The Bookworms of China

At The International Herald Tribune, Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore reports on the Beijing International Book Fair. Despite official restrictions, the Chinese book market is now the world’s largest, with 7.7 billion volumes sold last year. Meanwhile, millions of readers turn to the relative free-for-all of online literature.

Driving sales is a literate population that emphasizes education and self-improvement. Censorship has become less draconian since Mao’s time and publishing has become more commercial. As a result, readers of Chinese books today have more choice of genre, voice and subject matter than they have had at any time in the last 60 years.

[…] International publishers looking to enter China have reason to be enthusiastic. Last year 48 titles sold over one million copies each. Among bestsellers for 2011 were a collection of speeches by former Prime Minister Zhu Rongji – it topped the list – and a modern sequel by Liu Xinwu to the 18th century “Dream of the Red Chamber,” one of China’s so-called four great classical novels.

[…] There is also censorship and political pressure. No guidebook of forbidden topics, no glossary of forbidden words, exists. And if some taboos are predictable (“1989”), others are random or absurd [see Murong Xuecun on the “Absurdities” of Chinese Censorship, via CDT]. Forced to go by instinct – and so risk overstepping the mark – writers, publishers and booksellers routinely self-censor. (Thus the most daring Chinese writing is to be found online, where censors have less reach. Readers are flocking to literature sites such as and; in 2011, those attracted over 100 million visitors every month.)


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