China’s Unfolding Literary Story

Freelance writer and journalist Roger Tagholm provides an insightful, if not provocative opinion on China’s burgeoning literary market.  When you consider that China is the largest bastion of Communism, it’s difficult to imagine writers being able to exhibit any degree of artistic or journalistic freedom.  But, to some extent, that’s exactly what’s happening, as China charges headlong into the 21st century and is gradually becoming a global economic power.  It’s a delicate balancing act.  But, the government’s enormous “Rural Reading Room” project, an ambitious initiative that aims to put a “reading room” – effectively a library – in every one of the nation’s 630,000 villages.  Some 500,000 have been completed so far. 

“China is still a developing country and 800 million people are still living in rural areas,” said Wu Shulin, Vice Minister of China’s General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), the government body that runs all media in the country.  “How to ensure their access to books is an important issue.  Central and local governments have spent a lot of money to help farmers gain access to books.  The Reading Rooms in small villages have 1,500 books and 100 periodicals and newspapers, but in some of the larger ones, the Reading Rooms can have as many as 50,000 books.  We are spending a lot of time and energy on citizens’ rights to know and to read.” 

Critics, of course, might say that the program is nothing more than typical communist-style indoctrination of the masses.  But, major Chinese cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing, have become amazingly Westernized in recent years with brand name stores familiar to Americans and Europeans.  The Wang Fujing bookstore, which sits close to Tiananmen Square and has portraits of Chinese party leaders greeting visitors, is at the forefront of the “Rural Reading Room” endeavor.  More importantly, Tagholm recently met with a number of writers and journalists at Wang Fujing, a major fete in a nation where press briefings are rare.  Tagholm asked how writers can express themselves and not anger the party elite. 

“It is better to write without freedom than to write with freedom,” said the novelist and university professor Xiao Bai.  “If there are restraints, you will feel the urge to break these restraints, but we don’t want the role of the [political] Opposition.  Writers should observe human politics from their personal, individual perspective.” 

His fellow novelist Sun Ganlu, Director of the Shanghai Writers Association, added: “I believe it’s an obligation for all of us to raise our opinions about the public policies, but writers have different ways of doing this.  No writing is completely free, completely without restrains – you are restrained either by your gender, race, the time, or in the writing style.  So maybe politics is just one kind of restraint.” 

Tagholm admits these responses are surprising.  To us writers, bloggers and other free spirits who write with few restraints outside of what we impose on ourselves, it appears our Chinese brethren really have been indoctrinated and fear being truly opinionated.  But, we all know that free speech has its responsibilities.  You can’t legally slander someone, for example, or threaten the President of the United States, no matter how strongly you feel.  But, I think it’s fascinating that, while state legislatures in the U.S. debate cuts to education to balance their budgets and school districts debate creationism vs. evolution, China is making a concerted attempt to build more schools and libraries for its large rural population.  However one looks at the Chinese government, I feel they have the better policy in this regard.


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