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Karen’s Letter: Three Days in Taipei

Puppet show at Longshan Temple
Prayer and offerings at a daoist temple
Berkshire author/editor William H. McNeill's book A World History on display in Taipei

A three-day trip to the other side of the world is not something I had in mind, but I know enough to seize the day—or days—when offered. An invitation to speak at the Taiwan Digital Publishing Forum arrived in September just as we were publishing the first Berkshire book about Taiwan, a stroke of perfect serendipity.

Being in Taiwan reminded me of an embarrassing moment on my first trip to China in 2001. I had packed a copy of what I thought was a “Chinese” edition of one of my own books, The Green Home, and showed it proudly to a colleague in Beijing, thinking that it gave me some special credibility.

She laughed.  The book I was so happy about, because reaching Chinese readers was important to me even then, had to be read from back to front and was printed in columns and in the “complex” or “traditional” characters used only in Taiwan, not in the People’s Republic of China, where they use “simplified” Chinese, a set of characters designed under Mao in the 1950s to expand literacy.

In 2001, I had absolutely no idea of the distinction, but today every person who works at Berkshire knows this and much more about working with the Chinese language and Chinese characters. I’m amazed by the conversations I overhear among staff who have no more background in Chinese studies than I. “Do we want tone marks on that?” “How about the transliteration of this name – don’t you think it should be left in Wade-Giles?”

In my talk on 6 November at the Taiwan Digital Publishing Forum, I traced the impact of technology on publishing through my own experiences, as a child in the Silicon Valley, a young editor-turned-author in London, and as a reference publisher. I also talked about the huge challenges we face in creating a sustainable model for digital publishing; about ebooks and digital publishing in the PRC, drawing from work that my son Tom (who speaks Mandarin) has been doing with Apabi and other Chinese companies; and about the specialized challenges of publishing books with Chinese characters and content.

There were many surprises during those busy three days in Taipei. The Taiwanese have been technologically advanced for decades, but ebooks have almost no market there. The publishers I talked to were thinking about digital publishing because they had to, but they were unconvinced that Taiwanese readers would take to ebooks any time soon. I argued that their market is not just in Taiwan but with the millions of global readers of traditional Chinese characters. And because it’s easy to convert from traditional to simplified Chinese (but not the other way around), a book published in Taiwan can become a PRC edition very easily. (There are differences of usage to consider, of course, as there are between British and American English: my London-born kids refused to read the American versions of the Harry Potter books.)

I saw for myself that Taiwan has an intense political culture with heated rivalry between the blue and the green, and that it has close ties with Japan. The Japanese occupied Taiwan for 50 years but they are viewed warmly by the Taiwanese I met. Feelings about China are complex. I was asked many questions about my work in the PRC. I complained that AT&T and Samsung wouldn’t unlock my new phone for the trip. “They’re Korean,” someone said with a shrug. I have no idea what that means but am curious to find out. Follow the rules without the flexibility of the Chinese, I guessed.

Food is enormously important in Chinese culture, a major reason I love being involved with China. But I apparently do not look like an adventurous eater. On the plane I startled the flight attendants by asking for the Chinese, not the Western, meal. Its high point was a garnish of three large bright-yellow pickled beans that had been threaded onto a cluster of green pine needles, giving the beans a faint resinous flavor. It was lovely, too. Who would have thought I would want to take a photo of an airplane meal? But I followed the rules and kept my phone turned off.

Afterwards, as the attendant cleared my tray, all the dishes emptied, she turned back and held out the chopsticks. “You should keep them,” she said, and she was right. The lovely bamboo chopsticks will remind me of that special first trip to Taiwan for many years to come, and I’m hoping to report soon on new digital initiatives at Berkshire that will bring more Taiwan-published books to readers and librarians around the world.

Best wishes, Karen Christensen, CEO & Publisher

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