Beautiful Libraries: National Library of China

The National Library of China is an absolute whopper! Home to 37 million items, open 365 days a year, and the front looks like the deck of the SS Enterprise. I visited it in 2016 and have finally got around to sharing the experience.

Beijing is the third largest city in the world with a population of over 21 million people. Sheltered on three sides by mountains and a certain wall, it’s been the political centre of China for most of the last 8 centuries.

People visit Beijing for various reasons. It’s home to 91 universities, the Forbidden City, and the bird’s nest stadium, created for the 2008 Olympic Games. Then there’s Tian’anmen Square, where citizens can see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao, although I remember it for the man armed with two shopping bags, who stopped a tank in 1989.

But what I wanted to see most during my visit was the National Library of China, home to 37 million items – with an additional million items added each year. Fortunately, it’s open 365 days a year, although to get to it you need to cross an 8 lane highway that’s pretty chocker. Tranquil gardens calm you down at the entrance, but solitude is soon lost to the honking cars in rush hour traffic. Air pollution is a real problem in Beijing. Fortunately, there was no red warning during my visit in May 2016 as there would be towards the end of the year when a thick blanket of smog engulfed the city for five days.

The library is divided into levels. The base level contains the contemporary library with reading rooms and reference works. Its oldest collections are the inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells, known as the Oracle Bones. These date back 3,000 years. But you can also find epigraphs and rubbings, ancient maps, documents in 123 foreign languages, and dissertations prescribed by the State Council.

Above this is a digital library whose resources exceed 1000Tera byte. This number is increased by 100 Tera byte each year. One digital element that stands out is the China Memory Project, which collects visual historical data and other new types of literature on major modern events and important figures in China. But if you do visit this, have a read of Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years – a dystopian narrative that you won’t find in any Chinese library, and which addresses a different aspect of Chinese memory – collective amnesia.

The long glass fronted top deck of the library faces the highway, making it stand out to passing traffic, presumably to lure you in. It’s a bit like the front of the SS Enterprise, with an earthquake-proof steel canopy keeping you secure.

Although the design is sleek, it’s defining characteristic is functional – presumably in order to accommodate the 12,000 visitors it receives each day. Everything in China is huge, and so too are the reading and research rooms. This is epitomised by the central study area as you enter the building. Books, file cabinets and draws adorn the outer perimeters, with seating areas out front looking down into the abyss. This is then repeated on descending levels until you reach the basement where rows of tables are perfectly aligned and constrained. It is basically an inflexible grid, a slave to mathematics and functionalism. If we are all products of our environment, then this environment demands discipline, logic and conformity.

As I made my way up the escalator to film the library I was immediately followed by some guards. But nobody stopped and asked me what I was doing. Presumably, I looked like an excited tourist and hadn’t broken any laws. Sometimes at iconic locations in China random people will come up to you and take a photograph whether you like it or not. Many are tourists themselves from other provinces and have never seen Westerners before, and so you find yourself a bit of a novelty. But in the library, people were only interested in the books. Always a good sign.

Libraries started to take off in China around the turn of the 20th century against the backdrop of reform, with the government of the Qing dynasty sent on diplomatic missions to Europe to understand the value of these intellectual spaces. Prominent exile Liang Qichao was particularly impressed by readers who did not steal books they had borrowed. I wonder what he would make of some British libraries today, who have adopted the attitude that if someone steals a book, they must really need it. Punitive measures are a waste of time.

The Metropolitan Library was established in 1909, with the Qing government realising the opportunities to promote national culture. Situated in the Beijing Guanghua temple, it was opened to the public on 27 August 1912, receiving its first legal deposits of publications in 1916. It would later be known as the National Peking Library, then Beijing Library, before it was moved to north of Purple Bamboo Park in Haidian District in 1989. It was renamed the National Library of China on 12 December 1998. Today it’s the third largest national library in the world, covering 280,000 square meters, costing 1 billion 235 million dollars to complete.

If you fancy visiting, get the subway unless you want to sit in traffic for hours. Lines 4 and 9 will deliver you calmly to this gigantic, beautiful modern library.




