Old Version

Forever 17

Once restricted reading in China, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has since become an acknowledged part of the literary canon and one of the most influential American works for generations of Chinese writers and readers

By NewsChina Updated May.1

First introduced to China in the early 1960s, The Catcher in the Rye struck a true chord in the hearts of Chinese readers that still reverberates today.  

It’s referenced in the names of stores, bars and companies across China. A punk rock band. A record company (Taihe Rye). Even a real estate chain (Maitian, or “Rye Field”). 
To mark J.D. Salinger’s 100th birthday (January 1, 1919), Yilin Press published a new Chinese edition of The Catcher in the Rye that includes the writer’s other three works of fiction – Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.  

Since March, Yilin has held activities and talks in cities from Beijing to Chengdu to mark the occasion. The writer’s son, Matthew Salinger, joined Chinese writers, poets, translators, critics and scholars at the events in sharing their own experiences with Salinger’s work.  

Despite its ban during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), The Catcher in the Rye went on to influence generations of readers, shape youth culture in China, and have tremendous impact on contemporary literature. Xu Zidong, professor at the Department of Chinese at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, groups main character Holden Caulfield among Pavel Korchagin from Soviet author Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel was Tempered and Julien Sorel from The Red and the Black by the 19th century French writer Stendhal as the “three foreign idols of contemporary Chinese literature.”

‘Spiritual Spring’
“The early winter of 1970 was a spiritual spring for youth in Beijing. The two trendiest books of the time – The Catcher in the Rye and Vasily Aksyonov’s A Ticket to the Stars – came as breaths of fresh air for teens and young adults. Afterwards a series of ‘yellow cover books’ [huangpishu, or restricted publications] followed and spread all over the city,” wrote Duo Duo, 68, in his essay “The Buried Poets (1970-1978)” included in the book The Sunken Shrine. Duo Duo is a prominent poet born in Beijing who was awarded the 2010 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.  

First translated by the eminent translator Shi Xianrong in 1963, The Catcher in the Rye was initially introduced to China in the very particular format of a yellow cover book.  

Yellow cover books were restricted publications that emerged in the early 1960s that mostly consisted of translations of novels from European and American literature and “revisionist” literary works from the Soviet Union. They were distributed internally to a small number of high-ranking officials and intellectuals to critique the decadence of Europeans, Americans and Soviet revisionists. Instead they gave young Chinese rare access to foreign literature and helped spread ideas of liberalism and individualism.  

Among all the yellow cover books, three in particular had a tremendous impact on China’s youth: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Aksyonov’s A Ticket to the Stars, also known as Russia’s Catcher in the Rye.  

Before the Cultural Revolution, these books were circulated through clandestine reading salons held by the children of intellectuals and high-ranking officials, mostly in Beijing.  

The Catcher in the Rye’s restricted status only added to its air of subversion. Caulfield’s rebellion in New York resonated with its readers in Beijing, thousands of miles away.  

“We were so crazy about the book. Lots of people could recite many passages from it. Some had copied the whole book by hand. I copied half of it. At that time I felt so connected to Holden. I thought he was the same as we were,” Zhang Langlang said in an interview with ifeng.com. Son of Zhang Ting, former president of the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts, Zhang organized The Column of Sun, one of the two most influential underground literary groups in Beijing active during the 1960s.  

During the Cultural Revolution, yellow cover books circulated not only among students in cities, but also spread like wildfire through the countryside, which at the time was home to China’s masses of sent-down youth (zhiqing). Starting in 1968, young people living in cities were sent to rural areas as part of the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement” (Shangshan Xiaxiang).  

An internal report by the Xinhua News Agency in the 1970s read, “The Catcher in the Rye and some other ‘decadent and nasty’ works are becoming hugely popular underground. Not only have they seized the cultural frontlines of cities but also have infiltrated our towns and rural areas.” 

In the essay “Tracks of Books: a History of Spiritual Reading” also in The Sunken Shrine, writer Xiao Xiao indicates that, because schools and colleges were closed during the Cultural Revolution, The Catcher in the Rye and other yellow cover books became a channel for the younger generation to relate to the world. These books, Xiao points out, which were criticized as “poisons” of “feudalism, capitalism and revisionism,” instead fueled a spiritual enlightenment.  

“Frustrated with the shattered world, they struggled to find answers on their own through these books,” Xiao wrote. “They tasted the forbidden fruit by any means to nourish their spirits. These banned books had a great impact on the spiritual transformation of the younger generation during the Cultural Revolution and served as a catalyst to develop a sort of spiritual nuclear fission in the coming years.”  

Not At All Phony
In the early 1980s, the winds of China’s reform and opening-up swept through the publishing field.  

In 1983, The Catcher in the Rye was for the first time available to the general public from the Lijiang Press, which exerted enormous influence on China’s literary landscape.  

“In the past, publishers in China paid little attention to the 20th century foreign literature. They looked down on the Nobel Prize for Literature, and believed it to be an award for the bourgeoisie. Also, some market-oriented publishers focused on popular detective novels and had no clear plans for foreign literary works,” said Liu Shuoliang, the editor who oversaw the project at Lijiang Press. At the time, Liu was working to bring modernist fiction to China. “After all, reading only Balzac and [Maxim] Gorky was surely far from enough,” he told NewsChina.  

