Sunday and Wednesday mornings before the river fog has lifted off Qinghua Lu, several men squat smoking and eyeing one another out front of the antique market east of Du Fu's Cottage. They're waiting for the bookmongers. When a bookmonger comes, they set upon him and jostle him and descend on his sack with such appetite and purpose that, pushing to the center of their mob, you expect to find a cock fight or a murder. But it's only books. And these are only the roughest men ever to evince the bibliophile's passion. The locks come off the doors at 7, some one shouts, and everybody heads four flights up to the top of the building. This is Chengdu's best market in used books: a single long, loud, musty room where sellers lease floorspace to spread their plastic tarps. The commerce overflows onto two open terraces and spills back down the stairs toward the fourth floor.
Despite the chaos, it didn't take me long to find a book I'd long despaired of ever reading in print: the two-volume Record of China's Underclass (《中国底层访谈录》) by the living Chongqing writer Lao Wei (老威),. The cover price is 42 yuan, but the seller only asked 15. When I tried to learn where he'd gotten it, he waved a hand.
Bought it off someone.
Who'd you buy it off? I need a second copy.
Don't know. Don't remember. Bookstall somewhere.
What you find here is a chaotic old-growth thicket preserved under the jealous care of stewards in the guise of merchants. The historical mulch lying several decades thick about your feet contains unlikely survivals of the lightning fires that have periodically reduced the forests of Chinese print.
One of the bookmongers, who prefers to be unnamed, lives in a demolition zone near my apartment. I visited with him Saturday evening while he packed for market the next morning.
Chengdoo: So who are your buyers? They own bookstores themselves?
______: Thirty percent of them do. Bookstores or stalls. They might sell up the road beside the Songxian Bridge, for example. Seventy percent are individual readers. But of those 70, 20 are collectors. Besides that, a lot are writers. You'll see a lot of famous authors tomorrow if you know who to look for. But I ...
CD: What? You don't like them?
__: I don't like Chinese authors. They aren't deep. They can't be deep. Look at this environment; how can you write anything with any depth? The Nobel Prize, for example. Even Africans have won the Nobel Prize. An African wrote something about racial issues and won it. But no Chinese has ever won it.
CD: They say Shen Congwen almost did.
__: "Almost" doesn't count.
CD: What about Gao Xingjian?
__: Gao Xingjian is exactly what I'm talking about. He's Canadian. Or French. He's a French citizen. He had to move out of the country before he could write anything good. In fact China has a lot of writers much better than him. Writers he couldn't compare with. Not that I've read his books—there's no time to read anymore—but I dare say that as far as writing about China ... it's a matter of experience, but it's also what's around you, and also your social environment, I mean your social relations, for example, friends. That's the only way to be both broad and deep. The problem with writing on China is that you have to move outside of China to do it. That's what I hope to do. Take Zhang Rong, for example. Zhang Rong, she's the best there is. Reading her books is like ... is like being five years old again and listening to an old person talk and re-learning everything you've ever learned. She deserves a Nobel Prize.
CD:You're talking about her new book?
__: New book, old book, what do I know? I haven't read them. They're impossible to buy. It's not a question of price. No matter how much money you have, they're impossible to find. She married a man at the BBC and went to England.
CD: But what about you? How long have you been selling books?
__: Oh, selling books. I know it's not impressive, but it's a lot better than what I used to do. I used to be in management. I studied corporate management in Beijing. From there I went to work in the Marianas, a Chinese enterprise. Saipan. From there it was Guam, Malaysia, Borneo. I was a statistician. I was an assistant manager. Then I came back, and for years I was a bureaucrat. A bureaucrat. Your wife's a bureaucrat, so you know what that means. I had some problems with the Party. I don't like the Communist Party environment. I decided to become an author because there was a lot I wanted to say. My plan was to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. But come to find out, there's a precondition for that prize.
CD: Translation into a European language?
__: I'm talking about another condition. Because you can't write anything good in China. It's like building a robot: No matter how good it is, the limbs are restricted in how far they can move, so the movement necessarily looks unnatural. The robot needs to be injected with living cells. Cell-stem transplant! Ha ha!
CD: You use a lot of metaphors.
__: That's nothing. If you think that's good, just wait till I get back to reading, and then after I write 50 or 60 stories, or say a hundred stories so we can start planning a book, then you'll see what sort of metaphors I can use.
What you'll find:
Cultural Revolution memorabilia: If you're a foreigner, this is what they assume you're after. Mao buttons, Little Red Books, minutes of the 11th Party Congress, Long March commemorative pictorials. My friend said, "If Julian the Apostate had not been murdered, if the Roman Empire had reverted to Paganism after all, then 30 years on you would have had people digging out their old crucifixes, digging out their old letters from Paul, and bringing them to the market." There are two or three copies of Gao and Yan's now-abolished Cultural Revolution history from the Hu Yaobang era.
Hong Kong media: Blue photos and yellow journalism. Ten yuan for an old HK paparazzi mag.
Xiaoren Shu ("Small person books"): These are pocket-sized comic books, one picture per page, with the story given in captions. Many of the stories are drawn from films—even Yugoslavian war films—and some reproduce the stills themselves in place of drawings. The prices vary. I saw a man pay 100 yuan for a bale of 30, while a single book recounting the scapegoating of the Gang of Four won't go for less than 80.
Also: Novels, classics, textbooks, maps, posters, gazetteers, photography, nude photography, art, social realist art, bureaucratic chaff, a Handbook of the People from 1955 for which the merchant won't take less than 28 yuan, phone cards, subway cards, and a broken guitar.
The bookmongers convene every Sunday and Wednesday from 7 a.m.
This article by American writer and translator Forest Venn was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 3 ("changing chengdu"). Photos by Daniel Aytes.