Opinion / Chen Weihua

Discovering China in Washington's used bookstores

By Chen Weihua (China Daily) Updated: 2017-05-05 07:57

Used bookstores in Washington are a treasure trove for books on China as I have discovered over the past few years. One book caught my attention as I dropped by the Second Story Books on P Street near Dupont Circle recently: Assignment China by Julian Schuman, published in 1956.

Schuman, a veteran journalist, first visited China in 1947 to work for The China Press, ABC and then China Weekly Review, along with well-known journalist Bill Powell. Both were persecuted during the McCarthy era after returning to the United States.

Much later Schuman joined China Daily and was on the founding team of the newspaper before it was officially launched on June 1, 1981. As a young reporter working briefly at China Daily's Beijing headquarters in the late 1980s, I never got a chance to talk to Schuman, but saw him working, should I say diligently, on the sports desk.

Schuman's Assignment China offers a first-hand observation of China after the 1949 revolution, mostly in my hometown Shanghai.

Such delightful and surprising encounters with China hands like Schuman are many in used bookstores in Washington. On a recent weekend, I also found a copy of the 1938 edition of Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China. Snow was one of the few friendly American names heard during my childhood days.

Idle Time Books in the Adams Morgan neighborhood has a dream collection. During my last few visits, I have come across Jerome Cohen's 1968 book The Criminal Process in the People's Republic of China 1949-1963.

Cohen, a leading scholar on China's legal system and now a professor of law at New York University, is well known among the China hands in the United States. Having interviewed him several times, I knew his fascinating story-that he started his study into China's legal system in the beginning of the 1960s when the two countries had no diplomatic relations or contact at all.

One level directly below the shelf with Cohen's book was a light-gray hardcover, China's Red Army Marches by Agnes Smedley. Published in 1934 by Vanguard Press, the book has aged with a dark sepia tone. For me, however, it was a treasure rediscovered.

I also found a Newsweek-Jan 30, 1967, issue-with a cover story on the then ongoing "cultural revolution" (1966-76) in China.

Located on 18th Street NW adjacent to many bars and restaurants, Idle Time Books offers food for thought. A few boxes and shelves outside the store contain many free books or $1-3 books for bibliophiles.

Capitol Hill Books is an attraction, just like the Strand bookstore in New York City. Wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling stacks of secondhand books, including some rare and first editions, are waiting to be discovered by book lovers. In fact, the restroom on the second floor, too, displays books.

The American Booksellers Association says its membership, which is a barometer of the health of independent bookstores, has grown for seven consecutive years. In 2016, sales were up almost 5 percent over 2015.

Used bookstores have witnessed a revival in Washington in the past years. The wonder of used bookstores in Washington and many other US cities is something Chinese cities could learn from to enrich the cultural atmosphere along with their fast-changing skylines and widening high-speed rail network.

Bookstores are facing a tough time in the age of e-books and online shopping. I, too, have bought many books in their Kindle editions in recent years. But physical copies, despite the inconvenience of having to carry them around, provide a more intimate feel. This is especially true for books in used bookstores, which have many editions that were printed decades before anybody could have even imagined that there could be something like Kindle one day. The yellowish, sometimes almost brittle pages take readers back in time.

The author is deputy editor of China Daily USA.

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