This China Shop Breaks the Mold

The yellow paper lanterns and Chinese ink paintings that surround the shelves at the Three-Flavor Bookshop give the impression the store has been trapped in a time warp for a century.

Yet when the blue notes of American jazz begin floating across the two-story, winged-roof Chinese structure, a curious duet of Chinese and Western cultures is set in motion.

When masters of millennia-old stringed instruments perform weekly in the teahouse that is above the shop's stacks, it takes on a third mask - that of Imperial China in an age that preceded the rise of the Roman Empire.

Three-Flavor, tucked away in a Beijing alleyway, is a metaphor for the dynamic forces - tradition, modernization, nationalism, and Western pop culture - now all competing to shape China.

The shop has become an oasis for musicians, scholars, and even officials who want to explore China's pre-communist life or deeper levels of Western civilization.

"We wanted to open a place where everyone is welcome - from poor university students and workers to business executives and officials - to browse, read, talk and relax," says Liu Yuansheng, co-owner of the store.

Cultural Revolution's legacy

Ms. Liu and her husband, Li Shiqiang, opened the shop in 1988 in part to help rebuild Chinese traditions from the ashes of the decade-long Cultural Revolution. In 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong called on millions of young Red Guard stormtroopers to pave the way for a pure communist culture by burning traditional books and paintings and razing temples and universities.

"The Cultural Revolution destroyed traditional Chinese culture and learning," says Mr. Li, who was imprisoned for seven years for mildly criticizing Mao.

Ms. Liu, who was similarly branded a "rightist" until Mao's death in 1976, adds, "We wanted to make up for all of the time we lost by helping restore the past and creating something new for future generations." Chinese classics that span 2,000 years and range from Confucian philosophy to Tang dynasty poetry and imperial art - possession of which was grounds for arrest two decades ago - now dot the shelves of Three-Flavor.

Its richness and variety stand in marked contrast to the web of identical, government-run New China Bookstores that since the 1949 communist revolution have supplied readers with the works of Mao, Lenin, and Marx.

"In the past, China had only one bookstore," says Liu. "No matter which city, town, or village you went to, the stores, the books and even the prices were exactly the same."

Although street-side stands now sell alternative fare, Liu derides their pulp fiction, soft pornography, and film-star gossip magazines as "fast-food culture."

The Three-Flavor Bookshop, on the other hand, aims to become a bridge between more serious writings of the past and present, and of East and West.

It carries a wide selection of foreign works in Chinese translation, which allows readers to peer beyond the rock music, Hollywood films, and computer games that now symbolize America for many Chinese youths.

"China's economic reforms and opening to the outside fostered a wealth of Western bars, discos, and other epicurean pleasures here, but a poverty of deeper culture and thinking," says Li. "We think China's modernization depends on not only economic development, but also widening our cultural horizons."

Alongside shelves of Chinese masters are writings by Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, James Joyce, and such modern authors as American scholar Samuel Huntington.

Customers revel in the shop's inventory. Many consider it the best in Beijing. "You can sit there and read from morning until the doors close at night without having to buy anything," says a college student who, like many classmates, subsists on a meager government stipend.

Authors Herman Wouk and Bette Bao Lord have staged book-signings at the shop and have attracted such guests as Wang Meng, a former Chinese culture minister. "In the beginning, we were very careful about inviting foreigners to the bookshop for fear of a government backlash," says Liu. "But in the last few years, Chinese society has become much more open and the government no longer places barriers on contacts with Westerners," she adds.

Several years ago, the couple set up a teahouse on the second floor of the shop, in part to escape the poverty of selling books.

Cafe helps eke out profit

Beijing's cultural commissars still set prices on every book sold in China, making profit margins slim for Liu. She adds that profits from the teahouse subsidize book sales.

The teahouse features jazz music every Friday evening and traditional Chinese stringed instruments on Saturdays. "The jazz is like a showcase on the West for Chinese who cannot afford to travel abroad," says Li.

The traditional Chinese musicians and ancient tea rituals transform the shop into "a gallery of Chinese culture," says Liu. "You can get up close and move around in it."

The popularity of the shop has grown by word-of-mouth, and prominent figures ranging from young Chinese rock musicians to the Danish ambassador sometimes perform in jazz sessions, says Liu.

"The design of the bookshop and teahouse may resemble those of a hundred years ago," says Li. "But we hope the concept behind it - a free mixing of cultures and peoples in a country that has been closed off for thousands of years - becomes a model for 21st-century China."

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