At the beginning of last year in the midst of a slew of exciting exhibits and predictions made by institutions about the literary explosion that was expected to take place in China, we wrote an article titled “2012 – The Year of China.” We appropriately concluded that “only time will tell whether 2012 turns out to truly be the Year of China” and since we are now at the beginning of 2013, it is an appropriate time to check and see how explosive China’s rare book year has really been.
From a literary perspective, China had the best year in the 111 years of its history, thanks to a brilliant author. For the first time in the nation’s history the Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to the internationally renowned, Chinese citizen, author Mo Yan, causing a national celebration. His work was honored by the Swedish Academy for providing a mix of “folk tales, history and the contemporary “with “hallucinatory realism.” The author is better known for his satirical novel Jiuguo (The Republic of Wine), his fable Shengsi pilao (Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out) and his mesmerizing narrations Tanxiangxing (Sandalwood Death) and Pow! .
There is yet another bibliomania sweeping across China. Western novelist and Irishman, James Joyce is opening the Chinese society to Western arts. His infamously hard to understand Finnegans Wake, was translated by Dai Congrong, a professor from Shanghai-based Fudan University, into Chinese; a task that took eight years. When Joyce published this last novel of his in 1939, he proclaimed that it would take another 300 years for readers to understand it. He failed to account, however, that the Chinese would be able to understand enough of it and cause a sell out in less than three weeks of hitting the market.
Prior to 2012, in the face of weaker dollar and stock market uncertainty, wealthy Chinese investors looking for alternatives, bought “hard assets” such as art, gemstones, fine wine and rare coins. During 2012, China’s dismal stock market performance and the government’s efforts to curb speculation in real estate, contributed to keeping hard assets as an alternative investment popular. Noticeably absent from the group has been rare book investing despite the long history of book collecting in China. Important initiatives to collect books in China were initially made during the early Han Dynasty by the government, in an attempt to protect important books that were destroyed during the Qin Dynasty. Later on, during the 600’s and 700’s when block printing was invented, the private collector joined in, but did not systematically develop prior to the 1700’s.
During 2012, the rare book market in China did not show any change in its course. Neither the wealthy Chinese investor, nor the James Joyce book fanatic managed to cause a significant spike in the demand for rare books. Our Rare Book Sale Monitor recorded a steady pricing during 2012 for James Joyce books worldwide. China’s market is still controlled by Chinese state-owned dealerships and auction houses, which are emphasizing local, rather than foreign collectibles. The China Poly Group conglomerate, originally a unit of the People’s Liberation Army, is the third largest auction house behind Christie’s and Sotheby’s. A Chinese investor who does not speak English feels more at home dealing with Poly, despite accusations of market manipulation and the fraudulent proliferation of fakes. Last year, Chinese buyers spent $18.1 billion on art, becoming the world’s largest art market for the first time in history.
It will take more than Nobel awards and popular authors to cause a greater interest for book collecting in China. It will take a culture change. It will require an infrastructure change with the proliferation of small, private, reputable book dealers and book shops. It will require the wealthy to look outside art as the only investment. Currently art is the third investment Chinese make behind a house and a car. Will the Year of the Snake – 2013 be any different? Probably not; let’s hope for a small baby step at least in the right direction.