BERNICE CHEN muses on arts and letters in Shanghai.

Shanghai’s largest bookstore, Shu Cheng on Fuzhou Road (a rather naff translation is ‘Shanghai Book City’; ‘Wall of Books’ is too ominous) is a monolithic building with eight cavernous stories of maze-like shelving. Like all the best bookstores, it’s stocked with mini shopping trolleys, here energetically pushed by parents busily purchasing tutorial books for their children. Slightly less busy is the floor dedicated to ‘Classics of Marxism-Leninism’, where you can pick up Xi Jinping’s latest, ‘The Governance of Modern China’ for 8 yuan (around $1.60). Other departments are more familiar: fiction, non-fiction, multimedia, stationery and the ubiquitous Starbucks.

Most of the book stock is shrink-wrapped to prevent in-store reading, although usually one of each book is available for perusal. The system makes sense when you realise how lovingly worn those unwrapped books are, or when you discover every conceivable horizontal seating or vertical leaning nook and cranny has been commandeered by readers. The readers – usually young, some middle-aged or elderly – completely unfazed by the noise and bustle around them, often peering into half-opened books so as to politely avoid breaking the spine, spend hours sitting in the same spot until the book is finished.

Of particular interest is the enormous array of sheet music, including Westernised arrangements of Chinese classical standards. I’d be a bit wary of these beyond their curiosity value: as a young piano student in the days before the Internet, well-meaning cousins meant I discovered first-hand the peculiarities of Chinese editions of the Western musical canon. The situation hasn’t changed dramatically – arrangements apparently aim to save paper and assume you have either six or fourteen fingers.

There is an entire floor of Chinese-language translations of non-Chinese literature: scanning the shelves to see completely unfamiliar Spanish or Japanese titles beside Middlemarch or Nineteen Eighty-Four or, indeed, War and Peace, it’s an interesting reminder that our literary horizons are strongly limited by our language skills. Classics are well accounted for, often in competing translations for your pleasure. The selection of modern fiction is also wide but charmingly haphazard. There is John Fowles’ A Maggot but not The French Lieutenant’s Woman; Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated but not Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Representing the Australians, one finds Peter Carey (Oscar and Lucinda) but not Patrick White. The odd selection makes you imagine two publishers and a put-upon translator, impulsively deciding they like one book and not another; thus dictating the vagaries of what is unleashed into the Chinese market.

Shu Cheng is on Fuzhou Road, the traditional destination for books, art and literary supplies in Shanghai. Spy on beautifully-dressed Shanghainese hipsters and survey the state of contemporary Chinese art in the rarefied air of the historical Shanghai Fine Arts Bookstore. Also on the same street is the Shanghai Foreign Language bookstore, which has an excellent selection to cure all homesickness, and a wonderful cafe. As you can buy almost anything off street-side hawkers in China, Fuzhou Road presents no exception: this is probably one of your only lifetime opportunities to buy books, notebooks, or pens off a large bike-powered wagon with cars whizzing by, a policeman striding ominously (and ineffectually) through the milling crowd.

The rest of the street is restaurants and coffee chains stuffed with students, or stationery and art stores. Chinese stationery stores are enchanted places: tiny spaces crammed full of every conceivable writing implement or accessory, from fine-nibbed, almost invisible pens to rug-sized sheets of bright-pink card stock. Stationery storekeepers are unsurprised by any request or inquiry and will either be mildly grumpy or mildly disinterested, an occasionally refreshing departure from the prevailing model of Chinese customer service. On the dusty back shelf of a hole-in-the-wall store I found a gift for my grandfather: spectacular silk-covered calligraphy books with concertina-bound pages a millimetre thick. For myself, Baixin Stationery (founded in 1912) has creamy notebooks bound in traditional Chinese fabrics.

Some stores primarily stock Chinese calligraphic supplies: brushes, inks, inkstones, seal stones, thick rich paper. I like to gawp at the largest brushes, over a metre high, which are primarily used by calligraphy masters for large banners (think weddings and corporate openings). Their other use is particularly charming: take an early morning walk in a local park and you might spot an elderly person carrying one of these huge brushes and a bucket of water. They practice calligraphy standing up, using the pavement as paper and water as ink. It’s a form of exercise and meditation and flows beautifully in an echo of the tai chi practitioners nearby. After they leave, pouring out the bucket into a flowerbed, the words slowly evaporate in the heat of the day.

Posted by Alice Dawkins

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