Once Bookstore

« previous post | next post »

This beautiful establishment in Amoy (Xiamen) 厦门 (facing Taiwan across the strait that separates the PRC from the ROC) is perhaps the only pro-democracy (private) bookstore in the People's Republic of China — I applaud its moral courage. In this article about Once Bookstore, we find the following photograph of a sign in front of the store and the cover of a book that is most likely sold in it:

The first thing I noticed when I looked at the sign was that the character bù 不 ("no; not") has a stroke missing. Examining the sign more closely, we see that shū 书 ("book") and diàn 店 ("shop; store") are also both missing a stroke. The missing stroke in all three cases is what is called a diǎn 点 ("dot"). As to what these missing strokes might signify, I shall return to that after discussing the name of the bookstore.

Bùzài shūdiàn


As a declarative sentence, this would normally mean "[XX] is / are not in the / a bookstore". However, since this is the name of a bookstore, the bùzài 不在 ("not in / at; absence / absent; not be in; be out") must modify shūdiàn 书店 ("bookstore"). So the Chinese name of the store translated into English would be something like "the absent / missing / nonexistent bookstore"). Yet the English name of the Bùzài shūdiàn 不在书店 on all of its signage and literature concerning the store is "Once Bookstore". I will set aside what the possible meaning of "Once Bookstore" might be, as with the missing strokes on bù 不 ("no; not"), shū 书 ("book") and diàn 店 ("shop; store"), and return to it after some further considerations about the implications of bùzài 不在 ("not in / at; absence / absent; not be in; be out") as a modifier for shūdiàn 书店 ("bookstore").

As a matter of fact, the owner of the bookshop, Màizi 麦子 ("Wheat"), in an interview in Wényì shēnghuó zhōukān 《文艺生活周刊》(Literary Life Weekly), gives us some hints about how he arrived at the unusual name for the bookstore. It turns out that Maizi thought of the English name of the bookstore before coming up with the Chinese name, and the English name is based upon the title of an Irish film.

From there, he goes on to play with the Chinese name of the store:

A: “Nǐ zài nǎ 你在哪?” (Where are you?)

B: “Bùzài shūdiàn 不在书店” ([I'm at] the absent / missing / nonexistent bookstore), but this could also mean "I'm not at the bookstore".

We could pursue this game even further:

C: Tā zài bùzài? 他在不在? (Is he in? OR He is at the Absent Bookstore.)

D1: Bù zài 不再 ([No, he's] not in)


D2: Zài “bùzài” 在“不在” ([He is] at the Absent Bookstore.)

And there are many more variations that could be worked on this theme. Here's a video of an interview with Maizi.

Once Bookstore is said to be the most beautiful bookstore in China. This is its Weibo (Twitter). It is also a cafe and restaurant. Here are some pictures of this most unusual bookstore.

Before tackling the relationship between "Once" and bùzài 不在 ("not in / at; absence / absent; not be in; be out"), as well as what that might imply, we need to say a few words about the right half of the photograph above.

The picture on the right is the cover of a book written by Yī Néngjìng 伊能静 (a forced translation of her name would be "She Can-Be-Silent"; in English she is called Annie Yi), who is a film star. Yī Néngjìng is famous for keeping herself looking beautiful and young (she is 44) through yoga, tai chi, and cosmetics. This book is all about how women can stay youthful and slim.

Beneath the star's name are these words: "Gēn shēntǐ tán liàn'ài" 跟身体谈恋爱 (fall / be in love with [your] body), which enjoins women to treat their bodies well and essentially to spend a lot of time (and money) on facial and body care. I suppose that the title also conveys the notion that narcissism is the driving force for women to keep themselves beautiful (in contrast with the traditional view that women strive to stay beautiful to please men). This book is also sold on amazon.cn.

Now, how does Annie Yi get tied in with Once Bookstore, other than that her book might be sold there? The connection is brought about through the turmoil surrounding a liberal weekly called Nánfāng zhōumò 南方周末 (Southern Weekend) in Guangzhou that took place during the last two weeks. It all started when the PRC government censored the New Year's editorial of Southern Weekend and the staff stood up to the authorities. Protests were held outside the offices of the Southern Weekend, and liberal individuals like Annie Yi came to the defense of the journal, at which point the police asked them to "drink tea" (i.e., they were called in for questioning): "Protesting Chinese Celebrities Get Ominous Invitations To 'Drink Tea' With Authorities". Let us recall that Once Bookstore is a pro-democracy establishment, so it too would have been sympathetic to the Southern Weekend cause.

For details about the turmoil surrounding protests in favor of Southern Weekend, see here, here, and here, and see other links about the Southern Weekly along the right side of the last article.

In an attempt to wrap up all of these disparate elements into some sort of coherent conclusion, I would say that the missing dots on three characters of the Chinese name for the bookstore indicate that something is absent. Calligraphers will often delete strokes to convey some special meaning, and sometimes they add a stroke or two for the same purpose. For example, in this artistic calligraphy, the large character on the right is shén 神 ("spirit; deity"), but it has a conspicuous extra dot at the bottom right, perhaps to convey the notion of duō diǎn jīngshén 多点精神 (add a bit of extra spirit).

I believe that "Once" in the name of the bookstore conveys a longing for something absent or missing, a lost (once and future) intellectuality and spirituality. This reminds me of one of Jorge Luis Borges' famous sayings:

Siempre imaginé que el Paraíso sería algún tipo de biblioteca.

I've always imagined that paradise would be some type of library.

But in China, where libraries are politically highly controlled and not free to make available to their readers books that are perceived to be ideologically tainted, progressive bookstores claim that what Borges really meant is that paradise is a bookstore (coincidentally, the word for bookstore in Spanish is librería).

