Growing up in a rural, slate-roofed village deep in the countryside of southeast China, the only English books my Chinese wife had to read back then were a brittle copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and a set of Harlequin novels.
Yes, I’m talking about Harlequin, those pulpy paperbacks found on revolving wire racks at supermarket checkout aisles across North America and the UK. Their enticing cover art – usually, nay, always featuring shirtless, square-jawed men hovering millimeters away from the glistening-red lips of a damsel in distress – and formulaic flirt/fight/fall-in-love storylines mercilessly targeted housewives and secretaries longing for a 200-page escape from the dirty diapers and pot-bellied husbands of their mid-life realities.
As it turns out, it was by reading books like “Stormy Voyage” by Sally Wentworth and Roberta Leigh’s “Two-Timing Man” (bought used for 7 RMB out of a sidewalk vendor’s book cart), amongst other Harlequin classics, that my wife managed to teach herself English (which explains her tendency to throw her head back dramatically whenever we kiss).
Curious how Harlequin, the forbidden fruit of literature, could be found anywhere in a Communist republic that has the world’s most strict state-sponsored vetting process for publications, I was surprised to learn that in 1995 (about when my fiancée found her copies) Harlequin received official, red star-stamped permission to place half a million copies of twenty titles in Mandarin and a quarter-million copies of ten English versions on the shelves of Xinhua.
Harlequin’s stated goal: “to bring romance to millions of Chinese Women.”
A China.org article on the increasing popularity of romance books in the P.R.C. concurred with Harlequin’s audacious move: “Chinese women today have new demands for their Prince Charming: first, he must be powerful and distinguished…next, he must have unlimited financial resources.”
Wosai! No wonder China has become home to the world’s highest surplus of single men!
Harlequin, which puts out 1,500 new titles annually in over 100 international markets, has yet to think up a romance set in present-day China (Possible storyline: wealthy, second-generation Beijing businessman seduces sexy xiaojie with his shiny black Audie, pleather man-purse and a thick stack of redbacks; he agrees to save her Anhui village from being bulldozed by corrupt cadres if she will become his kept woman.).
Until that day, we will have to entertain ourselves with stories set in China’s olden times starring princesses and concubines.
Travel Photographer Tom Carter traveled for 2 years across the 33 provinces of China to show the diversity of Chinese people in China: Portrait of a People, the most comprehensive photography book on modern China published by a single author.
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Note: This guest post first appeared December 8, 2010