This is a fairy tale about a bookshop, and to tell the story I have to start long before the bookshop came into my life. In the beginning I did not know there was such a thing as a bookshop. I knew books, and bookshelves. Our family and families around all had bookshelves – they were the same size, dark brown, issued, along with other furniture, by the research institute where my father worked as a nuclear physicist. We had been assigned two bookshelves, one claimed by my grandfather, who shared a bedroom with my sister and me and whose books were stitched bound, their pages yellow and flimsy – these he had accumulated throughout his scholarly and editorial career, though I understand now it would be more accurate to say that these books had been rescued from a downward journey from an editor and scholar to an almost-enemy of the state. (He and his two sons had fought against the Communist army in the civil war.) On the other bookshelf were books from my parents’ youths. There were Russian textbooks and treasures – one of them, I was told, was Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, which my parents used as a photo album with many finger-sized, black and white pictures of people from before they were married and had children. There were my father’s textbooks from university on classical mechanics and quantum physics. There were a handful of books that I had read and reread during elementary school: revolutionary novels (The Golden Road, The Tale of Red Flag, The Bright Sunny Day), Gorky’s autobiography, The Gadfly by Ethel Voynich. (The last of these I could almost memorize in parts; there were a few illustrations, exotic but pretty, of Catholic priests, dark confessionals and a young man butterfly-hunting in an Italian valley; there was a picture of Voynich herself, her Irish face equally foreign.)
Other families had books, too, mostly the same ones, though in second grade a friend discovered a copy of Arabian Nights on her parents’ bookshelf. It was the first children’s book – or so I believed it to be – that I had encountered, and I convinced the friend to lend it to me. Three days, she had me promise, and I devoured the book in three days, thrilled by the threat of impending execution but also confused by the abundance of cucumbers and naked people.
In the beginning it did not occur to me to ask from where the books had come onto people’s bookshelves. Of course I’d seen new books, in a department store near us, though it would be more accurate to call it a general store. Everything was kept behind counters, and one had to ask a shop assistant – the most impatient people you would ever meet, if you grew up in Beijing in the 1970s and 1980s and knew the shop assistants as I did – to see a pair of shoes, a roll of fabric, a blouse or a water kettle. On Sundays, which was the only weekend day, the store was packed. When I read in fiction now about a crowded bar – ‘three or four deep’ – I see the tiny department store. It was a battle to get the attention of a shop assistant, and a lost battle if you dared to ask to see alternatives.
The book department was not as crowded, and sometimes my parents left me there while they pushed through the crowds to fill the shopping list. It was a hopeless affair to watch the books from a distance, as they were either in the glass cases or on the shelves behind the counter. I did not have money. The books, I understood without being yelled at, were to be paid for before being touched.
One had to look elsewhere for reading material. We lived on the ground floor of an apartment block, and twice a day the postman delivered mail into a green, wooden box, which did not have a lock, next to our door. Newspapers, on subscription, arrived daily. Postcards, drably coloured and issued by the postal service, came regularly – it was cheaper to send a postcard than a letter. Because I was a perpetual loiterer by the mailbox, and because I could retreat at the first sign of danger, I read the newspapers and postcards when they came in. I read envelopes too, memorizing the senders’ names and addresses and making up words for what would be in the letters. A letter had to have a good reason for being written. My grandmother – my father’s mother – wrote once a year. Unusually for her generation of village women, she could write beautifully, though her husband, a poor peasant from the mountain, was completely illiterate – one of those people who would have to press a red-inked thumb on any official paper rather than signing his name. Of course I read my grandmother’s letters, too; I knew where my father kept them in a neat stack. It always started with this old-fashioned greeting: Ling-Zhi, mine son, seeing this letter is as seeing mine face. Ling-Zhi was my father’s milk-name, used by my grandmother only. That he had a mother was a renewed surprise when I reread her letters. She spoke of her pigs and her chickens in the letters, and of my father’s younger siblings, some of whom he had barely known because he had left home at ten to seek an education. He was the first one in his village to go to a university, and it was said that his mother could only afford a pair of socks, so the villagers had pooled the money to buy a suitcase. He had travelled from southern China to the north with a pair of socks in an empty suitcase.
