Thursday, August 31, 2006

More from Beijing: Traffic, history and books

Well, I spoke too soon. The last couple of days we've been in the heart of downtown Beijing, and the traffic is constantly jammed. Cars, buses and taxis everywhere, with bicycles and scooters weaving in and out of things. Honking of horns is frequent but doesn't have a road rage connotation; it merely means, "I'm over here; be careful when you change lanes." Beijing is simply gigantic. It takes quite a while to get anywhere, minimum half an hour, often an hour or more. Our hotel is in one of the outer rings, the fifth ring, where it feels rather rural, but once we head in and cross over the fourth ring, the feel goes immediately from country to city. No suburbia in between.

This morning our group ventured to what is considered the first ring, the wall of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. If you've seen the iconic pictures from 1989 or the movie The Last Emperor, you have a sense of what this area looks like. We learned that for most locals, Tiananmen Square isn't primarily about student revolts or the lone figure standing in front of the row of tanks. It's just one of the most prominent public places, like Central Park in New York City or the Mall of Washington, DC. Located here is the mausoleum of Chairman Mao and his preserved body on permanent display, though skeptics argue that it's most likely a wax dummy. Hard to tell.

The palaces and courtyards of the Forbidden City are all being refurbished in preparation for the Olympics. We could see the difference between some exhibits that had new signage with both Chinese and English and old signage that was just in Chinese. Some fascinating stuff, like the emperor's actual bow and arrows, with inscriptions like, "In August of the 19th year of his reign, the emperor used this bow to kill a black boar." The courtyards of the Forbidden City have no trees in them because it was feared that assassins would hide in them.

The other thing I spoke too soon about was the amount of American and Western commercial properties. Yesterday we visited several bookstores, both general market and Christian, and as we drove around we saw KFC, Subway, McDonald's, Starbucks and 7-Eleven. Nowhere near as ubiquitous as in Seoul, but still quite a presence. We had lunch at KFC, and the recipes seemed slightly spicier than what is usual in the U.S. I had a chicken sandwich that had a traditional Chinese marinade. Very tasty.

There are various kinds ways to get books in China. The national bookstore chain is state-run, with some 1800-1900 actual stores and many more private outlets that provide textbooks and government documents. We visited one of these, which was like a Borders, with four floors - music and video on the first floor, general books on the second and fourth floors and children's books and textbooks on the third floor. Another venue is the independent local bookstore, one of perhaps 40,000 in the country. At the one we visited, I bought the Chinese edition of the first Harry Potter book. Retail price: 19.50 yuan, or about $2.50.

For Christian books, there are perhaps 70 to 100+ Christian bookstores. We visited two of these, and they carried Chinese translations of many common U.S. titles, from The Purpose-Driven Life to Left Behind. We were pleased to see the licensed editions of several of IVP's books, including Loving Monday and The Story of Christian Theology and Christianity & Western Thought, vols. 1 and 2. The American edition of The Story of Christian Theology is a $37.00 hardcover; the Chinese edition is a paperback that retails for about $8.00. The whole scale of economics is different here. And China is the world's largest book market, with something like five or six billion books being purchased annually.

Besides the books sold through physical bookstores, there's also a booming online bookselling presence. And Christian books are also distributed through thousands of house churches. Many of the Three-Self Churches also sell books in their churches, though usually this is little more than an informal booktable or shelf of books.

We also spent time at our main reason for coming - the Beijing International Book Fair. This is something of a smaller version of other international book fairs. The Frankfurt Book Fair is the world's largest, with thousands of publishers in eight or nine pavilions - a veritable world's fair of books. BIBF is contained in just one hall, on three floors, with different areas featuring publishers from different countries and regions: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, North American, British, European, others. Ellen is IVP's rights manager, and she spent the last couple of days meeting with publishers. BIBF is a rights show, meaning that publishers come to license rights to books for translation into different languages. This is different from orders shows, where bookstores come to order inventory for their stores.

Sorry for the random nature of these posts - I'm just basically downloading thoughts from our time here without much reflection or analysis. I'm also rather beat, after walking for several hours today!

1 comment:

Craver Vii said...

Wow, Al. I sure wish I could be there with you guys. It sounds absolutely fascinating. No wonder you're tired! Take a load off, kick your feet up, and crack open a Budwiser. (Yuk, yuk, yuk.)