Finding Zen and Book Contracts in Beijing

Bill Porter Portrait.jpeg

Author and translator Bill Porter

It’s a Sunday afternoon and Beijing’s biggest bookstore is preparing for a major event: the launch of a new book by a bestselling American author, who will be on hand for the occasion. Six-foot banners on the sidewalk out front announce the talk, along with posters in the windows and a big display of books in the foyer of the 170,000-square-foot store. Up on the sixth floor, a conference room filled with sixty people quietly awaits….Bill Porter.

Few people in the West have heard of Porter, a translator of Chinese poetry and religious works whose books in print—many of them published by a small non-profit, [Copper Canyon Press] ({A56FD111-C6AB-4560-8E7B-47677082D0F4)—rarely sell more than a thousand copies each year. For most of the past decade, he says, his annual income has hovered around $15,000. Several of his books humorously thank the US Department of Agriculture—for providing food stamps that have kept him and his family going.

But Porter, who translates under the pen name Red Pine (赤松), has also published two minor classics of Chinese travel writing with Counterpoint Press, Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits and Zen Baggage: a Pilgrimage to China—works that have recently gained him a huge Chinese following, thanks to a small but growing new publishing culture for foreign authors.

For Porter, it all started several years ago, when he was visiting the Monastery of the Cypress Grove (Bailinsi) in Beijing to research Zen Baggage. He happened to meet Tang Xiaoming, the manager of Beijing Reader Publishing, a private press dedicated mostly to business topics. Like many entrepreneurs, Tang was developing an interest in religion and was fascinated to hear that Porter had found hermits in China’s Zhongnan Mountains—a range south of Xi’an long famous as a home for recluses seeking enlightenment. In fact, Porter’s book had been published in China in 2001—as Secluded Orchids in a Deserted Valley (空谷幽兰), a poetic reference to people of noble character—but had only sold a few thousand copies. Tang thought that it had been poorly marketed.

“I knew it would work if people realized what he had found,” Tang told me. “It seemed like the time was ripe.”

The book, which Tang re-released in 2009 under the same title, became a sensation in China, selling 100,000 copies and spurring interest in hermits and other traditions that many Chinese assumed had vanished. The book launched hermit tourism and turned Porter into a celebrity, with his own page on Baidu Baike, China’s version of Wikipedia.

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The English language edition of Porter’s Zen Baggage

That prompted Tang to publish Zen Baggage last year, which has sold 50,000 copies, and to commission from Porter an original work on his travels through China’s cultural heartland that has not appeared in English, Yellow River Odyssey, which has an initial press run of 20,000. Another new work of Porter’s is due out in Chinese later this year on the Silk Road. Best of all, the publisher is paying advances and royalties. Last year, Porter says, he earned $30,000 from his China book sales, pushing him out of the world of food stamps and into the realm of the tax-paying lower-middle class.

Porter’s new status reflects the growth of China’s own middle class. Many are willing to pay for real books, movies and music, and not just make do with cheaper, pirated editions. That’s allowed a growing number of foreign authors to make real money in China, as long, of course, as they do not discuss political themes overtly—explicitly political works would not pass China’s censors. Porter’s books do have a political undertone, with his characters ignoring or seemingly ignorant of Communist Party efforts to control religion, but he is an observer rather than a commentator. And while he makes humorous references to local officials (he calls them “trolls”) and the indignities that sometimes accompany travel in China, his principal focus is on the country’s culture and religious traditions.

On the recent Sunday afternoon, walking into the Beijing bookstore conference room for the launch of Yellow River Odyssey, Porter looked the role of eccentric foreign prophet. Short and barrel-chested, he has a thick grey beard and twinkling eyes—a cross between a mountain-top sage and department-store Santa Claus. Although he is 68, he looks about a decade younger. He quickly won over the crowd with humor and candor.

