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UPDATED: January 11, 2013 NO. 2 JANUARY 10, 2013
Show and Tell
The European concept of a human library takes on a new life in China
By Yuan Yuan

FIRST MEETING: Lei Wanfeng (right) welcomes a reader to Me Library, a human library that he founded in Shanghai, on May 1, 2012 (LAI XINLIN)

After returning to NJNU, Han opened a bookstore on campus and tried to promote the human library, but it didn't catch on until she graduated in 2007.

Despite the setbacks, Han didn't give up. In March 2012, she successfully held three human library events in Chengdu, capital of southwest China's Sichuan Province.

Last May, Han wrote a letter to Song Yongzhong, President of NJNU, proposing to organize a human library event in celebration of the university's 110th anniversary.

With Song's support, Han invited 11 "human books" to meet NJNU students on September 15, 2012. The event proved to be a hit.

At the second human library event in NJNU on November 29, four "human books" were present.

Chen Shi, a college student, told stories of his trips to Tibet Autonomous Region, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and many other places on the Chinese mainland during summer and winter breaks on a shoestring budget.

"We always want to travel around the world yet find plenty of excuses not to set off, such as lacking money and time. But as long as you really make up your mind, they are not problems at all," Chen said.

Lei Wanfeng now runs a human library in Shanghai. After graduating from university in central China's Henan Province up in 2007, Lei went to Shanghai and teamed with several friends to open a bookstore in 2010. It went bankrupt within a year.

Marveled with the idea of human library, Lei opened a new bookstore called Me Library, in Shanghai last year. He has regularly invited people to share stories with "readers" in Me Library, which is packed with people from all over the world during these events.


"China has the soil for human libraries as people from different social backgrounds really need to talk," said Wang Zizhou, a professor at Peking University's Information Management Department. Wang and his student Wu Hanhua are widely known as the first to introduce the idea of human library to China.

Wang lists migrant workers, cancer patients, folk artists and disabled people as the ideal "human books."

Chen Shiyu, a college student from Shandong Province, made a much longer list, adding homosexuals, HIV sufferers, sex workers and drug addicts. But she was disappointed that nobody in these groups was willing to show up. Furthermore, Chen said that only a few patrons of I-Think Library, which she founded last October, have any interest in talking with social pariahs.

"The purpose of human libraries is to eliminate prejudices, but it doesn't seem to be working in China," Chen said. "When I ask 'readers' whether they have prejudices, they always say no. I think they don't even know they have them."

Chen once invited an urban management officer to his library. But as soon as the officer sat down, readers threw harsh words at him based on reports about some urban management officers' misconduct. "That event almost went out of control and the officer had to leave awkwardly," Chen said.

Successful people invited to human libraries, such as entrepreneurs, always appear to be popular and some are keen to awe young people by bragging about their achievements. Reportedly, when a civil servant came to share a charity trip story, he was frequently asked about how to pass the national civil service exam.

Another challenge—and one also shared by many typical libraries—is funding. Currently, Chen holds human library events in different places each time as she cannot afford a fixed place.

"My colleagues and I have put almost all the money from our pockets into the library," Li said. "We cannot even make ends meet, not to mention make a profit."

But Li is still happy with the program. "The library is like my home now and all the friends here form a big family," Li said, adding that some readers offered to pay extra money as they learnt of the library's financial difficulties.

"I would be very satisfied just to make ends meet. If not, I would run the library until I don't have a penny in my pocket," Li said.

Email us at: yuanyuan@bjreview.com

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