If you were like me, you would know the obsession of the compulsive reader: every street sign; every bottle label; the newspaper wrapping the fish and dripping liquid; the soles of new shoes; decades-old slogans printed on abandoned houses; the daily expenses my father recorded in a notebook. On a bus you would memorize the serial number and manufacturing date of the seat in front of you. In the hallway of the paediatrics department you would sneak to the registration desk and look at the names and ages printed on the medical records of all those coughing children. In third grade when I had measles and was quarantined for three weeks at home, I finished the Complete Manual of Barefoot Medics. It was published in 1969, a thick volume of eight hundred pages, with almost all the diseases possible or beyond imagination, with gruesome descriptions and even more gruesome illustrations. When you have measles you are not supposed to read or watch television (we didn’t have a set, in any case) or open the curtain to see the daylight: the eyes of a measles-afflicted child are easily destroyed if care is not taken. This last fact I both read in the barefoot medics’ manual and understood through my own experience: my parents had taped a piece of fabric onto the bookshelf to keep all books unavailable, but they had left the medical manual at large, which was constantly used as a guide to my recovery. I lost my good eyesight after the measles; it’s one thing that’s been all the way downhill since then.
No, I was not the Sleeping Beauty. I would never close my eyes if a book were within reach.
The profession I fantasized about was not a bookshop owner as you might imagine (even if I’d discovered what a bookshop was), or the shop assistant behind the book counter. Not every Cinderella wants to go to the ball. Rather, my dream was to become a postwoman. Once my grandfather and I walked past the district post office in the afternoon. After a beep, the gate opened and more than a hundred postmen and postwomen rode their green bicycles out, all bells clanging, all mailbags on their crossbars plump. I didn’t know how to ride a bike then – I was a bookish child with an awkward ten-year-old body – and it had become clear to me that to learn to ride a bicycle was imperative to my happiness: imagine all the postcards and newspapers and envelopes that I could find in my mailbag.
Soon after I started middle school I was an expert on a bicycle, and I could manoeuvre the route to school: the streets were narrow and buses were wide and horse-drawn flatbeds were slow, and sometimes men would catch up and ride next to you, whispering lewd messages into your ear. But, all things considered, life was spectacularly good: upon entering middle school I was chosen to be a librarian’s assistant. I had not set foot in a library until then, and two roomfuls of books on tall shelves almost promised the happily-ever-after. Twice a week another student assistant and I stayed until five thirty, giving out books through a window to the many hands who fought to give us paper slips with Dewey numbers written on them (each student was allowed to put down five numbers at a time and was allowed to check out one book). After closing, we shelved the books, cleaned out the slips left on the floor, and then were allowed our privilege: we could check out two books.
Within a few months, I had finished all the books on the literature shelves (the 800s, as I began to think of them). They were of uneven quality, good only for the undiscriminating palate of a hungry mind. But the fact that one could have access to so many books – that was enough to celebrate about growing up.
The only trouble I had with my middle school education then was English. A majority of my classmates came from a cluster of government and military agencies nearby: the Chinese Military Academy, the headquarters of Military Intelligence, the Ministry of National Security and an army hospital. Children like me, who came from a more civilian and common background, would have a hard time understanding their upbringing: having household staff; parents travelling abroad on journalistic missions (spies, really, I was told); buses to deliver them to school and pick them up after; free English lessons long before they had entered middle school. The first week of middle school I cried every night: I couldn’t memorize half of the ABC song, I had trouble telling the difference between ‘I’ and ‘l’, and if words shared common letters and appeared in the same lesson I became hopelessly confused. Words that tripped me in each other’s disguise: ruler and rubber; pain and gain (‘no pain, no gain’); four and five; ear and year.
You need an English–Chinese dictionary, the librarian – seeing that I tried to write out every English lesson ten times every day – told me. I didn’t even know there was something called an English–Chinese dictionary. My only access to English then was in our textbook, which, other than letters and words, had sentences like ‘Long live the Chinese Communist Party’ and ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’.
Where does one find a dictionary, I asked her, and she told me about this bookshop called the Foreign Language Bookshop. Her directions were so detailed and precise that I had little trouble finding the place: near a railway junction, in an alley, behind a food market, and flanked by a shoe-repair stall and a stand selling fresh tofu. All librarians, I sometimes think, are fairy godmothers in disguise.
The entrance to the bookshop, not wider than our apartment door, led to a narrow and long space. There were shelves of dictionaries and textbooks – English, German, French, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Italian, and some others. It was the first bookshop that I walked into, and I was overwhelmed and overjoyed that here, as in the library, I could take any book I wanted off a shelf. There were books published by the Foreign Language Press, and they all had oil paintings as covers, which was foreign to me. A Tale of Two Cities, The Mill on the Floss, The Woman in White, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – these were the few books I remember, their Chinese titles printed on the cover too. I opened a book randomly; the text was entirely in English. I understood why my grandmother called her husband ‘bright-eyed and unseeing’ – this must be how my illiterate grandfather felt when he saw any written words. However, I did recognize all the ‘I’s standing alone, while an ‘l’ never appeared by itself. Even that encouraged me. Imagine: some day I’d be able to read these words and sentences!
