China Just Held a Huge Literary Party, and No One Came

The rising power was the guest of honor at BookExpo America, but the country's top authors couldn't give their books away.


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 pulled out their own pens and 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 replied, “I can’t even find a sparrow to catch.”

It was May 28 at 1 p.m. on the second day of the major publishing trade event BookExpo America (BEA) in Manhattan, where China was this year’s guest of honor.

Su, who wrote the novella that was later made into the film Raise the Red Lantern by star Chinese director Zhang Yimou, sat next to a 5-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 5-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.

A Yi told me that delivery of copies of the English edition of his award-winning 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 40-odd fans who showed up at the advertised time.

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

Bi, 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 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 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 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 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!”

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, 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.

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.

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, Feng, 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, adopted from a novel by Su, 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 seemingly ignorant of the arrival of the huge Chinese delegation celebrated as international guests of honor at the largest annual book trade event in the United States.

This article was translated from the original Chinese by Austin Woerner.

Photo credit: Image/Ge Yuan

Tag: China