The country’s once-robust trade in serious literature has withered under an increasingly materialistic, results-oriented society, writes Helen Gao in The Atlantic.
In a chapter from his essay collection China in Ten Words, Yu Hua, an acclaimed Chinese writer, recounts the following anecdote from his childhood: In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, Western classic novels, previously denounced as “poisonous weed,” started to reappear in the remote village where he lived. Because of the shortage in supply, however, villagers had to purchase these books with ration tickets issued by the local bookstore. On the day the tickets were distributed, Yu arrived at the bookstore at dawn. A line was already snaking out from the entrance, formed by hundreds of villagers who had waited all night long. At 8 a.m., the bookstore owner announced that only 50 ration tickets were available. Yu remembered feeling as if “someone had poured a bucket of icy water over his head in the dead of winter.” The 51st person in line, staring at people ahead of him leaving with brand new copies ofAnna Karenina and David Copperfield, looked so crushed that the number “51” soon became a village slang for bad luck.