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Books bridge the cross-Straits divide


    Liao read a lot of books about Taiwan before he started writing Once Upon a Time in Taiwan, and discovered that most of those published in the mainland were about Taiwan's history or politics.

  "No one was telling stories about ordinary people from Taiwan, not politicians, not business tycoons," he said. "But knowing regular people is the best way of knowing a place. I understand the mainland by reading stories about ordinary mainland people."

  He used the example of The 1970s, a collection of mainland residents' recollections of the decade. "People are people. Even during the most political era, people shouted political slogans and then went to do whatever they had to do. It was the same in Taiwan," he said.

  Referring to the recent momentous meeting between Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, and Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou, Ni Yongjie, deputy director of the Shanghai Institute of Taiwan Studies, said political and economic cross-Straits relations have improved, but people are still not familiar with their neighbors on the other side of the water.

  "People from the mainland don't understand why, despite years of sending friendly mess-ages, Taiwan residents still won't drop their guards. That's because they don't know what people from the other side have been through and what their lives are like now," Ni said. "That's why we should encourage people from both sides to communicate, to listen to each other."

  Li Shengbo, a 26-year-old Beijing resident, has just returned to the mainland after a two-week business trip to Taiwan. Before the visit, everything he knew about the island came from books written by authors from Taiwan, including Li Ao, a historian and social commentator, and Lung Ying-tai, a writer and public intellectual.

  "In the beginning, I read a lot about cross-Straits politics and history, but later I found the human-interest stories were more touching. They taught me more about the island," Li said, referring to Lung's book Children, Take Your Time, a collection of essays about life with her two sons.

  "I went to the Eslite bookstore in Taipei to find more books about the island," he said, adding that he was fascinated by the literary atmosphere in the store, one of Taipei's landmark cultural organizations.

  The Eslite bookstore chain will open its first mainland branch in Suzhou in the eastern province of Jiangsu at the end of November.

  "People can learn about a place through movies, television programs, food, and of course by reading about it. The Eslite bookstore, as an organization founded in Taiwan, is willing to contribute to cross-Straits exchanges," said Colin Lang, a Taiwan native who is Eslite's director of operations for the Chinese mainland.

  The 500,000-plus books at the new Suzhou branch will include a considerable number written by authors from Taiwan, and will cover a wide range of fields, from culture and art to economics, according to Lang, who added that Eslite's data show book sales rose by 20,000 last year, compared with 2013.

  Reading provides a profounder understanding and, sometimes, shocking experience, compared with watching TV or using the Internet, he said. "Taiwan's literary and screen cultures have been deeply influenced by the cultures and traditions of the mainland. Many Taiwan residents are very familiar with mainland culture because many of them came from there originally, including my ancestors," said Lang.

  "I've read about the beauty and history of Suzhou since I was very young. When I came here to prepare our flagship store two years ago, I found the atmosphere familiar, rather than strange. The constant cross-Straits exchanges are helping people to connect," he said.