Liu Yanbo has been obsessed with "xiaorenshu" since he was a boy and was attracted to roadside stands selling the palm-sized illustrated books. Vendors would rip the covers off the books and pin them up to attract customers. He could rent a book for as little as 0.01 yuan each.
Once Liu started reading he found it difficult to stop and even though it was time to go home and he had been squatting for hours, he still did not want to leave.
He recalls wanting to buy a xiaorenshu titled Huang Jiguang, about a hero who took a bullet in his chest during the Korean War (1950-53).
The book cost just 0.3 yuan but it took the young Liu several months to raise the funds. He even went without breakfast to save the money, but when he eventually had saved the cash, he was sorely disappointed to find it had sold out. "I will never forget how devastated I was at that time," the 45-year-old recalls.
"I certainly have a fascination for xiaorenshu. I was destined to be involved in the business," the Beijinger says at his shop, which boasts the largest collection of xiaorenshu in the city.
The 34-sq-m store in Panjiayuan, Beijing, has over 100,000 different kinds of xiaorenshu. A sign hangs on one of the walls, proclaiming: "The library of xiaorenshu".
Many old books are on display, covered with plastic film for protection. For many people these books rekindle their childhood memories.
Liu is plain featured and average in height. He talks slowly, with a strong Beijing accent and is always puffing on a cigarette. Smoke drifts around him as he talks, giving him the air of a thinker.
He is a natural hoarder and has a collection of jade, porcelain, wooden furniture and even tins. His wife, Li Xia, who also works in the shop, complains that their home is like a warehouse.
But to Liu, his collection of xiaorenshu is most valuable.
"I value it as one of the quintessential forms of Chinese culture. It's a unique kind of art like Peking Opera. Compared with Western comics, Chinese xiaorenshu have more realistic painting and excellent drawing skills."
The interest in xiaorenshu peaked between 1955 and 1965. There was not much market demand for Chinese paintings at that time and many artists had to supplement their income by drawing xiaorenshu, getting up to 100 yuan (US$13) per book.
Liu considers titles such as Wusong Fights Tiger (Liu Jiyong), White-haired Girl (Hua Sanchuan) and Dramatic Changes in a Mountainous Village (He Youzhi) as classics of the genre.
Besides Chinese literature, famous Western works were introduced to xiaorenshu, such as The Red and the Black, War and Peace and Camille.
"The xiaorenshu was important as we didn't have much choice of entertainment in the 1950s. With vivid illustrations and simple captions, the books were easy to read and therefore welcomed not only by children but also by adults," Liu says.
"What's more, China was closed to the rest of the world at that time. The book was like opening a window on the outside world."
The genre became less popular during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and few xiaorenshu were published at the beginning of the 1970s. The stories were usually about heroic workers, peasants and soldiers.
Liu applied to study in the department of illustrated books and New Year pictures at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, but was turned down. He majored in oil painting instead.
Even so, his passion for xiaorenshu never faded and Liu embarked on a project to write a book about the subject. He was so focused on the task, he locked himself in a house with two other classmates for three months and hired a maid to cook for them.
Disappointingly, publishers were not interested as the audience for xiaorenshu had declined, due in part to the fashion for Western-style cartoon books. Eventually he sold the rights to a collector for 7,000 yuan ($944).
"My first instinct was to run away as fast as I could, just in case the buyer changed his mind. But now I realize how precious the rights are. I wish I could buy them back at 10 times the original price, but it will never happen," Liu sighs, shaking his head.
Liu established an advertising company after graduating but this failed and instead of being a painter he became an electrical appliance salesman. Six years ago, however, Liu was strolling around the antique market at Baoguo Temple when his attention was caught by an old series of xiaorenshu named The Kingdoms of Eastern Zhou Dynasty.
He was shocked to find they were priced at 800 yuan ($108), several hundred times the original price. Liu saw the business opportunity and opened his first xiaorenshu store the same year, at Baoguo Temple.
Since then he has collected some impressive titles. Wusong Flights Tiger (1950s' edition) is one of them, which he bought for 2,500 yuan ($337). Today it is worth more than 20,000 yuan ($2,700), but Liu says he will never sell it "no matter how high the price goes. There are no more than three of these books left in China".
Liu moved his shop to its present location in 2004 and despite the fact that the xiaorenshu business is flourishing, he warned that sometimes the titles do not reflect their real value, as some people are making profits through speculation.
Currently, the majority of his customers are male, middle-aged and above. He said he sold about 500,000 titles a month, on average.
Foreign visitors also show an interest in xiaorenshu, Liu says, adding he was asked to exhibit at a book exhibition in Germany last year. His only slight regret is his daughter doesn't show an interest in xiaorenshu, preferring modern comics and horror stories.
"Young people don't understand our feelings about xiaorenshu. For our generation, it is much more than just a book," he says.
Currently, Liu's personal collection of xiaorenshu is more than 3,000. He is thinking of opening a xiaorenshu museum to share his passion for the art form with the rest of the world.
(China Daily November 23, 2007)