We have form where books in China are concerned. We first came to China over forty years ago. At that time China was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. There were books, but only in a certain sense. There was a New China Xinhua Bookshop in Beijing’s Wangfujing Street. A sad institution, it consisted of long high-ceilinged halls, empty of both customers and books. No, there were a few books. You could buy the beautifully bound works of,not only, Chairman Mao, but also Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Kim Il-sung and Enver Hoxha. You may never have heard of Enver Hoxha. Not surprising. He was the Stalinesque leader of Albania and, in his capacity as the head of China’s sole ally in the world, received possibly disproportionate attention in the world’s largest country. There was a Foreign Language Bookshop selling English, French, Russian, Albanian and Romanian versions of…. Well, we’ve already enumerated them.

Occasionally there was a thaw and little gems indicative of future political joy to come would sneak in. We still treasure the only two foreign books available in the whole of China at that time. These were Albanian versions of Gore Vidal’s Washington DC Vashington DK and Macbeth Makbethi. It was sad to reflect that even Stalinist Albania was more liberal than Mao’s China.

One day in 1976, the news gradually leaked out that a sex manual called Hygiene for Youth had made a triumphant appearance on the Xinhua bookshelves. Deeply curious as to what such a tome could contain, we quickly hied to Wangfujing. The usual gloomy halls greeted us until we found ourselves on the third floor, until then virgin territory to us. There stood a line of soldiers patiently waiting their turn at a glass-topped 1950s style counter where a Mao-suited attendant doled out copies of the book in plain brown paper packages.

The book was a classic with chapters along the lines of why you should save yourself for marriage. We found the chapter on masturbation particularly resonant. The problem, it appeared, was that masturbation, although an excellent practice in all other respects, had the fatal flaw that it caused lapses in Revolutionary Fervour. To remedy this it was necessary to Take Steps, including not wearing tight underwear. This was not simple in the days when only cotton cloth was available and, in winter, this involved wearing up to ten layers of clothes. And, as a final talisman against evil, when tempted, you should read Chairman Mao’s works.

One other book moment from those days remains deeply etched in our minds because we have to admit that it shocked us, even though it was completely in character and predictable.

Like all other foreigners, we were automatically members of the International Club, an institution allowing us a small degree of amusement and from which all Chinese were excluded. By the Party, that is, not by the foreigners.

The club boasted a library on its notice board, but we had never been able to find it. It was in the basement and it was made quite clear to us that although it was entirely open, we’d better not try. One day the usual thug at the top of the stairs was missing. In those days the bonus for turning up to work had been declared capitalist so a lot of people didn’t bother. We took advantage of his absence to sneak down to the library. Nothing terribly unusual, Marx, Lenin, the ever-present Chairman. But in a corner was a glass-fronted cabinet with a curtain drawn across its front. Through the curtain we could just make out that it contained the sort of stuff that Communists like, Jack London, Dickens, Gorky and a bit of Shakespeare. In Maoist China this was a real treasure trove. But it had been nailed closed.

We were genuinely horrified at the time and wondered what sort of biblioclast would do such a thing. Time and age have since moderated our views; the simple act of nailing up the bookcase probably saved this small collection from the fate that befell so many other books during this tumultuous period. The man with the hammer was actually, in a small way, probably a hero of culture.


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