Rebel Writers: Alan Sillitoe

Notts Rebels, the new weekly series made in conjunction with the Nottingham Castle Trust’s #VoicesofToday campaign, celebrates stories of fighting injustice and acts of rebellion from Nottingham’s history. Originally published on LeftLion, our contribution explored the rebellious and anti-establishment themes in the work of Alan Sillitoe, who died ten years ago on 25 April.

“For it was Saturday night, the best and bingiest glad-time of the week, one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning Big Wheel of the year, but Arthur was following government advice and social isolating.”

If Alan Sillitoe’s debut novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had been written today instead of 1958, it would not have started like this. Arthur Seaton, Sillitoe’s most famous creation, would be the kind of knobhead who’d be getting lathered in the park, racing his mates through the empty streets, and absolutely hammering Tinder, probably claiming you can’t catch Covid-19 from a blowjob. The fact that I can vividly imagine Seaton’s reaction to events 70 years since he came clattering onto the page is testament to Alan Sillitoe’s skills as a writer.

Sillitoe didn’t go to university or enrol on a creative writing course. He left school at 14 to work at the Raleigh factory. Like many people of his generation he was self-educated. This meant reading a lot of books and figuring things out for himself. This is why his characters are so authentic; they are chiselled out of experience and imagination rather than following literary blueprints. It’s for this reason that he refused corrections from editors, retaining, like his characters, uncompromising independence.

Growing up in abject poverty, the act of buying a book was itself a rebellious act. The Sillitoe’s were moved on from place to place during his childhood and his father was imprisoned at one point for being unable to pay for what he had bought on tick. This is why Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is so authentic, it captures the rawness of place, warts and all.

“Generators whined all night, and during the day giant milling-machines working away on cranks and pedals in the turnery gave to the terrace a sensation of living within breathing distance of some monstrous being that suffered from a disease of the stomach.”

1950s Radford is a brutal, violent world where “women with battleship faces and hearts as tough as nails” have to be won over, but “you could try all you liked to be kind to them, but they wouldn’t have any of it”. It’s no wonder a local councillor wanted the book banned at the time, fearing it would damage Nottingham’s reputation forever. This is why Sillitoe is a rebel writer. Instead of serving up a sanitised version of working class life that were palatable to middle class sensibilities, he dolloped up something offensive: truth.

Alan Sillitoe, author of that novel

Arthur Seaton is a lathe operator in the Raleigh factory who grafts hard in order to quench payday thirst down his local, the White Horse. When he’s not puking up over people or having drinking contests with a sailor, he likes to craftily latch his arms around the waist of any woman daft enough to fall for his patter.

Sillitoe argued that Seaton had no spiritual values because he was a product of his environment, and therefore his own survival was all that mattered. This is best exemplified when he gets a married woman pregnant and persuades her to have a ‘gin bath’. While she is doing this, he gets it on with her sister, reflecting, “Never had an evening begun so sadly and ended so well.” I can’t imagine any writer daring to pen such selfish (and honest) sentiments today, particularly given the speed by which we are held accountable by the Twitterati.

Colin Smith is another classic Sillitoe anti-hero, appearing in the short story collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1960) Like Seaton, Smith comes from a tough background. His father is dying, and the family are poor. He escapes his dire circumstances by getting involved in petty crime which invariably goes horribly wrong. While incarcerated in Borstal, he takes up running which acts as a form of therapy, an opportunity to escape his problems and be temporarily free. But the governor recognises his talent and has other plans, putting him forward for a cup race. Winning the race would give the governor prestige and make Smith’s life comfortable. But he’s not interested in an easy life, there’s more pleasure letting the governor know he’s not for sale. His individuality is the only thing they can’t take from him and so he deliberately loses the race, stopping at the finishing line.

“I’m a human being and I’ve got thoughts and secrets and bloody life inside me that he doesn’t know is there, and he’ll never know what’s there because he’s stupid. I suppose you’ll laugh at this, me saying the governor’s a stupid bastard when I know hardly how to write and he can read and write and add-up like a professor. But what I say is true right enough. He’s stupid, and I’m not, because I can see further into the likes of him than he can see into the likes of me.”

