March 26th, 2011

My wife, thanks to one of her hobbies being not just shopping, but getting stuff incredibly cheap, has quite a talent for finding super cheap markets. It turns out that one of them is a short drive from here. Hell, it’d be a short bus- or bike ride, but in her current collossal belly state she’s avoiding both. Not only is it a short drive, but it’s a short drive along roads that are never heavily trafficked, even on weekends when the traffic restrictions don’t apply. What’s best, though, is that this particular market is of the intriguing variety that even I can enjoy.

Trouble is, I don’t want to reveal where it is. It occured to me on last weekend’s trip to this market that if too many foreigners start showing up there, prices will go the Panjiayuan way. I love Panjiayuan, but I loathe having to bargain.

This market sells Stuff. Vast quantities of Stuff. Some of it new, some used, some fell off the back of a truck, some scavanged or salvaged, some excess or leftover from whatever production run or sales promotion, even some food and drink a bit over its use by date. Or quite a bit over its use by date. Some things there you examine with extra care.

Among numerous other things of a stereotypically girly nature, my wife likes to buy shoes there. In her attempts to rival Imelda Marcos, I’m sure the floor of the large hangar half-full with shoe stalls has become very familiar with her footsteps. The first weekend I drove her over there, a few weeks ago now, I noticed a couple of stalls outside the shoe hangar selling books, but I didn’t get a chance to examine them. Last weekend we went back with the mother in law. After a bit too much time dragging along behind the women through the shoe hangar, I was told, run along and play, we’ll meet up later. Sweet. And so I ran along to these book stalls. And now I’m hooked.

One of the booksellers spends his spare moments calling out “Five kuai a book!” Not all his books are 5 kuai. The bigger ones generally cost more. But all regular-sized books are 5 kuai each. The books are new or newish, for the most part, but there are a few second hand, and seem to be from the tail ends of print runs that publishers couldn’t sell off the usual way. The second bookseller has a similar selection and similar prices. I’ve heard that in other parts of the world, such excess books are pulped. It seems (though I have no way of confirming this until I go back (and believe me, I will go back. Frequently) and ask) that the booksellers in this market have found a better and less wasteful method of disposing of such excess books. This is a situation I fully approve of and fully intend to exploit to the maximum.

What books? Chinese books. Obvious, right? But they’re pretty much all Chinese-language books. Today I did see one or two used English-language books, but otherwise they’re all for local consumption. I did already comment on the current scarcity of foreigners at this market. And a huge range of Chinese books, from children’s to adults’, pulp fiction to literature to non-fiction and quite a surprising range of dictionaries (a collossal tome entitled 《康熙字典》, at one seriously intimidating end of the spectrum, to pocket-sized Chinese and English-Chinese/Chinese-English at the other. And a 《说文解字》 whose pinyin alphabetical organisation had me wondering…). Quality is by no means guaranteed, mind. These are the kind of bookstalls in which you wade through vast amounts of questionable uses of valuable paper to find the good stuff. Even so, my experience last weekend and this morning suggests there’s a pretty good ratio of good books to rubbish. And so I decided to stock up on classics ancient and modern.

Last weekend, between these two bookstalls, I managed to come back with the four classic novels (Dream of Red Mansions, Outlaws of the Marsh, Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or whatever their official English names are), a collection of stories by Shen Congwen, and 《山海经》, 《韩非子》, 《孙子兵法》 and 《易经》, and I didn’t even spend 40 kuai. I’d noticed a couple of interesting dictionaries, too, but in all the excitement, I’d forgotten to get them.

And so when my wife suggested taking one of her friends there this morning, I had no objection. I didn’t find one of the dictionaries that I’d forgotten last weekend. It had some intriguing details in it that I didn’t understand, but would’ve liked to figure out. No luck this time. But I did get 《中华成语大词典》 and 《现代汉语词典》. Those, being among the larger books, were 35 and 30 kuai. Then I was back to the 5 kuai a book sections, and picked up collections of essays and poetry by Lu Xun, Xu Zhimo and Guo Moruo. I wandered back out to the car and put my haul in the boot, then took the cloth bag I’d been given for the dictionaries and headed back into the market.

That was when I discovered, surrounded by stalls selling tools, bits of tools, and pieces of machinery; old electrical equipment and bits of electrical equipment; old musical instruments in varying states of disrepair and decay; detritus of varying descriptions useful to people of equally various kinds, a third bookseller, this one with lots of secondhand books. Old books. Strange and fascinating piles of books. Most of the books looked like the older books at the first two bookstalls. There were also older, used editions of the same books, or same genres. I came, across an Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary in what looked to my eyes 1960s-style binding, for example. And there were even older books, books of earlier this era and an even earlier era in modern Chinese history. Books of such a huge range of topics, themes and genres the stall owner hadn’t bothered to organise them. Collections of Lenin’s writings rubbed shoulders with primers on electrical maintenance, textbooks, children’s novels, old laws, biographies of the great leaders, and who knows what else.

I managed to drag myself away from this treasure trove – although it took a supreme effort of will and a growing realisation that book shopping in the midday sun really does require a hat – having only bought:

  • 《汉语语法学的若干问题》 (A few questions in Chinese grammar?), by 朱星, published by 河北人民出版社 (Hebei People’s Press) in 1979.
  • 《阿凡提的故事》(The Story of Afanti), translated and edited by 赵世杰, 中国少年儿童出版社 (China Children’s and Youth Press), 1981.
  • 《文言基础知识》(Basic Knowledge of Classical Chinese), 孙钧锡, 河北人民出版社, 1980.
  • 《古汉语基础知识》 (Basic Knowledge of Ancient Chinese), 江苏人民出版社 (Jiangsu People’s Press), 1976.

[Note: Translations of book titles and publishing house names are my own. I have made no attempt to find out if there may be “official” English translations]

Yes, that last book is a couple of months younger than me, and it even comes with a quotation of Mao Zedong as a foreword.

And there was more, so much more… The stall owner noticed which books I was paying attention to and whipped out a box from under the table, then suggested a few more. One of his suggestions was a set of 速记/shorthand textbooks published in 1952. Interesting. Traditional characters, but tiny print, and phonetic notation in Cyrillic script. But I turned them down this time.

Of course, as I was reminded as I tried to hunt down the dictionaries I’d forgotten to buy last weekend, not immediately snapping up every intriguing book one comes across in such a market carries a certain risk. On the other hand, I don’t want to strip these stalls bare of every treasure and then have nothing to go back to. And who knows what treasure will turn up next time?

And not only does my list of books to read grow ever longer, I’m already starting to run short on bookshelf space… But these are both good problems to have, I believe.

One Response to “shopping”

  1. hehe Says:

    Very interesting!