At the end of the shelves there was an entrance into a second room, with a heavy cotton curtain separating the two sections of the bookshop. Next to the curtain, written in many languages, was a warning: Foreign Visitors Not Allowed.
If you knew (and know) China as I’ve known it, you would see the oddity and humour in that sign. When we grew up we called all foreigners ‘international friends’, and to make them feel welcome and special was a political priority. In college, my best friend, when courted by a Korean student whom she did not want to see, was chased down the hallway by the dorm auntie; ‘an international friend’ was waiting at the building entrance, she told my friend, and her refusal to meet the man would leave an unseemly ‘international reflection’ on our school. Chances are, if you are a foreigner in China you are as close to royalty as you will ever be (unless you are a genuine prince or princess); it’s still a land of fairy tales if you know where to look.
In any case, a place that did not allow foreigners to enter was one I must see, and enter I did. Curiouser and curiouser! The room beyond the curtain, a square not much bigger than the bedroom my sister and I shared with our grandfather, was full of books that didn’t look like books. There were no shelves, and everything sat in high piles.
One had to pick one’s way carefully to avoid causing an avalanche. A man sitting at a desk by the entrance looked at me and returned to his paperwork. There were not many people in this room, and I must not have looked like someone who could afford or understand the treasures in this room.
In fact, the man was right. I could barely afford an English–Chinese dictionary in the other room. I did not have an allowance, though I had lunch money, and I already knew that I could scrimp and get enough money for a dictionary in a week. But what about this roomful of non-books? They were all photocopied materials, bound crudely, with light blue paper as cover. There was not even a Chinese title to tell me what they were. Oh the world was so close yet so far away, separated from mine by a language I had yet to master.
(Though the bookshop manager had foreseen the necessity to bar international friends, copyright was a completely unknown concept to most people at the time. Piracy – from bookshops to the internet – is a complicated issue in China. In my own case, I owe much of my education to pirated books, yet I’m also aware that, despite having refused to have my work translated into Chinese, people do so with impunity and publish translations both online and in print magazines without any communication with me.)
Once, after I had won a literary award, a journalist asked me if I had had a celebratory dinner. One of my many vices, I told him, was that I don’t like food. Lucky you, he said, but then you don’t know what you’ve missed.
I laughed, though my thought at that moment was: you don’t know what I didn’t miss. I spent three years of middle school eating noodles for lunch – twenty-one cents a meal for soupy noodles with a ladle of soy sauce on top. (By way of comparison, here were my other options: for rice and a vegetable dish it was forty cents; rice with a meat dish fifty cents; dumplings sixty; a platter of paper-thin cold cuts – no more than eight pieces – ten cents; an ice-cream bar twelve cents.) I can barely touch noodles now; I can eat cereal all day long. I must have destroyed my palate in middle school as I destroyed my eyes in third grade. But all, one must say, for a good cause!
And the money I saved: I’ve never felt so rich as I felt in middle school. And I’ve never splurged as I did then. Before long I owned two English–Chinese dictionaries, which I read voraciously; I also owned almost all the available English textbooks – textbooks not for middle school or high school but university students. One of them started with an article (touristy, in retrospect) about Cambridge University; another a Dylan Thomas essay (I didn’t know who this person was but liked the essay); another a reportage about D-Day (which I had yet to learn about in world history).
Before long I started to covet the books in the inner section of the bookshop. Yes, an ugly duckling has to become a swan.
This is, of course, a story with a happy ending. And so rarely does a story have such a happy ending. Within a couple of years I’d gained enough confidence in my English (and found more ingenious ways to scrimp) that I started to become a regular customer in the inner section of the bookshop. Those piles on the floor were not books, but the Reader’s Digest, photocopied, four issues bound together into a volume. They were costly, but they were entirely in English, and they were kept secret from most people, and they were my treasures. Down the rabbit hole I plunged. To this day I believe I’ve read more issues of Reader’s Digest than anyone I’ve met; and more thoroughly, no doubt, as I paid close attention to every ad, every insert, every illustration (badly reproduced photos especially). The annotations I made in those volumes were as comprehensive as those I have made in War and Peace or Chekhov’s stories in later life.
The bookshop is long gone, demolished along with the marketplace and the shoe-repair shop and the old Beijing. But never, I can say with certainty, has there been a bookshop that has provided so much magic in my life. There a girl found her prince in the pirated copies of Reader’s Digest. An unworthy match? No, not at all. All that offers a happy ending is a good fairy tale.
Yiyun Li’s ‘All that Offers a Happy Ending is a Fairy Tale’ is collected in Browse: The World in Bookshops, published by Pushkin Press in October 2016.
Artwork © Ken Chan