Publisher seals China connection with her art book

Updated: 2012-05-15 14:29

By Yang Guang (China Daily)

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Canadian publisher Pia Copper personifies the characteristics of a rat, the Chinese horoscope year in which she was born. She is full of ideas, has many friends and has done well professionally.

The horoscope is not the only connection the 40-year-old has with the Chinese. In fact, she tells friends that if reincarnation exists, she was Chinese in the past life or will be in the next.

"I have a lot in common with the Chinese people," she explains. "I feel they understand me and I understand them."

Copper's connection with the country started when her family moved to Beijing in 1981, following her geologist father's stint with Peking University.

She says she was amazed at the flaming red of the Forbidden City and the ubiquitous blue-and-gray Mao suits in those days.

She still remembers flying a kite at Tiananmen Square, traveling with her father in a jeep to collect fossils around China and eating peanuts with chopsticks on moving trains with her sister.

"I have always had a real romance with China," she says. "I fell deeply in love with China from a very young age and loved to read anything I could find about it."

Copper's fascination with the country, and her desire to speak the native language of her playmates from the past, led her to study Chinese at McGill University.

She then proceeded to the Sorbonne and the School of Oriental Languages in Paris, where she focused on Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) poetess Xue Tao.

In Paris, she worked nightshifts at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. She remembers how bookstore owner George Whitman, who had lived in Nanjing, Jiangsu province before, would tell her interesting stories, such as how he knew American writer Pearl Buck as a child and picnicked on the hills with the future Nobel literature laureate.

In 1994, Copper returned to China with her photographer mother, to work on a book about old Shanghai. They stayed in an antiquated house in the previous French Concession for almost five months, witnessing firsthand changes that would affect China forever.

"Two women living alone in a linong (lanes and alleys), meeting people, taking pictures and writing - it was one of the most exciting times of my life," she says.

Since the early 1990s, Copper has known contemporary Chinese artists and helped with their exhibitions and trades abroad. Some of them became famous, such as Zhang Xiaogang and Liu Xiaodong.

She went to their studios, drank unlimited cups of tea and tried to understand what they were doing.

"Their studios were often unheated, and they lived very simply," she remembers.

She says Liu Xiaodong and his wife Yu Hong's paintings touched her very much. "They were very traditional but so personal about their home and daughter, political changes in China and intimate portraits of the life going on around them."

She went back to Paris where she worked as an art expert at a leading independent auction house. There, she co-founded its Chinese art department.

After marrying British editor Christopher Copper-Ind, who had worked in the Middle East and published books on Yemen, Iran and Syria, she took him to China. He fell in love with the country immediately.

Last year, they decided to start their own publishing house, Horizons Editions, inspired by a saying by British explorer and travel writer Freya Stark: I think I like to look over the edge and see what's coming that's a horizon. I'm one of the people who like to look over the horizon and there's another horizon, and another. Then eventually you step over your last horizon. And that, I think, is the fascination of life.

Recently, Copper launched the first title of her publishing house - the art book MAO - by French historian and former diplomat Claude Hudelot and photographer Guy Gallice.

A former cultural attache of the French embassy in Beijing and Shanghai, Hudelot has written several books on China's foremost founding father, such as The Long March and Mao: The Life and the Legend.

With an introduction by Yu Hua, author of Brothers and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, MAO revisits the "Little Red Book", Mao's quotations and his face in portraits, as well as posters, badges and busts, among others.

Copper considers it "the first coffee table book of its kind" and "a full survey of the Mao legacy". She is now looking for a partner to do a Chinese edition.