|Picture books delighted youth, but all
good stories must end...
The first books I loved to read were children's picture-story
books, or xiaorenshu, as we called them during my childhood.
It was the 1950s. I was one of those little kids immersed in books
I had borrowed from bookstands.
The storefront in my home town in southern China was planks set
together in a frame. Door slats were placed side by side into a
notch when the store closed. The same panels were simply removed
when the store opened.
I remember the shop where I borrowed books was so simple that
the floor remained uneven. Apparently the shopkeeper could not afford
the inexpensive clay, lime and sand that could have made the ground
The shops I frequented offered neither desks nor chairs. Door
planks were laid over bricks to serve as benches. Children would
sit there and suddenly become spellbound by the printed page.
The owners of these bookstores probably went into the low-profit
business of lending picture-story books because they had no other
way to make a living.
The bookstores had nothing but picture-story books. Even the walls
were decorated with cover pictures from these illustrated volumes.
A more traditional place to read was the primary school library.
There I read serious, orthodox books - "children's literature" -
such as "The Fairy Tales of Green," "The Fairy Tales of Andersen"
and "School," something by a Russian author.
As a small boy I thought Andersen told too many sad stories about
people in misery. Entertaining stories gave me my first motivation
to read. (I came to like Andersen years later when I finished reading
Chinese classics such as "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms," "Strange
Tales from Make-do Studio" and "A Dream of Red Mansions.")
The rental agreements for xiaorenshu developed my earliest knowledge
I still remember the prices in 1957, when I was a primary school
student. For each fen (100 fen equal to 1 yuan, about US$0.12) I
could rent two xiaorenshu. This cheap rental reflected the income
level of the times, and I have been considered rich for renting
Hitting the streets after school to rent and read xiaorenshu became
the happiest thing I did.
For my one fen the shopkeeper gave me one book and a little bamboo
plate I could present to get the second one later.
Since my family lived far from my school, my parents gave me 10
fen every day for lunch. With 10 fen I could buy five sesame seed
cakes or two bowls of noodles. But because two cakes were enough
for me, I could save 6 fen from each lunch. With that money, I could
do many things, among which reading xiaorenshu was my first choice.
Influenced by friends, I also became an enthusiastic stamp collector.
By 1967 I had collected all the stamps issued since the founding
of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and some treasured stamps
of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
But later my stamp collections, the result of 12 years of effort,
were all taken by others. I never really recovered from the setback
and quit collecting altogether.
I also painted, but not to be an accomplished artist: I imitated
the illustrations in picture-story books. My art career peaked when
I entered a contest with a painting of a Yi minority boy on a horse
leaping from slave society to socialism.
The stamps, with their small pictures, also reminded me of the
But my days of enjoying picture-story books at street stores lasted
less than three years.
When my mother was moved in 1957 to do manual labour in the countryside,
I accompanied her to the Daliangshan Mountains. Because this area
is remote, I had to part with my xiaorenshu at an early age.
|By Ye Yanbin