To See China Transforming: Go to a Chinese Bookstore

Ming Dynasty Portrait of Emperor

“Go to a Chinese bookstore”. This is my advice to anyone who wants to get a quick, accurate and comprehensible sense of what’s happening, and what’s most remarkable about this almost unfathomably large and complex country. 

Why a bookstore? Well, first, all of us have been to these in our own cities and countries. So, we have a good enough idea of what to expect in a boostore. It’s usually a quiet, not overly well-trafficked location, with people milling around in silence. Even in the larger US chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, there’s always a somnolent feeling about the place, like the paying customers are too few to support the cost of the lease. Sadly, that’s often been the case and Borders, for one, has run into huge financial problems. 

Now, let me take you – at least in words – to the bookstore closest to my home when I’m in Shenzhen. It’s called Shenzhen Book City, and even from the outside doesn’t look like any bookstore I’ve ever seen elsewhere. It’s a seven-story blue-glass tower the size of an office building. A typical big-box two-story Borders looks like some kind of cutesy toy compared to Shenzhen Book City. 

It’s on the city’s main thoroughfare, Shennan Road, and just above ground from a subway station. It’s open from 10am to 10pm daily. Just approaching it, you have the happy feeling of being pulled into a giant vortex of human activity, as big crowds of people quickly move into the store, or head out of it. 

Inside, it’s more crowded and generating a more palpable sense of buzz than the crowd at a baseball game. There are readers everywhere, moving from section to section, floor to floor, or stopped in an aisle deeply concentrating on some book they’ve taken from the shelves. This is a picture of China in the process of continued self-improvement. It’s very inspiring, and bears only the faintest resemblance to any other bookstore I’ve been to, in the 70 of more countries I’ve visited. 

The checkout lines are long, at any hour of the day. There’s a huge staff spread around the place, answering questions, guiding people to the section they’re looking for. Of course, this being China, there are also places to eat – quite a few of them – in the bookstore itself. It’s also more than just a retailer. There are classrooms on the upper floors where people come to take paid classes on all kinds of subjects aimed at self-improvement, like foreign languages, or accounting. 

The Shenzhen Book City, single-handedly, restores my faith that a love of books and the pursuit of intellectual inquiry has not been completely deadened by YouTube, video games and chat rooms. 

Shenzhen has other Book Cities, spread around the city. The others I’ve been to are no less crowded – and my guess, no less successfully financially than the one in my neighborhood, which must be making a small fortune every day. Books aren’t all that cheap in China. They used to be. But, the quality and choice have both improved enormously over the years. Some of the cover art is as good as anything I’ve ever seen. 

Anyone from outside China would have some immediate familiarity on entering the place. It looks like other bookstores, with lots of aisles and bookshelves, grouped in sections by topic,  stacked with books. But, what isn’t going to be familiar is the sheer exuberance of the place. It’s more like a jam-packed department store on Xmas eve than a staid bookstore.  It’s got that same air of  “I’m here to spend money, now”. 

It’s somehow raucous and purposeful at the same time. 

Standing by the entrance one day, a woman approached, seemingly intent on discovering why I was so obviously awestruck by the whole scene.  I couldn’t convince her there was anything worthy of note – as what seemed like thousands of people surged in and out of a book store. As it turned out, she also provided a nice small lesson on the state of Shenzhen’s economy at the moment. Until recently, she’d been working in 外贸, “waimao”, or foreign trade in English. It’s a catch-all term for a lot of the economic activity in Shenzhen until recently, embracing trading, sourcing, import-export. 

With the sudden downturn in the world economy last year, many of the easiest opportunities to make money from foreign trade more or less evaporated, as did many of the small companies that carried out this kind of work. The woman lost her job, and just a short time later, found a new one as a clerk in the bookstore. In other words, she made the transition, quite smoothly by all appearances, from earning a living off exports to earning a living from the domestic economy. 

I wandered some more and found my way to the section selling business, management and career-guidance books. It was particularly jammed with people, heads down, buried in their books, as if cramming for a big exam. In their urgency, their evident hunger to learn, to improve, you could catch a glimpse of just what lies deepest within the remarkable economic transformation of China over the last 30 years. 

It’s all there for the viewing, in an ordinary Shenzhen bookstore.