Lijiang Press published a series of paperbacks that also included Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil and Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. However, The Catcher in the Rye was the most popular and influential, Liu told our reporter. 

“Many literary aficionados would buy multiple copies at a time. In the 1980s, if young people met on the street or at a bus station, they’d usually share a kind of secret code – ‘Have you read it? Not yet? I’ll give one to you,’” Liu said.  

In 1985, two years after The Catcher in the Rye’s publication, the first wave of Chinese modernist novels emerged, all deeply influenced by Western modernist literature. The avant-garde works Variations Without a Theme by Xu Xing and Liu Suola’s You Got No Choice, both published in China’s leading literary magazine People’s Literature in 1985, are commonly regarded as two major milestones of contemporary Chinese literature. As literary critics pointed out, both works, with their colloquial dark humor and poignant mood of lost idealism, were direct reflections of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  

“At the time, some in literary circles believed Xu Xing’s work to be an imitation of The Catcher in the Rye. Xu was a waiter at a Peking duck restaurant. He wrapped his thoughts on life in an outraged narrative against hypocrisy. He also used curse words in his writing,” wrote Zhu Wei, former editor of People’s Literature who published Xu and Liu.  

“In fact, Salinger influenced an entire generation of young Chinese and produced thousands of Xu Xings. It just happened to be this Xu Xing with his Variation Without a Theme that became an irreplaceable page in 1980s Chinese literary history,” Zhu added.  

Some writers were drawn to the book in a more personal way, relating to the character in their own lives.  

Jiang Benhu, 55, China’s most successful espionage thriller writer who writes under the pen name Mai Jia, adopted his literary moniker after the book. Mai Jia translates literally to “The Family of the Rye” in Chinese. He is known for spy novels such as Decoded, The Message and Plot.  
Mai Jia was persecuted at school during the Cultural Revolution because of his family background. His grandfather was a landlord and his father a rightist and Christian. Bullied by students and teachers, he was ostracized for most of his youth. His only outlet was journaling his inner dialogue. By the time he started writing fiction a decade later, Mai Jia had filled 36 diaries.  
After reading The Catcher in the Rye, Mai Jia found a character that resonated with his life, a boy who was “lonely, distressed, full of anger and frustration.”  

“I felt every word [in The Catcher in the Rye] was written just for me. Every word glows and transforms into a spirit and power that flows through my soul and body. There hasn’t been a book since that shocked me, warmed me and stimulated me so much,” Mai Jia wrote in his essay “How Salinger Taught Me to Write” published in the Beijing Evening News after Salinger’s death in 2010.  

“Salinger showed me that I could write novels this way, like how I wrote in my diaries,” he added. 

New Chinese editions of J.D. Salinger’s works published by Yilin Press

Matthew Salinger, son of J.D. Salinger

More Than a Rebel
For Chinese teens and young adults born in the 1980s, The Catcher in the Rye was a defining symbol for a growing individualistic culture. Reading Salinger was considered cool and associated with certain kinds of personalities. 

“Many adolescents, in their transition to adulthood, are eager to find a reflection or a style of their own, and more often than not they find it in Salinger’s novel,” Lu Jiande, dean of the Institute of Literature under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told NewsChina. 

At a recent memorial salon to mark Salinger’s 100th birthday in Beijing, Zhou Jianing, 37, a Post-80s writer, shared her own Salinger story: during her admissions interview for Fudan University in 2000, she was asked about her favorite book.  

“I was 17 and I had of course read The Catcher in the Rye. But it really wasn’t my favorite since I was pretty sure I didn’t understand it at the time. But I was also pretty sure that if I said it was, people would know what kind of teen I was,” Zhou said.  

“Young people of my generation thought that being out of step with the world was a cool thing. Many of my favorite writers at the time were staunch defenders of the book. They repeatedly expressed how the book influenced their youth, and they always wondered where the ducks in Central Park go in winter – I reckon 20 years ago most of them had no chance of ever going to New York,” Zhou said. 

Lu Jiande points out that while most saw Caulfield as a rebellious teen, many overlooked his tenderness, maturity and spiritual growth. “Holden loves and takes care of his sister, and also truly respects and shows gratitude to his teacher. Do not simply stereotype him as a defiant and angry teenager who intentionally secludes himself from society. There is profound tenderness and deep kindness in this character,” Lu said. 

Zhou Jianing agrees, and also believes that teenagers are not the best audience for The Catcher in the Rye. After learning about Salinger’s wartime experiences and thoughts on Zen, she re-read the book and his other works this year only to get more love, sympathy and healing from them than she ever did at 17.  

During the salon, Miao Wei, a 51-year-old writer and editor, described reading Salinger as being “smashed and then reconstructed.” “You feel something is crumbling into pieces in your heart, you read the book, and you’re healed, even though you might not know how the healing process began,” Miao said.  

Matthew Salinger responded, saying the reason why J.D. Salinger’s books have the power to heal is because of their universal themes of loss, depression and fading innocence. In other words, everybody hurts, sometimes.