On Sunday afternoon thirty of us crowded into a stuffy room on the 20th floor of an apartment building to hear author Deng Anqing talk about his latest book, “A Gentle Distance.”
Despite 90-degrees weather and a broken air conditioner, the audience of thirty-somethings and younger did not complain. Deng talked about his experiences growing up in a small village in the Jiangxi area of southern China and later his move to larger cities, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Beijing, to work in factory offices. He began writing on the sly in the evenings after work because he wanted to share the stories of the security guards and factory hands he was living with. But love for writing began when he was young; he showed us on powerpoint slides the imaginary language and characters he had created for a mythical China.
If this room barely held all the sweaty people in it, the situation was worse upstairs in which a girl presented Alexis de Tocqueville and his “Democracy in America.” Her room had a working air conditioner, but it was half the size and the continual flow of people in but not out definitely created a fire hazard. The entire two-floor apartment, with a roof deck sporting artificial grass and white tables, was a fire hazard. This was the 706 Young People’s Space, a cafe and meeting place for intellectual discussion in an apartment complex near Beijing’s top college campuses. For three hours of lecture, panel discussion, and question and answer, as well as Coke, water or milk tea, 706 collected 10 RMB.
We had all heard about this event from different venues online, but most of us had seen it on douban.com, a platform for literature and cultural discussion.
America has Goodreads, Yahoo Groups, Google Groups, Reddit, and most obviously, Facebook. But nothing compares with the power of China’s cultural exchange site Douban.
Founded in 2005 as primarily a book and movie review site, Douban has blossomed into a platform for personal development. Independent music artists gain followers by playing their music on the online DoubanFM station. Writers, including Deng, first post in Douban blogs which are often picked up by publishers. Readers can find out the latest books, movies, music and cultural events. They can download ebooks for a small fee (usually $1-$2), 30 percent of which Deng says goes to the author. Users also sell secondhand goods, or participate in bookswaps.
Douban is a site where every seemingly chance encounter seems predestined. I’ve made friends, sold concert tickets and borrowed a violin all through Douban. Good friends I make in China often turn out to be users of the site also, for only a certain vein of humanity seems interested in such an online community.
After Deng’s talk everyone went out to eat together at a local university’s restaurant (Family-style food.COM). Here the organization of the event became clearer.
On his side, the author was the guest of a Douban club called “Reader’s Group of Young People who like to Think.” Most of the attendees were members of another group, of which I forgot the name. This group started in May when some Douban friends decided to organize bi-weekly outings to museums, lectures, and exhibitions. Since then similar groups have spread to other major Chinese cities, such as Shanghai and Nanjing.
So I found that the table I sat at was a circle of Douban users, an online discussion group turned human. Some of the members were very popular online, with thousands of followers, and they jokingly hinted at online revenge for certain statements. Others, who said they weren’t so popular, adopted a completely different personality online. Wearing lensless black glasses, the talk host and a leader of “Reader’s Group” said he was a Buddhist and worked for a NGO in Beijing serving those with leukemia. His Douban name is Onion Ring; his Weixin (Wechat) name was Patrick Star Sang. The secretary for the club also worked for an NGO, one that sought fair education policies.
The most popular Douban user wanted to leave quickly. Although he enjoyed the socialization, he said he had work to do, i.e. writing.