China’s President gave insights into his favorite books on World Reading Day
By Chris Devonshire-Ellis
The World Book – and for Lawyers – Copyright Day, was held on Saturday, (April 23) as a global initiative to both promote the reading of books – diminishing as individual attention spans are receding due to fast bite online innuendo, and the IP rights of authors providing original content, an issue China has long faced criticism over.
Historically, China also has a Communist legacy concerning literacy – when Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, China’s literacy rate was just 10%. Within 15 years, and the introduction of an improved education system, that had been reversed to 10% illiteracy, a relatively unsung chapter in how the CPC changed China for the better. This is why President Xi Jinping recognized the importance of the day and was personally involved in promoting his choice of literary works.
Not surprisingly for a politician, political choices were among Xi’s choices, however, there were some surprising classics among his selected, recommended prose as well. On the political end, Xi plumped for Das Kapital by Karl Marx, in which the 19th century philosopher theorized that capitalism comes at the expense of the working class – a concept that leads directly to communist and socialist movements today. It is a classic of the understanding of both human nature, and political challenges, which remain very much constant to this day. It is standard political theory and continues to be much debated in academia and governments east and west.
An interesting choice, especially for expats in China – or expats trying to learn a new language anywhere, is Xi’s choice of the ‘Xinhua Chinese Dictionary’ – required back in the day because, after Mao’s linguistic educational reform, dictionaries were required for China’s new students, eager to learn what the words that could now read actually meant. Xi said when he had a break when performing social labor duties as a student, and after hoeing the field for a while, he would take out the dictionary to study the different meanings of a word, and then learn the new word by heart after going back to work. I am sure that sounds familiar to many of us who have struggled to learn Chinese!
That knowledge expanded into a growing appreciation of Chinese classical literature – ironically suppressed during the cultural revolution, but from Xi developed an understanding, as great writers provide, of the very nature of the human soul, its passions, and desires as well as its capacity for wickedness. Chinese classics generally remain a neglected source of literary study in the West, however, I do recommend that some effort, especially by foreigners living and working in China is put into the field. Xi’s recommendations are ‘The Book of the Later Han‘, which is one of China’s “Twenty-Four Histories” and covers the story of the Eastern Han Dynasty which lasted from AD 25 to 220. The book was compiled in the 5th century.
Xi Jinping also recommended the Confucian classic ‘The Book of Rites‘ which dates back some 2,000 years. This describes the social forms, administration, and ceremonial rites of the Zhou dynasty as they were understood in the Warring States and the early Han periods and gives insight still today into the contemporary Chinese psyche, as for example the Bible and Koran have for Christians and Muslims. An example of the wisdom within the Book of Rites resonates with today’s Green movements and the pledges made at Cop26: “All living things should grow in harmony without hurting one another, and all the ways should run forward without interfering with one another.”
Xi then gets into Western literature, which was generally banned during the cultural revolution (see the excellent Chinese film ‘Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress‘ for an account) but from which today’s President has also found meaning. His choices include the Plays by Shakespeare and stated on a visit to London in 2015 that “I was enchanted by the ups and downs in the plots, the vivid characters and plaintive emotions displayed in the stories” while recalling that as a teenager living in northern Shaanxi, he kept thinking about the question “to be or not to be”, and it was during that period that he made up his mind to dedicate his life to serving as a politician.
Perhaps most surprising is Xi’s choice of “Les Miserables” by the French writer Victor Hugo. Xi has said that “My heart was shaking when I read the part where Bishop Myriel redeemed Jean Valiean from his sin. Great works have such a power to move readers.” The piece Xi refers to is in the book, not the stage production. It occurs as the Bishop encourages Valiean to redeem himself with a wonderful act of charity, an act of love that supports the redemption of Valiean’s soul.
Readers can make up their own minds about the lessons to be gleaned from Xi’s list of recommended books, however, in order to understand the human psychology, which in part Communism claims to do, a wide list of eminent authors is required. It would be interesting to note books recommended by other world leaders with similarly wide-ranging, eclectic recommendations – or indeed if any of them did.
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