“I became interested in China for money,” he said in answer to the most-asked question he receives. He went on to explain how he had been a doctoral student in anthropology at Columbia University and took Chinese because it was a way to get a scholarship. Around the same time he became interested in Buddhism and eventually found it more spiritually rewarding. In 1972, he dropped out of the program to move to Taiwan and live in a Buddhist monastery. He stayed in Taiwan twenty years, making the translation of Chinese poetry into English his spiritual practice—for him, sitting down in front of the classics and figuring out what a writer from a thousand years ago was trying to say is a meditative experience. In 1993 he moved back to the US with his Taiwanese wife and two children. They settled on the outskirts of Port Townsend, about 40 miles northwest of Seattle, where Porter lives today.


Tang, his Chinese publisher, had arranged for 20 interviews during the week of the book launch, and a television crew was documenting his visit. A subtext to many of the questions was why he finds so much value in Chinese culture when so many Chinese themselves don’t. It was a question Tang brought up when he introduced Porter.

“Our culture is really broad but how does it affect our daily life? Today we’re very westernized—our food, clothing and so on—but here is someone from the West who finds value in China,” Tang said in his short introduction. “Why does he do this? What does it say to us Chinese?”

In the travel writing that has made him so popular in China, Porter’s tone is not reverential but explanatory, and filled with humorous asides (such as the traveler’s need for a good laxative, or his twenty-year pursuit of a Guggenheim fellowship). His goal is to tell interested foreigners about revealing byways of Chinese culture. Unexpectedly, this approach also works for Chinese, many of whom are about as removed from their culture as Porter’s target audience is in the West. But this means that what is a niche market in western countries—the Chinese culture enthusiast—is a mass market in China. It also helps that Porter is a foreigner. Many wonder how foreigners see this complex culture, which during the 20th century Chinese writers, thinkers, and politicians blamed for their country’s demise.

After Porter’s bookstore talk, one Chinese journalist asked about what it was like traveling in China in the early 1990s when he researched his hermits. Porter answered in Chinese, his accent reflecting the southern slur of Taiwan. “When I made this trip people had no money. Now they have money but are still dissatisfied. This is the biggest difference.” Many in the audience nodded and suddenly the gates opened, a flood of questions about religion, faith and belief. What does he think about Zen? Surely everyone can’t be a hermit, can they? How do you survive a winter on a mountainside?

“Zen is like a cup of tea,” he replied.

On one level you can see the teacup and you can admire it. You can look at the tea and admire it and its flavor. But then you have to drink it. When you drink it you have the real cup of tea. But what is it? It’s gone: it’s the memory of the taste, the sensation in your mouth.

China has a great Olympics program but not everyone in China should train for six hours a day. Likewise, being a hermit is not for everyone. It’s like spiritual graduate school.

You spend most of your time chopping firewood and hauling water. This becomes part of your practice. Many people go in the spring and leave in the autumn. They don’t have the spiritual practice to sustain them during the winter.

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Ian Johnson

Porter signing books at the Wangfujing Bookstore, Beijing, April 15, 2012

A man, somewhat perplexed, stood up: “You are a westerner, of course, and in the United States Christianity is the main religion. But you practice Buddhism. Can you explain why?”

Porter paused for a few seconds, sensing that the man might be one of China’s burgeoning ranks of Christians. Then he said, “Christianity asks you to believe in things that you can’t see: that there’s a god, that he had a son and so on. In Buddhism there is that too—there’s a paradise and so on. But in Zen Buddhism it’s mainly about your mind and your heart. You believe in something that is in your heart. That is something not abstract but real.”

Someone asked Porter about his next project, one that finally got him a Guggenheim last year, after seven failed applications. Porter explained how he is going to visit twenty locations in China associated with poetry and write about them, linking each to a poem or moment in a poet’s life. To which the questioner clasped his hands in a traditional greeting and said: “Respect.”


At the end, a young man walked up to the stage and handed Porter a Chinese copy of Zen Baggage. The man had inscribed on the cover a beautiful poem, an ode to Porter’s works, saying how they inspired him to carry on despite many problems. By the time the publisher had finished reading it, a line of thirty had already assembled in front of Porter waiting for an autograph.

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