Alan Sillitoe didn’t choose to be a rebel writer. He would have hated this label as much as he hated being called an Angry Young Man or a Nottingham writer. Like Colin Smith, he was nobody’s puppet. He happened to write 50 odd novels because he was pensioned off from the air force at 21 after contacting TB. This afforded the time and opportunity to write. His novels, however, are rebellious and anti-establishment by nature. Sillitoe was born into unimaginable poverty which meant he had to fight every day to survive. He was writing what he knew. Or as Seaton puts it:

“Factories sweat you to death, labour exchanges talk you to death, and income tax offices rob you to death. And if you’re still left with a tiny bit of life in your guts after all this boggering about, the army calls you up and you get shot to death.”

This article was originally published on 22 April 2020 on LeftLion as part of their Rebel Writers series.

Coronavirus and Literature: What we can learn from D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence and coronavirus (1)

Thoroughly fed up with modernity and the censor, D.H. Lawrence travelled the globe in search of Rananim – a community of like-minded people. Will lockdown help us think differently about our values and how we want to live? 

Although he would have enjoyed the solitude, D.H. Lawrence wouldn’t have coped very well with lockdown. Not because he was rubbish at following rules, but because he was a proper fidget. After leaving Britain in 1919 he travelled the globe, never settling in one place for more than two years. He refused to own property, making home in disused cabins at the top of mountains or being put up by friends. There were numerous reasons for his peripatetic lifestyle, but here we’ll focus on one: Rananim.

It’s believed that Lawrence first came across the concept of Ranamim when his friend S.S. Koteliansky sung the Hebrew chant Ranani Zadikim l’Adonoi to him. The two met in 1914 and were together in Barrow-in-Furness when WWI was declared. This was a significant time to bond as it marked a very difficult period for Lawrence as he suffered from poverty, political persecution – his wife was German, and frustrations with the censor that would plague his entire career. This is best captured in a letter to Edward Garnett in June 1912, when Lawrence really let rip:

“Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. They’ve got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it’s a marvel they can breed. They can but frog-spawn — the gibberers! God, how I hate them! God curse them, funkers. God blast them, wish-wash. Exterminate them, slime.”

This letter was in response to publisher William Heinemann who had rejected the first draft of his third novel, Sons and Lovers. This was eventually published in 1913 but it didn’t take long for it to be banned from libraries. His next novel, The Rainbow (1915) was seized under the Obscene Publications Act and burned. Although it didn’t contain any naughty words, it was deemed anti-British for daring to question everyday fundamentals such as work, religion, and relationships.

Lawrence was as frustrated with the publishing industry as he was with modernity. Industry dehumanized community and destroyed the natural landscape, whereas war demanded blind conformity to the flag and a further loss of individuality. He felt like he was the only one who could see this ‘Ugliness. Ugliness. Ugliness’ and so began to develop a philosophy for life through his novels. To do this he had to get away from Britain sharpish, and so embarked on a ‘savage pilgrimage’ of self-imposed exile.

“I shall say goodbye to England, forever, and set off in quest of our Rananim” he wrote to Koteliansky, on 12 January 1917. Rananim was the concept of a utopian community, a place where humanity could rise from the ashes of the past and old values, and purged of evil, be reborn in peace and love. Away from modernity and consumerism, it would be possible to find “a good peace and a good silence, and a freedom to love and to create new life.” The phoenix became his personal emblem, as he too was rising out of the flames and being reborn.

It would be a mistake to interpret this as the desire to create some kind of hippy commune or scribal gathering. This is evident from Lawrence’s time in Taos, New Mexico. Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy patron of the arts, invited the Lawrence’s to stay with her in 1921. She wanted him to capture the spirit of Taos in the same way that he had done with Sea and Sardinia (1921). She too was trying to escape modernity and believed that bringing the greatest thinkers and artists together in one place would help build a better world than the one currently being destroyed by war and industry.

Lawrence was apprehensive at first, asking whether he’d encounter “a colony of rather dreadful sub-arty people”. He wasn’t a fan of literary crowds who he described as “smoking, steaming shits”. He was also cautious of “meeting the awful ‘cultured’ Americans with their limited self-righteous ideals and their mechanical love-motion and their bullying, detestable negative creed of liberty and democracy.” But he eventually turned up a year later after taking a detour via Australia and Ceylon.

