Chinese reading habits stir new debate

Updated: 2014-03-18 07:36

By Sun Ye (China Daily)

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Are Chinese reading well? Are they reading enough?

Such questions are being raised in the wake of some alarming observations. The Tenth National Reading Survey in 2013 by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication found that on average each Chinese person reads 4.3 printed books and 2.35 digital ones each year. A survey by Guangxi Normal University Press asked readers which book they had most struggled to get through. Chinese classic A Dream of the Red Mansions topped the ranking.

"Get on a subway in China, and all you'll see are people dozing off or hunching over their cellphones," says Yan Gongda, artist, calligrapher and member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. "But while I was in Europe, people on subways were reading books."

At the CPPCC sessions in early March, however, there has been vindication for the amount of reading Chinese do. At the same time, there was much debate about what is published by the nation that produced 400,000 different books in 2013.

"We need to look at reading with fresh eyes today," says Chen Li, deputy director of the National Library of China. "It's not just books and e-books. We're reading on so many other platforms and in so many other ways.

"Books are being marketed and sold differently, and book shops are closing for many reasons," Chen says. "We still need more reading, but we are not doing that bad."

Fan Xiaoqing, president of Jiangsu province's Writers' Association, agrees. "I don't think we're reading less than before. If you count all the online articles, micro blogs, bits of information that come right at us, the amount is staggering.

"The real problem, on the contrary, is caused by the massive amount of information, much of it fragmented and fast-tempo," Fan says. "You are at a loss to determine what is really good."

Chen says: "You've got only so much time. For those who don't have time to study and tell the good publications from the bad, there is a problem."

Fan's solution: stick to the classics. "The classics are tried by time," she says. "One can't go wrong with them."

Wang Anyi, author of The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, suggests: "One should always try to read more fiction. That gives you imagination and empathy with other people and life's other contexts.

"One should read for feelings and understandings one never had before," she says. "I try to do that every day."

Yan proposed during the two sessions that a National Reading Day be established, on the day that Confucius was born.

"Reading is the only thing that will change your state of mind," says the artist who grew up with a scholar's training in arts and culture. "It's also the pillar to our traditional culture. Everyone read so avidly in the past, not for anything particular but as a way of life.

"We may have gotten very edgy and irritable from the fast-developing society and newly acquired wealth," Yan says.

"The way to get our peaceful state of mind back is by reading and going back to our traditional ways."

Fan says: "You can never set a bar of how much to read or what to read. Maybe a little guidance. But the most important thing is making the habit part of you."

(China Daily 03/18/2014 page22)