Top Chinese Authors Show Up at Book Expo, but Where Are the Readers?

Last week, 20,000 publishers convened in New York’s Javits Center for BookExpo America (BEA), the publishing industry’s annual trade show. Among their ranks was a delegation from China 500 strong, attending the convention in the capacity of “guest of honor.” Along with some 150 publishers, the group included a group of prominent Chinese novelists, there to give the convention a sense of the best of China’s (state-approved) literary culture, or as several Chinese news accounts put it, to “promote China.”

Our colleague Zhang Xiaoran visited the convention to interview A Yi, a best-selling novelist who started his working life as a small-town policeman and whose novels—like those of several of the other novelists in group—were on sale in translation. She found the novelists, literary celebrities in China, wandering the massive hall at loose ends—left to fend for themselves after a series of forlorn readings and poorly attended panel discussions.

Zhang wrote the following account of her visit to the expo in Chinese and posted it on Chinese social media on Friday. It quickly went viral. It was viewed 15,000 times on the WeChat account of the Beijing News after the account reposed it. After that, says a staff member at the Beijing News, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief received a phone call from the Propaganda Ministry asking for the post to be deleted, and so it was. The same thing happened when Phoenix Books—the book section of the website of a major Chinese television network—posted the piece. It has been viewed 15,700 times on the social media accounts of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations.

The article elicited a lot of commentary from online readers.

The majority of commenters expressed shock that such celebrated writers would meet with such a cool reception in the U.S., and many focused on the difficulties of bringing Chinese culture abroad.

@Rong Xiaojing, commenting on Tencent, wrote “Americans are famously egocentric. Ordinary Americans treat culture from other countries like a dash of pepper floating in their soup, all they want is the merest sprinkling of flavor.”

@bigbirdKiki, an Associate Editor at Sina Blogs, spoke up in the government’s defense: “The fuss that the media is making over a few pathetic photos from BEA and the way it’s belittling Chinese authors is completely unfair. But the fact that the Chinese delegation has gotten a cool reception is not in the least bit surprising. The debate over ‘exporting Chinese culture’ is a tired topic, and we all know the conclusion: we need to find better translators, bridge the cultural gap, find the right literary agents, expand our overseas influence, etc. These changes aren’t going to happen overnight.”

Regarding the typically Chinese emphasis on form rather than substance, @YangBoxu commented on Weibo: “Whether on the level of individuals, companies, or large institutions, we’re seeing, at different levels, a kind of insular, I-rule-the-roost mentality. Whether it’s the Great Wall or the Great Firewall, we’re really good at finding ways of shutting out the world so that we can play by ourselves.”—The Editors

When Su Tong, Bi Feiyu, and A Yi—three of China’s best known writers—arrived at the table set up for them to sign books, they found not only no one waiting in line, but also no pens.

So the authors began to amuse themselves by signing their books and giving them to each other. Then they ribbed each other for forgetting how to write the characters of people’s names. Invoking a Chinese idiom, someone joked that, business was “so slow, you could catch sparrows in the doorway.” And Su Tong replied, “I can’t even find a sparrow to catch.”

It was May 28 at one in the afternoon on the second day of BookExpo America, where China was this year's guest of honor.

Zhang Xiaoran

Su Tong sits next to a five-foot tall poster showing the book-signing schedule.

The book-signing was billed as a “book giveaway,” which meant that English copies of the authors' books would be given away for free after the authors signed them. But even so, during the hour I hung around, only ten conference-goers stopped by, more than half of whom were attracted by the letterpress machine that sat on the authors’ table.

To give the authors a place to sign books, event organizers had co-opted a table used to display a Chinese letterpress machine, and next to it set up a five-foot-tall poster board listing the times for each author's book signings in miniscule type, so that passersby needed to walk straight up to the board in order to read it. In the 1,800,000-square-foot expanse of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, the poster was about as conspicuous as a thumbtack on a wall.

According to a publicity brochure, ten Chinese authors—Liu Zhenyun, Mai Jia, Feng Tang, Lan Lan, A Yi, Bi Feiyu, Su Tong, Xu Zechen, Sheng Keyi, and Cao Wenxuan—were assigned half-hour time slots on May 27, 28, and 29 during which to sign and give away their books.