There was an immediate clash of personalities and they quickly fell out. He hadn’t travelled halfway across the world to further her status. So, he headed off to the hills to live in a cabin. It was here, away from the crowds, that he was truly happy, embarking on a series of DIY projects – carpentry, glazing and putting up shelves, living simply and writing under a tree.

We are being asked to self-distance at the moment and many of us our finding it difficult. But Lawrence chose to get as far away from people as he could, writing, “I only want one thing of men and that is that they should leave me alone”. What he really meant was anybody who banned his books or didn’t share his world view.

His search for kindred spirits took him to many countries, but it never quite worked out. At his most desperate he considered ploughing his savings into a boat, “I would like to buy a sailing ship and sail among the Greek islands and be free…free! Just to be free for a little while of it all…with a captain and a couple of sailors, we could do the rest.”

Lawrence teaches us to seek out Rananim in our lives. We may not have the freedom to replicate his nomadic lifestyle, but we are starting to think about what community means, or, at the very least, have introduced ourselves to the neighbours for the first time.

Rananim doesn’t exist in a single place or location, location, location – so don’t expect Kirstie Allsop to source it out for you. Rather it’s a state of mind shared with likeminded people. So, don’t expect to find it too soon. In a letter to Catherine Carswell he explains, “I think people ought to fulfil sacredly their desires. And this means fulfilling the deepest desire, which is a desire to live unhampered by things which are extraneous, a desire for pure relationships and living truth”.


Lawrence featured in issue 7 of Dawn of the Unread.

Lawrence lived through the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 which killed 50 million people – more than died in WWI. He had terrible health throughout his life and eventually succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 44. He was not happy with the world he was born into, or perhaps more accurately, unhappy with the way that world was being destroyed by industry, pollution and greed. Sound familiar?

It seems fitting, then, that during lockdown, where everything “extraneous” has been removed, the rainbow, the title of Lawrence’s 1915 novel, has become the symbol of hope during these difficult times. This once banned book which dared to demand a different way of being holds a message in the final paragraph that we can all relate to.

“She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.”

 This article was originally published on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature website

James and Paul are currently working on D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage, a memory theatre exploring Lawrence through artefacts. You can submit artefacts to it here, or join in the conversation on Instagram.     

Coronavirus and Literature: What we can learn from Michel de Montaigne

coronavirus and Michel d Montaigne

In the second of three blogs exploring literature and coronavirus, we turn to Michel de Montaigne, the French essayist and philosopher who chose to self-isolate for 10 years…

Michel de Montaigne (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592) was a Renaissance philosopher, statesman and writer best known for making the essay a literary genre. Blending anecdotes about the mundane (he wrote a lot about his aging body) alongside intellectual expositions, he was deemed self-indulgent by his contemporaries. Montaigne is of interest today because he chose to self-isolate for 10 years, which isn’t that surprising when you consider his formative years.

Despite being born into wealth, Montaigne’s father injected a bit of realism into his life early on when he was ushered off to a peasant family for three years to “draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help”. After this, he was brought back to the family château to learn Latin, spiritual meditation, and be awoken each morning by a servant playing a new instrument. His father was a stickler for rules, putting in place a comprehensive programme for education that would ensure his son craved intellectual liberty as an adult rather than becoming a wealthy layabout. It worked. He became a courtier between 1561 – 1563 and was awarded the collar of the Order of Saint Michael.

Montaigne got married in 1565 and had six daughters, all of whom died, except one. When his father followed suite a few years later, he inherited the family fortune and retired from public life in 1571. Whereas we are obliged to social distance to stop the spread of coronavirus, Montaigne decided to self-isolate to pursue his favourite hobby – himself. To do this, he locked himself away in his library with 1,500 works for company. His isolation would last for nearly ten years, culminating in the publication of three volumes of Essays. To remain motivated, he had inspirational quotes from classical philosophy carved into the wooden beams of the library, as well as his own motivational ponderings:

“In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.”

Although a vociferous reader, Montaigne was quite happy to give up on a book if it didn’t spark his interest, advising, “I am not prepared to bash my brains for anything…if one book wearies me I take up another.” I guess this isn’t a problem when you’ve got 1,500 to choose from.

