By Raymond Zhou
What do Oprah Winfrey and Wen Jiabao have in common? They can both catapult obscure works into bestsellers. The American television host opened a book club, a segment on her extremely popular talk show, in 1996 and has since recommended dozens of books, increasing their sales by as much as a million copies each. Hence, the "Oprah effect".
The Chinese premier mentioned in a visit to Singapore late last year that Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is his bedside reading. Since then, the Roman emperor's thoughts and insights have had half a dozen Chinese translations published, all of which are selling briskly. There is a bilingual Chinese-English edition, a special edition for adolescents and even a Meditations-style volume by one of the translators. All of them carry the tagline "a book Premier Wen Jiabao reads every day".
China has book critics, but their impact pales beside that of politicians. The Chinese version of The World Is Flat is on the recommendation list of several high-profile leaders. When Wang Yang, then Party secretary of Chongqing municipality, encouraged city officials to read it, 1,000 copies were sold in one day, emptying the city's entire inventory. Later, when Wang assumed the equivalent position in Guangdong province, he invited author Thomas Friedman for a visit.
A year ago, the Party secretary of Jiangxi province asked subordinates at an official meeting whether any of them had read the New York Times columnist's deep thoughts on globalization. Few hands shot up. Imagine the sales volume of that market!
When I interviewed Xia Deren, the mayor of Dalian, he gave me a copy of this book as a souvenir. I knew the mayor was featured in the book. And it was my guess he had bought hundreds of copies and gave them away as gifts.
This could be the envy of American politicians. President George W. Bush is said to be a bookworm, yet the release of his reading list, which includes such titles as American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, Polio: An American Story by David Oshinsky, and Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, has not created miracles for their sales.
A comparison of the marketing strategies for Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes by Mark Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne reveals a cultural chasm: In Amazon's introduction, the book is positioned as an "exercise in nano-sociology" for "culture buffs, retailers and especially businesspeople for whom 'small is the new big' will value". The Chinese title, as it appears on book retailing sites, is Microtrends: Jointly Recommended by Bill Clinton and Bill Gates. Here, the power of politics and money add to the prestige.
That explains the sudden popularity of titles concerning Barack Obama, the American president-elect. In the week after the election, the giant Zhongguancun bookstore in Beijing reported an 80 percent increase in sales of these titles, many of which were hastily assembled from online sources.
A search of Dangdang.com, one of the largest online retailers in China, early this week turned up 14 titles in all. Ranked at the top, by sales, is Obamanomics, written by John Talbott and translated into Chinese. At the bottom of the list is The Audacity of Hope written by Obama. In between is a bunch of quickly put-together volumes set to cash in on Obama's election.
In the old days, Chinese leaders were reluctant to publicize their reading lists. According to Southern Weekend, as late as 1987, when the Communist Party magazine Outlook asked Hu Yaobang, then Party secretary, to "promote reading", Hu said it was inconvenient for him to specify titles for recommendation.
The Fifth National Reading Survey, published in July 2008, reveals that the reading rate of books has halted its decline and rests at 48.8 percent, which translates to 4.58 volumes per capita (for the year 2006). The Southern Weekend interviews show the reading rate among government and Party officials hovers around 20-30 percent. These people have to wade through tons of documents every day, and for leisure they opt for newspapers instead. Unless assigned as a specific task by their boss, a book could be the last thing on their to-do list.
The report says the current reading craze engineered by top leaders could dissolve overnight once they leave office. The turning point for official enthusiasm with reading came in 2002 when the CPC report initiated the idea of a "study-oriented society".
In every hotel room of the Party School of the Central Committee of CPC, there is a set of four big tomes, each devoted to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, says Professor Chen Xuewei of the school.
Beyond that, the reading list reflects the personal opinions of each official, big or small. The current trend is to endorse titles that help broaden one's vista, notes Ye Duchu, another professor of the Party School. "What used to be forbidden zones are no longer forbidden, but you have to have a global view. That's the biggest change in the past 30 years." Besides, book recommendation is not only top down, but could be bottom up as well. "Nobody is an expert at everything," Ye adds.
Strictly speaking, Premier Wen Jiabao was not asking everyone to read Meditations. He was saying he had read the book more than 100 times. Then publishers discovered how great and relevant this classic was. If you think about it, this slim volume says a lot about the personal philosophy and stoicism of the premier and, by extension, the way he governs the country and the policies he helps formulate.
Another title Wen has recommended, "no less than five times" according to media reports, is Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is less of a runaway hit than Meditations, but has 10 Chinese versions. The premier's endorsement has no doubt given a boost to its sales but its real value, given China's brush with natural disasters and corporate scandals, lies in the morals and ethics espoused in the book, which have come as a timely antidote.
In the final analysis, the success of the two classics is more a cultural phenomenon than a business one. The sharp eye of the publishers was certainly a factor but it was the ideas in them that resonate with present-day Chinese. The premier was, in a sense, using them as a moral guiding light.