Ge Yuan

The Javits Center lobby.

A Yi, a best-selling novelist, told me that delivery of copies of the English edition of his novel A Perfect Crime had been delayed en route from London by “a global outbreak of human procrastination,” and so his book signing had to be canceled. Copies of Feng Tang’s Beijing, Beijing arrived a day late, disappointing the forty-odd fans who showed up at the advertised time.

There were, however, plenty of Bi’s and Su Tong’s books, which resulted in the scene described above.

Bi Feiyu, after sitting at the table for a few minutes, sensed that things weren’t right. After retrieving ten copies of his own book from a box behind the table, he whipped out a pen, signed them one after another, and sauntered off without a word.

Su Tong, however, was told that he had come too early, and killed time wandering around the convention center. When his time slot finally arrived, he saw that Bi Feiyu was leaving and was about to follow suit but Bi urged him to “stick it out.” Finally, a Chinese conference-goer walked by and Su Tong picked up one of several borrowed pens from the table. But the woman said, “Do you have the Chinese edition? I’d rather read the original.”

At some point during all this, A Yi found a sheet of paper, borrowed an ink brush from the display table, and wrote “FREE!” in large letters in hopes of attracting the attention of passersby. Picking up several autographed novels that Bi Feiyu had abandoned, he began strolling around, approaching kindly-looking people and “promoting” the book in earnest and simple English: “This book is by one of China's best authors! Please take it! It’s free!”

Zhang Xiaoran

A Yi, second from left, waylays a conference-goer so that Bi Feiyu, right, can give her a book.

A middle-aged American man wearing glasses and casual business dress, who had the look of an intellectual, flipped through the book and then handed it back to an innocent-faced A Yi with a wave and a “No thanks!” Su Tong, sitting at the table, burst out laughing, then walked over and patted A Yi on the shoulder. “You'd better stop,” he said, “You'll humiliate our country.”

It was not for lack of funding that “China’s best authors” drew so little interest.

As the Guest of Honor at this year’s BEA, China sent the largest delegation in the convention’s history. Over five hundred people, including representatives from almost 150 Chinese publishing houses, as well as some 50 authors, came to the five-day convention bearing books and publications of all kinds, during which they attended close to 300 events. One group alone, the China National Publications Import and Export Corporation, flew 25 authors to America to attend the convention.

Ge Yuan

A massive poster of Xi Jinping, hanging in the lobby of the Javits Center.

The exhibition and related events took place at the Javits Convention Center, and authors also participated in various off-site events hosted by other organizations.

Because the $104-a-day price of admission deterred most ordinary readers, the events in the convention center were primarily attended by the booksellers and publishers who flew in from all over the world. The number of attendees at off-site events varied according to the ability of the sponsoring organization to get the word out.

At a literary salon held on the evening of May 27 by the Confucius Institute for Business at SUNY, eight Chinese authors—Liu Zhenyun, Bi Feiyu, Feng Tang, Xu Zechen, Lan Lan, Cao Wenxuan, He Jianming, and Zhao Lihong—took the stage, and about 100 people attended, of whom roughly 90 percent were Chinese. The same evening, a screening of Fly with the Crane at the Brooklyn Public Library drew only a dozen or so viewers.

On May 28, the symposium “Xi Jinping: The Governance of China” took place in the convention center, attracting 100 participants including Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the United States, and Robert Lawrence Kuhn, Chairman of the Kuhn Foundation. From that point on, Chinese media platforms were flooded with accolades for the “success” of the BEA and the fact that Xi’s book had sold 4.5 million copies globally in half a year.

Most people who attended the events heard about them by word of mouth. Few local American media outlets carried information about the events, and even the New York Chinese-language media did little to publicize them. As a result, the several-hundred-thousand Chinese residents of New York City were, for the most part, ignorant of the arrival of the “largest Chinese delegation in the history of BookExpo America.”

Translated by Austin Woerner

Ge Yuan

Copies of President Xi Jinping’s ‘The Governance of China,’ stacked on the floor at the BookExpo.