An Island of Literature
By Shawn Pang
With “Power of Reading” as its theme, the 2018 Taipei International Book Exhibition (TiBE) was held against the backdrop of a protracted cold snap, as well as a devastating earthquake that struck on the eastern coastline near Hualien.
A Literary Map
A large three-dimensional map of Taiwan sat in the middle of TiBE 2018, with 25 literature museums located across the island marked on it. This was the National Museum of Taiwan Literature pavilion. The attention-grabbing headline said it all: “This entire island is our literature museum”.
Just before 2018 TiBE, these 25 museums came together to organise a whole host of activities which culminated in the publication of Meet the Beautiful Island of Literature, a collation of the literary works created for the occasion. The pavilion connected these literature museums in one stunning display, symbolically depicting Taiwan as an island of literature.
A Literary Partnership
Good literature transcends geographical boundaries. This is best seen in renowned Chinese novelist Jin Yucheng’s win in the 2018 TiBE Book Prizes’ fiction category for his book, The Selected Works of Jin Yu-cheng: Coldness, Island and Bowl. Born in Shanghai, Jin is best known for his Shanghainese novel Blossoms and has won multiple literature prizes, including the prestigious Mao Dun Literary Prize and Lu Xun Literature Prize. Another book of his, Jin Yu-cheng’s Short Stories: We Were Clueless, was also shortlisted in the non-fiction category.
What makes Jin’s awards success even more significant is the role that Taiwanese independent publisher Donmay Publishing played in bringing his literary masterpieces to Taiwan. Established in 2017 in an effort bringing together both corporate and cultural worlds, Donmay Publishing steadfastly believes in the power of reading and treasures the value of physical books.
A Publishing Paradox
TiBE is one of Asia’s largest book fairs, but this year, the number of visitors dropped 8.6% and stood in stark contrast to the 10% increase in participating publishers and the 27% increase of daily topical seminars and forums. This paradox was highlighted at the publishing forum held on 9 February 2018, where the dilemma and opportunities faced by the publishing industry in Taiwan were discussed: fewer readers have been buying books, but there has also been an observable increase in the quantity of quality publications.
Indeed, one of the forum’s speakers, Mercy Wu – Chairwoman of The Eslite Spectrum Corporation and daughter of eslite Bookstore’s founder, the late Robert Wu – shared with the audience that eslite had only been able to sell two-thirds of the approximately 32,000 new books published annually in 2017, leaving some 10,000 new books still in their bookstores.
Perhaps the way forward was best summarised by Wu, who candidly stated eslite’s stance that the space for physical books is not their main focus. Instead, eslite has always aimed to be a venue to read and buy books, and to appreciate the other cultural aspects of life, like opera, music, and the arts. To eslite, publishing and bookselling alone will not be enough to sustain its bookstores. Maintaining the passion to read is the key.
Transformation seems necessary for the bookstore industry to stay relevant. Just as the trend of illustrating Chinese novels with manga-like characters seems to be driving up interest in the younger generation of readers, perhaps what is required is further ingenuity and reinvention. Though Chinese literature may be relegated to being a trend from time to time, its alluring quality is timeless.
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