Montaigne was not one for reverence. He railed against stuffy academics and pompous intellectuals for whom abstract dogma acted as an intellectual cage that led to hubris, fanaticism and other social nasties. Life, he wrote, “consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom”. Liberty comes from striking a balance between knowledge and pleasure. In modern parlance, he kept it real. Or as he put it, “Kings and philosophers’ shit, and so do ladies.”

Montaigne’s determination to focus on his art is a reminder to all writers that discipline and dedication are equally as important as talent and creativity. It doesn’t matter how great your ideas are if you don’t get them down on paper. It’s in this spirit we should view Lockdown as an opportunity to finish that incomplete novel, now that public distractions are a distant memory.

Of course, it’s easier to write when you’re overlooking the Dordogne from your inherited tower. But writing is magical wherever it happens. It allows temporary escape from our lives as we inhabit other characters and worlds. For Montaigne, writing acted as a form of therapy, an opportunity to escape dark thoughts by getting them down on paper. Writing during Lockdown could be good for our mental health too.

His Essays explore the human condition from various perspectives – fear, happiness, childhood, possessions, fame, with wonderful confessions on the failings of the body – he was as happy writing about poo and impotence as he was a philosophical treatise. Underpinning all of this was gnôti seauton – know thyself.

Coronavirus is forcing us to think about the human condition in terms of poverty, globalisation, pollution, community, health – and how we might live differently when this epidemic passes. Let’s hope our splendid isolation is not for 10 years.

James is currently working on Whatever People Say I Am, a graphic novel serial challenging stereotypes, and D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage, a memory theatre exploring Lawrence through artefacts.     


Coronavirus and Literature: What we can learn from Orwell.

coronavirus and Orwell

George Orwell wrote that moments of extreme crisis create ‘emotional unity’ and an opportunity to reboot social values. We are facing that situation now. Could this be an opportunity to reboot society or will we just binge watch loads on Netflicks…  

In Socialism and the English Genius, George Orwell suggests that England is comprised of two nations: the rich and the poor. He argues that inequality in England ‘is grosser than in any European country’ and that our class-ridden country is ‘a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly’. Only during ‘moments of supreme crisis’, when ‘emotional unity’ is required, can these two halves of Britain unite.

For Orwell, this moment of change came during World War II as people surrendered ‘leisure, comfort, economic liberty, and social prestige’ for the common good. The war also exposed the folly of private capitalism in that ‘land, factories, mines and transport owned privately and operated solely for profit – does not work’ in such conditions. This, he argued, was because during war capitalism ‘has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it’.

Orwell was a classic socialist in the mould of Aneurin Bevan and therefore identified a basic problem with the economic system: How could someone earning £100,000 a year ever find any commonality or empathy with someone earning £1 a week. He saw peacetime as a once in a lifetime opportunity to readdress this balance. A recent ONS Wealth and Assets survey found that the top 10% of earners finished 2018 with 45% of national wealth, while the poorest 10th held just 2%. Orwell would be horrified. Peacetime has intensified the problem.

We are now being presented with another moment of ‘supreme crisis’ as coronavirus brings life as we know it to a grinding halt. Replacing war with coronavirus, Orwell could have wrote:

‘Coronavirus is the greatest of all agents of change. It speeds up all processes, wipes out minor distinctions, brings realities to the surface. Above all, coronavirus brings it home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual. It is only because they are aware of this that men will die on the field of battle.’

The main agent of change brought about by coronavirus is complete lockdown. We’ve had no choice but to give up ‘leisure, comfort, economic liberty, and social prestige’. This enforced solitude is our moment of ‘emotional unity’ and an opportunity to rethink our attitudes towards work, capitalism, poverty, health, community, the climate, globalisation, etc etc etc. Or we could just binge watch the arse out of Netflicks.

The meta-narrative of the past few years has been about taking back control of our borders, now we need to do something more radical: We need to take back control of our lives. Moments of ‘emotional unity’ enable this to happen. It is only in dire circumstances that people pull together – although it might not feel like this when you go food shopping.

Everything we have been told is impossible has become possible: homeless people have been housed, a Tory government is implementing a loose form of socialism, and the air is breathable now that aircraft sit twiddling their thumbs at Gatwick. A brave new world awaits us. Fight for it. We might not get this chance again.

A version of this blog was originally published by Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature on Monday 13 April.