Some people collect t-shirts and magnets, but I tend to place my travel memories in unorthodox objects that seem ordinary to anyone but me. This is the third post in a series that documents a collection of books that hold special memories from my travels abroad.
I apologize for the gap between Parts 2 and 3. My journal for China wandered off and I had to find it in order to get the name of the bookstore and other details from my trip. It’s been such a long time since I read that journal and I must say it was really fun to relive the adventures I had in such an amazing place.
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Books From China
Six years ago, I spent three very enlightening weeks in China. During the course of the trip I visited Beijing, Xi’an, Changchun, and Shanghai, along with a few rural villages (unfortunately I never got the names of these villages). I often refer to this journey as a life-altering one as it permanently changed many aspects of my personality and restructured my perspective on life. This is where I learned to walk whenever possible, treasure my past on a level beyond historical study, and that a tough soul will persevere through just about anything.
However, China proved to be a challenge when it came to finding bookstores. Books are expensive for most people and the idea of a national chain bookstore is non-existent. In addition, there’s a pretty tight leash on freedom of expression and everything is censored by the government before it can be released to the public. This slows the publishing industry to a large degree, which means far fewer publications reach bookshelves each year in comparison to the West. Books translated into English are even more difficult to find outside of a school or library, so my mission bordered on almost impossible.
It wasn’t until I arrived in Shanghai that I found a mecca for book lovers. When the guide asked if anyone wanted to join her for an excursion to a bookstore, I was the first one to raise my hand. I hopped off the bus with so much excitement, I must have looked like I had ants in my pants. We entered a building called The Book Mall and I’m pretty sure my mouth fell open. It was the largest bookstore I had ever seen in my life with seven enormous floors. Giant escalators shuttled customers from one level to the next and the whole place gleamed with brass and brightly colored books. There may not be a lot of bookstores in China, but those that do exist are simply spectacular.
I got on one of the escalators and took it to the third floor (I think), which was devoted to books in English. For more than an hour I poured over the shelves, marveling at how different book covers looked in comparison to the U.S. and gravitating towards new writers I’d never encountered. I bought a couple of beautiful books that not only capture the spirit and culture of China, but also reflect my life-altering experiences.
100 Wang Wei’s Poems in English Verse
Wang Wei writes beautiful and simple poetry that calls upon the beauty of nature and emotional connections between people. His work reminds me so much of excursions into the countryside, most notably Hukou Falls. Rural China is so peaceful and the people are anchored to the land and their families with great reverence. Those relationships are ones to learn from and emulate. My favorite is a poem entitled, “Autumn Evening in My Mountain Abode.” The first four lines are so beautiful . . .
Blank hills look pure as a recent rain refines,
As dusk is falling autumn is felt in the bones.
A silvery moon is shining through the pines,
the limpid brooks are gurgling o’er the stones. . .
What I love about this book, aside from the poetry is that it shows Wang Wei’s work in both Chinese characters and in English. It gives me a chance to appreciate his work the way he intended it, while also allowing me to fully read and understand each word.
The Collection of Gibran’s Poems
Kahlil Gibran obviously isn’t Chinese, but China is where I discovered his work. When I opened this book and started reading random pages, I was instantly mesmerized by elegant language, powerful descriptions, and an honesty that challenged me to dig around in my own code of ethics. My experiences China reminded me of how much the little things matter and how important it is to look beyond yourself. Gibran often writes with the same philosophical thread, which makes his words an almost spiritual experience for me. In one of my favorite sections, he writes about giving:
And there are those who have little and give it all.
These are the believers in life and the bounty of life,
and their coffer is never empty.
There are those who give with joy,
and that joy is their reward.
Everything truly does look different from half a world away and my trek through China changed me in ways for which I will always be grateful.