One of my graduate students from China recalls that a famous bookstore in Xi'an purportedly translated Borges' words into Chinese thus:

Wǒ yīzhí mèngxiǎng, tiāntáng jiùshì shūdiàn de móyàng 我一直梦想,天堂就是书店的模样
(I have always dreamed that heaven has the appearance of a bookstore).

This amounts to a query about public reading in China, a most sensitive topic.

In conclusion, it seems that both the Chinese and English names of the bookstore speak to an absence of intellectualism and spirituality, hence Paradise Lost, but with the hope that this special bookstore might induce Paradise Regained.

[Thanks to Jing Wen, Fangyi Cheng, and Gianni Wan]


  1. Sniffnoy said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 8:45 pm

    Hm, I just took "Once Bookstore" as a concise way of saying "this was once a bookstore". (Er, not as in, this *actually* isn't a bookstore anymore, rather just, we're titling it that way as a free translation of the Chinese name. Or the other way around.)

  2. The Ridger said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

    So, is "once" modifying "bookstore" (as, say, "the once and future king") or is it the name of the bookstore (as Borders bookstore)? Or is there any way to tell that in Chinese?

  3. John Walden said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 3:34 am

    I take my hat off to the deconstructors who tease out these nuances for the rest of us. And I idly wonder if a T-shirt which says "No slogan" or a haidresser's called "The Cut Above" need or get the same kind of analysis from speakers of other languages (If I could think of less trivial examples, I'd use them).

  4. George said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 5:04 am

    More than a bit OT, but it's interesting that the name of the book shop was derived from the title of an Irish film (not a bad film at all, and very much about things that might have been but never happened).

    The pretty widespread engouement in China for all things Irish is surprising (although it probably peaked a few years ago). I lived in Beijing in the early noughties and it could be quite weird at times. There was the whole Riverdance thing, of course, including the groups of ladies doing Irish step-dancing in the park; finding pirated copies of really old films like Man of Aran or The Informer in the DVD shop; (non-pirated) CDs by a rather obscure County Louth traditional music group in the local grocers'; large numbers of die-hard Cranberries fans…

    Some of it can be explained, I suppose: Riverdance showed that you could domesticate folk dance and still entertain people (the secret recipe that Communist régimes had never quite found); Faye Wong had covered a Cranberries song in the film Chunking Express. But still, it was the scale of it that surprised.

    Why do so many Chinese find us so interesting? I mean, we don't even have Ireland Ferrari Sex Orgy Death Crashes….

  5. Goatherd said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 5:27 am

    @George, I noticed that the "China Ferrari Sex Orgy Death Crashes" headline was from an Irish rag, so the interest is at least partly reciprocated. There were a lot of Chinese in Dublin about 10 years ago (about 40,000). Many of them seem to have left now. (2011 Census lists 35K Asians in Dublin, but many of these are not Chinese).

  6. zythophile said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 7:07 am

    The 南方周末 apparently prefers to translate its name into English as "Southern Weekly" rather than "Southern Weekend", according to a memo sent round to South China Morning Post journalists.

  7. Howard Oakley said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

    Thank you for another fascinating and insightful essay.

    One little aside regarding the delightful police euphemism of being invited to drink tea = taken in for questioning: in UK Armed Forces speech (and perhaps over a broader base), being invited to a discussion without coffee = to be brought in for an informal reprimand.


  8. chris said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 12:29 am

    coincidentally, the word for bookstore in Spanish is librería

    What do you mean "coincidentally"? Library and libreria are genuine cognates, both deriving from Latin liber. (Well, the meanings are slightly different so I suppose you could call them false friends, but that seems overly picky.)

    The resemblance to "liberty" *is* coincidental, AFAIK, but I'm not 100% sure of that either.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 1:15 am


    Spanish biblioteca = English library

    English bookstore = Spanish librería

    English bookstore = Chinese shūdiàn 书店

    English library = Chinese túshūguǎn 图书馆

    The Chinese play with these words in various combinations.

    Adv. 1. coincidentally – happening at the same time

  10. KeithB said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    I took it to be more like Magritte: "This is not a bookstore."

  11. Leifeng said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 10:07 pm

    A clever play with the missing strokes, I think.
    I'm not sure what the article means suggesting that this is one of the only private bookstores in China: "…perhaps the only pro-democracy (private) bookstore in the People's Republic of China". I have personally been to several, and I'm sure they number in the hundreds, at least. Still, they are rare.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 12:56 am


    I too have been in a number of private bookstores in China that are careful to maintain an apolitical or pro-government stance. I've also been to many private bookstores that were subsequently closed by the government for being a bit too progressive or pro-democratic. So far, Once Bookstore has managed to stay open.

    And what cleverness do YOU make of the missing strokes?

  13. Faldone said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 8:32 am

    @KeithB: But in the Magritte case it wasn't a pipe. It was a picture of a pipe.

    Captain O


    I suppose in the case of the Not A Bookstore, it isn't a bookstore, either; it's the name sign of a bookstore.

  14. David C said,

    January 21, 2013 @ 10:46 am

    Just as an aside, I spent a week in Xiamen in 2009 and found it to be a lovely city. Landscaping associated with infrastructure was very beautiful, as were the new high-rise buildings. Xiamen is something of a vacation destination for Chinese people. It was interesting to see the excellent beach crowded with people who were clothed from head to toe and carrying parasols for sun protection.

    Apparently, Xiamen is(or was) the locale for a popular soap-opera type television program. We got to see several scenes being filmed.

    If you ever go there, be sure to visit the piano museum. This was a center for missionaries in the 19th century, and they have many fine examples of pianos from that time.

  15. KeithB said,

    January 21, 2013 @ 10:53 am

    Maybe that is how they hide from the government: "This is not the bookstore you are looking for."

RSS feed for comments on this post