essays. She has read at the Rotterdam Poetry Festival as well as in the UK, France and the U.S. She lives in Chengdu, Sichuan, where she owns a bar.

Xi Chuan can speak English very well, Zhou Zan is more difficult to understand, and Zhai Yongming, who seems slightly shy, has Xi Chuan translate for her.

Ms. Zhai is beautiful. She could be a film actress, and Xi Chuan tells us that in fact she was asked to act in a film directed by Jia Zhang. Instead she asked to write the screenplay. The project is the story of three generations of women who worked in a weapons factory that was very successful during the Cultural Revolution. Following the Cultural Revolution, the company decided to diversify their manufacturing base, which was not successful. Currently the people in this community are in trouble because there isn’t anything to manufacture. “Currently the situation of the workers is very difficult,” she tells us.

Rick shows me an acceptance speech Ms. Zhai gave after winning a poetry prize in China recently. In her talk she described the role she thinks poetry should play in China today:

Many beautiful things have been replaced by consumerism. Almost everything has become commodified in the world. People consume and abandon things quickly. Only poetry cannot be trivialized and consumed because of its uselessness, its resistance to the logic of consumption and also because inherently it is an examination of the premise of existence. In a materialistic and entertainment-based environment, we poets must share and create an art of language characterized by a spirit of freedom and independent ideas.

I admire and I share this view of the power and role of poetry.

I recall the Russian poets Yevtushenko and Voznesensky, who attracted audiences large enough to fill football stadiums in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. They were like rock stars. Xi Chuan tells us that the Misty Poets like Bei Dao had the same electric effect on audiences in China. Now the poetry scene here has fractured. Poets are all doing different things, Xi Chuan says. He speaks of the effect of the market economy on poetry.

In totalitarian political cultures poetry has often been a center of resistance. Under certain political conditions, language is dangerous. However, under social conditions in a consumer society, poetry can lose that important charge and it becomes something marginal.

I want to reread Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man when I get back home.

Last year Xi Chuan taught classical and contemporary Chinese poetry at New York University, and Paul gets things rolling by asking him if he feels there are any differences between Chinese and American students.

“American students need a background story, but they read more carefully than Chinese students. Chinese students don’t need any background, and when they read they refer to what they already know,” Xi Chuan says.

We discuss bookselling in America and China, and when Xi Chuan hears we visited the All Sages Bookstore, he tells us he gave the store its name. Sure enough, he is the poet mentioned in the handout on All Sages.

The conversation turns to a discussion of real estate values in Beijing as it probably does among everyone in most desirable cities around the world these days. Prices in Beijing are going up and everyone is concerned about whether or not they can afford to live here.

Xi Chuan also tells us that after real estate, contemporary art is the most lucrative business. It’s one of the easiest ways to make money. He teaches classical Chinese poetry to art students and knows his way around the art world here.

“Young people are worried about the Chinese stock market crashing and the economy going bad,” Xi Chuan says. “You know, China is actually two countries. All along the coast the economy has been very successful, things are booming. However, in central China it is rural and the people are poor. This is a very complex situation.”

China is moving from a rural to an urban consumer culture at warp speed, and this rapid modernization is something unprecedented in the history of human societies. There aren’t any models, and the political pressures on the people in charge must be immense. I wonder how leaders here keep this place from just flying apart?

A few days ago I purchased Documents of the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at one of the bookstores. It reads like a strategic business plan for the country, and it includes a call to

  • Establish a basic medical and health care system to improve the health of the nation.
  • Improve ecological and environmental conservation and enhance the country’s capacity for sustainable development
  • Stimulate cultural innovation and enhance the vitality of cultural development.

It sounds like a reasonable plan to me, but I don’t know how seriously people outside the political class take this rhetoric.

In the back of the book are photographs of the members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. They all look like CEOs. Is this the face of socialism in the 21st century?

I don’t mean to dis the Chinese Communist Party, but back in the sixties this isn’t what I thought the People’s Republic would look like in the 21st century. But then I was probably poisoned from taking Jean-Luc Goddard’s films during his Maoist phase too seriously. Maybe this is the adult version of socialism. And then again, maybe its not.

I mention PEN’s efforts to inform people in the West about Chinese writers in prison, and both Xi Chuan and Zhai Yongming ask me if Wei Tu, a Tibetan woman, is on the list. She should be, they tell us.

A few days before I left Ann Arbor, I received a newsletter from PEN International (I’m a member) that detailed the current human rights situation in China (see here). After reading the individual descriptions of some 41 writers and intellectuals incarcerated there, I called the PEN offices in New York to ask what I might do. They wisely advised me to wait until I returned to the United States to write letters to the Chinese government.

One of the prisoners is a bookseller named Hada, who owns the Mongolian Academic Bookstore and is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Voice of Southern Mongolia, an underground journal. Hada was arrested in 1995 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for “inciting separatism and espionage.” He is being held at No. 4 Prison of Inner Mongolia, and suffers from stomach ulcers and coronary heart disease.

Three of the six people in the small banquet room tonight are smoking, and after a few hours I’m quite nauseous. I excuse myself and catch a taxi back to the hotel.

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