Book touring in Beijing
By Simon Winchester
Published: June 20 2009 02:12 | Last updated: June 20 2009 02:12
|Reading Room of the National Library of China in Beijing|
It was when the elderly Chinese lady clambered up on to the stage as I was doing a reading and began a curious, undulating dance to music playing out of her cellphone, that I first started to think: book touring in China is very different from elsewhere and, in many ways, totally weird.
It all began with the sale of my most recent book to a Chinese publisher. I had written about the eccentric Cambridge biochemist Joseph Needham, whose adulterous love affair with a Chinese student in 1937 led to him writing what turned out be the longest English book on China ever written – 25 volumes and more than 4m words. In Britain, Needham is almost entirely forgotten beyond the confines of academia. But in China he is widely known and universally revered.
Before Needham, China was disdainfully regarded as quite peripheral. But since Needham, who catalogued China’s vast and bewildering array of achievements that proved without doubt how central the country was to the world, the view steadily changed to today’s mixture of awe, admiration and respect.
In addition to his having unintentionally engineered the sea-change, Needham was for all of his long life (he died in 1995, aged 94) a committed Marxist. So small wonder, perhaps, that when a Shanghai publishing company decided his story might sell in China, they were given immediate government permission to publish it. Last spring, they wrote to me: “Would I like to come over on tour?”
When I said yes, there came a blizzard of grateful and charmingly imperfect e-mails: “We are honoured and feel pleasure that you save one week for visiting China.” “We really appreciated the deep passion you deliver in the book.” And when I arranged to arrive in April: “We look forward to see you in China then, a month which we describe as paradise on earth in Chinese.”
These nice people in China seemed bent on making a fuss. They had booked me on the Air China non-stop service from Kennedy to Beijing – in business class. When I landed at Norman Foster’s staggering Beijing Terminal Three, there was Daisy, small, shy, bespectacled and unimaginably obliging, with a Mercedes, a driver, cold towels and bottles of iced jasmine tea.
It was a far cry from when I first landed in what was then Peking in 1979, a city of dust, strange silence and countless blue-uniformed workers grimly riding on a black cloud of bicycles. Here I was speeding in air-conditioned comfort down freeways, with BMWs and Buicks and Volvos on all sides, until I arrived at the very old Friendship Hotel.
This legendary place is a collection of a dozen old Chinese buildings where China has put up visiting dignitaries for the past half century. Back in the old days of Mao and Deng Xiaoping I remember it as grim, all smoke and spittoons: today it is languid luxury, aside from the importunate “masseuses” ringing to know when they might offer in-room services.
It was in the ballroom of Beijing’s St Regis hotel that, two days later, the book was officially launched. Comparisons pale. In Britain you might be thrown a lunch in the Mirabelle or a cocktail party at the Travellers Club; in America the kick-off will most likely be a speech at the big Barnes & Noble on Broadway and 84th Street, followed by dinner at the publisher’s penthouse. But in Beijing it was much more serious: a formal banquet for 300 people – no fewer than 50 of them being vice-ministers in the Chinese government.
A flurry of young women (all of whom spoke English) had come up from the publishing house in Shanghai, together with their bosses (all of whom did not). They came with gifts for me: a bright yellow silk tie with the Chinese character for “book” woven into the pattern; a series of jade chops with my Chinese name, “Wen Si-miao”; a calligraphy set with brushes and an ink-stone.
The following day they were keen to show me the sights – not so much the tourist sights that they knew I had been to before but the literary and cultural hotspots of their capital. There is a new National Library, for example – it was completed last autumn, a gleaming confection of steel and glass and pale oak, which manages to be both bustling and hushed at the same time. It is open to anyone 365 days a year from dawn until late at night, and has at its centre what looks like a vast opencast mine, hundreds of feet deep, with scholars and readers at rows of desks on every level, hemmed in by walls of volumes. I am an abiding fan of the new British Library, and have nostalgic longings for the old reading-room in Bloomsbury; but this new pit of learning, in the heart of Beijing, has now to be counted alongside the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library.
It was here they had staged the first of the seminars – a series of unexpected, full-dress grillings by academics. I was introduced to an unsmiling young woman who was to be my interpreter – and then a pair of doors was flung open.
I was in a crammed lecture theatre, the audience standing and turning to applaud. They led me down, lamb-to-slaughter-like, to join three eminent Needham scholars at a table on the stage. I sat behind my name-card, the unsmiling lady took a seat behind me – and for the next two hours I was subjected to an interrogation on the human history of Chinese science. It was respectful, polite – and very intense.
And, on occasion, bizarre. For it was here that the dancer appeared. We were having a discussion about the human body – Needham wrote much about early Chinese anatomical charts – and I was reading a passage about the relative flexibility of Asian musculature, when the old woman climbed up, switched on her mobile phone and turned it to speaker-mode, cranked up some frightful tinny local opera and began to dance – to display the uniquely flexible nature of her body.
There were signings – held in one of the immense Xinhua bookstores found in city centres across the country. The store we visited near the old French Concession in Shanghai was eight storeys high. Each floor was beehive-busy, and the table where I was due to sit was full before I got there. Everyone had a book open at the title page, everyone had practised a little speech in English, each nervously and smilingly blurted it out: “Li Yue-se [the Chinese name for Needham] was a great hero – thank you for writing about him.”
And there was the interview, on CCTV-9 – held in China’s central broadcasting HQ, a building beside the Beijing military museum that had more security than Fort Knox. The young woman who interrogated me for 30 minutes for her programme, Dialogue, had evidently read every line of my book, and asked questions in perfect English with a formidable intelligence.
But perhaps the most memorable moment of the tour came on the evening in Shanghai, when I quoted a signboard I had seen in western China. It was outside the national space launch centre and it proclaimed: “Without Haste, Without Fear. We Will Conquer the World.”
There was a brief silence as the interpreter translated. Then she smiled broadly, and first the three professors beside me, and then the entire audience, stood up and began cheering. After a few seconds I realised it wasn’t me that they were cheering. It was China, and the future they all want for her, which all believe she is now on the verge of attaining and which a line from my book had happily confirmed.
‘Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China’ by Simon Winchester is published by Penguin
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009