The “Warring States” world of picture books … in a big Hangzhou bookshop

The title of this blog is borrowed from Minjie’s last post. The “Warring States” refers to the group of states (usually between six and eight, but the number varies over time according to mergers and acquisitions) that were vying for land and power during the 250-year period between 475-221 BC. It was a time of war, but also a time of innovation, both in material goods and thinking. In 221 BC the Qin state emerged victorious, and Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor of China, claimed his place in history.

From various news reports – mostly from the English-language press from China, and UK publishing news – I had the impression that China was awash with picture books from overseas, and that most of the world’s best-loved children’s books had already been translated into Chinese. In August, I tried an experiment – how many of the School Library Journal‘s “Top 100 Picture Books for the 21st Century” were available in Chinese? I found about 76 – and put the matching covers side by side here. Yet, at the same time, (older) Chinese friends were dubious, and warned me about how ridiculous this was. Typical responses were along the lines of … Chinese parents want books to educate rather than entertain their children; hard-back picture books are expensive, trivial purchases; and what’s the point of picture books anyway?

I wanted to see for myself. So, while in Hangzhou in September for two conferences at the newly re-opened China National Silk Museum 中古丝绸博物馆 (which is a pleasure to visit – both beautiful and educational), I paid a visit to the city’s Xinhua Bookstore 新华书店 (New China Bookstore). The Xinhua Bookstores are state-run and there’s one in every city.

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The picture book shelves at the Xinhua Bookstore, Hangzhou, Sept 2016 (photo by Helen Wang)

The children’s section was upstairs on the first floor (in Chinese, it’s the second floor). At the top of the escalator and stairs was a brightly coloured area with tablets and e-readers, promoting interactive reading and learning. Just round the corner were the picture book (huiben 绘本) shelves. I couldn’t work out whether there was an intended arrangement, so just started to browse. A few immediate observations: as you can see in the photo (left), the shelves were almost floor-to-ceiling. I didn’t see any steps – so it helps to be quite tall and flexible if you want to reach them all. Almost all the books were wrapped in clear plastic, and I mostly browsed the covers. Most were translated titles from all languages, retaining the original cover design, though in Chinese language. There were usually several copies of each book, and most were in the price range of 38-58 yuan.

The picture books by Chinese writers and illustrators were placed in and amongst the translated books. It seemed random, and before long two broad categories presented themselves: what life was like in the twentieth century, and friendly creepy-crawlies. For example, there were quite a lot of copies of the trio of books in the “When We Were Young” series 我们小时候绘本 by author-illustrator Ling Song 凌嵩: When I Was Young, When Mum was Young, and When Mum’s Mum was Young. And there were many books about insects and little creatures, including the “My Diary” series 我的日记系列 (the books are written by Doreen Cronin [USA], illustrated by Harry Bliss, and translated by Chen Hongshu 陈宏淑). A few days later, I made a second visit to the bookshop, and found there was some new stock. This time, I noticed a greater range of books by Chinese writers and illustrators – there were several beautiful picture books by Cai Gao 蔡皋, and some illustrated books on the history of China (arranged by dynasty, with maps).

Walking around the rest of this floor of the bookshop, I found more Chinese picture books, and science puzzle-books (see Minjie’s last post), but in soft covers, at a lower price; numerous licensed products (eg linked into TV cartoons); chapter books with pinyin for early readers; and novels for different ages. There were almost always several copies of the same book, and most were wrapped. Again, there were many titles in translation, but also classics in Chinese (these were about 15-20 yuan per book). I spoke to a few of the shop assistants and they were very helpful – one tried to find a book I wanted on the Xinhua database, but I had the wrong title (doh!), another was happy to remove a book-wrapper for me, and a third was very knowledgeable about the Chinese classic novels for children.

There was also an impressive table of picture books – the following three photos are taken from left to right on the table. There were so many copies of each book!

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Three photos of the picture book table in the Xinhua Bookstore, Hangzhou, September 2016 (photos by Helen Wang)

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