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New chapter for Chinese reading habits?

2013-10-05 13:20 Xinhua Web Editor: qindexing

Seven days, one book -- a seemingly simple traditional way to spend the week-long National Day holiday is becoming increasingly difficult for young Chinese.

Browsing in a local bookstore, Wang Taoli, who serves in the branding department of a TV-shopping company in the eastern province of Zhejiang, finally made up his mind to buy a book on brand management.

"I don't have any plans for the upcoming holiday, and I really enjoy the company of books," Wang said.

While Wang has chosen to explore the world by reading at home, most of his colleagues are out on the road, traveling or on their way home for a family reunion. There is growing concern that Chinese, especially youngsters, are falling out of the habit of reading, to the detriment of their education and wellbeing.

Though paper-making and printing technologies were first invented in China centuries ago, the rich literary tradition seems to be fading.

The average Chinese reads less than three books per year, far fewer than the 20-plus in Japan and the 10 books or more that Americans get through, according to the China Periodicals Association.

A UNESCO study meanwhile showed that, aside from text books, Chinese readers finish an average of less than one book every year.

Experts believe that the ancient Chinese education system contributes to the worrying reading habits of today's Chinese.

"In ancient China, except for the very few who were born to a rich family, common people were actually expelled from education," said Ji Shuihe, a professor with Xiangtan University in central China's Hunan, Mao Zedong birthplace and a province known for its academic pedigree.

"For the illiterate mass population, they 'listened to' books instead of reading them in the past, as there was a tradition for storytellers to read literary classics for them," Ji said.

"It will take time for a populous country to develop a mass reading habit," he added.

Ji also believes that the utilitarian reading developed under exam-oriented education should be blamed for the "reading apathy."

And the experience of Zhao Yao chimes with this. A language and literature major at China Foreign Affairs University, Zhao said, "I was taught to read Chinese articles from primary school all the way up to senior high, only to find myself unacquainted with many classics in university.

"I can hardly recall reading an extracurricular book voluntarily before college."

Besides the historical reasons, Qiao Haiyan, a writer famous for his Culture Revolution memoir "A Piece of Yesterday," attributed the materialism of modern China to declining readership.

"Books are supposed to carry on thoughts. But today in China, people are becoming more and more frivolous, eager for quick money and fame. Only a few appreciate the beauty of words and the value of thoughts," according to Qiao.

The 62-year-old recalled his reading experience when he was sent to work as a farmer in the countryside of Nanyang, central China, from 1968 to 1971 in the campaign of "reforming the educated youth."

"Two books, 'Over the Waves of East China Sea' and 'Daughter of the Army,' turned out to become the most powerful helpers for me to get through the hard days," he said.

Though both about army life, the two books were officially banned because of their description of love or the everyday life of armymen, which "failed to match the solemn image of soldiers."

"These two books gave me great consolation and support in those dark days, especially the first one. After eight years of desperate waiting, the heroine finally got reunioned with the hero who people said had died in a battle. I saw hope for my own life. That's the power of books," said Qiao.

He believes that "though given more options and wider channels of reading, youngsters have less motivation to read because their attentions are on short-term profits."

China is now rushing into an era of new media. Youngsters cannot wait to put down their books to pick up smart gadgets.

The emergence of mobile applications and e-books has led to a fragmented reading habit among Chinese under 18, according to the latest report on Internet use by the China Young Pioneers Business Development Center.

Reading short passages on Weibo and WeChat may reap huge amounts of information and interaction, but it also deprives readers of deep thinking, said Zhao Shuguang, professor at Tsinghua University's School of Journalism and Communication.

Xiangtan University's Ji agrees. "Much as we encourage young Chinese to read more printed books, we also have to admit that the dwindling demand for book reading is an inevitable result of the development of new media," he said.

But, in a quick-fix society where googling and reposting have become ubiquitous ways to receive and spread information, only the original can survive and prosper, according to Wang Junchao, senior research fellow with the Israel Epstein Center for Global Media and Communication.

"Reading books is the best way to digest content through touching real pages and taking notes," Wang said.

Some foreigners in China think the same as Wang, as was made clear at a September Beijing event designed to make reading more sexy. Literary Death Match (LDM), a series featuring four authors competing across a bunch of wacky challenges as well as conventional readings, saw Chinese American writer Anthony Tao read out his latest work on wine with a bottle of Erguotou, a typical Chinese spirit, in hand.

Chinese elements were even more obviously illustrated in Stanley Chan, the only Chinese author among the competitors.

"A Chinese writer participating in an English reading event is itself a triumph," said Chan. "I hope there will be a Chinese version of LDM so that more Chinese readers will get involved, and I would probably stand more of a chance."

"A lot of people don't think reading is something they can do immediately; they think it's exhausting, boring and difficult," said Adrian Todd Zuniga, organizer of the LDM.

While the death match that kills only e-books calls for a return to traditional reading, China is undeniably heading in an opposite direction, and a "holiday reading mode" for young Chinese seems a mission impossible.

"Deep reading has become a luxury in today's world in which there is nothing that can't be fragmented," said Xia Lie, a literary critic attending the National Meeting on Literary Creation by Young Writers in late September.

"A multi-level reading habit should be encouraged -- from physical entertainment to spiritual pleasure, from easy reading to great thinkings," Xia suggested.

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