View from China: Reader's block in Beijing

Amid the frenzy there is little room for the slow pleasures of the book
February 15, 2017

It’s getting harder to sit down and read a book in Beijing. Even with the enduring smog outside being the perfect excuse for staying in, shutting the door and doing exactly that, a mere five minutes into chapter one and I’m already fretting over whether the delivery man is trying to reach me by phone.

Everything comes fast at you in China, and the sensory overload leaves no room for continuity. E-shop and your order arrives next morning. WeChat—a sort of combined Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp—engulfs the lives around me. Many people my age, including friends with busy careers, are living more of their lives online than offline.

I used to treasure downtime on the London tube to get stuck into a good book. On the Beijing subway, getting a seat is near impossible, and someone nearby is always playing a WeChat video with no headphones on. Kinda kills the mood, not that anyone is trying to read a book anyway. “When was the last time you saw someone with a book in their hand on public transport?” a writer friend of mine asked. I genuinely couldn’t remember.

Last year, after Emma Watson hid books on the London Underground to encourage commuters to read, a Chinese media company tried the same. In true Chinese style, it attempted something bigger and better, launching in several cities at once and enlisting celebrities to do the hiding. Over 10,000 books were left in stations, trains and taxis. But soon pictures of books piled next to a platform rubbish bin made the rounds on social media. Cue derision, as users asked: “Do Chinese people actually read books at all?”

“With the online information overflow… reading habits have been highly fragmented,” Gao Lizhi, deputy editor of Beijing Publishing Group told me.

It’s a different picture, however, at the three-tier, 24-hour Sanlian bookshop in Beijing, long known as the “spiritual home of China’s intellectuals.” Even at midnight, all the reading tables are often taken. Sanlian’s popularity is down to a strong focus on the social sciences and arts, as well as the editor’s selectivity. New-age “literary youths” come to read here too, lounging with a coffee in the all-night cafe upstairs.

“Attitudes to reading have manifested in two extremes,” says Cui Defang, editor of Sanlian Publishing. “There is the minority who love to read or read for academic purposes, and those who read very little once they leave school because they don’t see what it’s got to do with real life.”

“But Chinese people are always reading, it’s just on their phones rather than books,” a friend of mine recently commented. Online book sales have indeed risen, with cyber novels a cult for a niche crowd. Even so, the number of books read—in whatever format—is declining. According to a 2012 survey by the Institute of Social Sciences, the average Chinese person read just over four books a year, compared to—if we believe YouGov statistics—10 a year in the UK. China’s figures were already dropping by the late 1990s, and in 2014 more than 40 per cent of Chinese people read less than one book, if we exclude textbooks.

Not many around me stick to reading as a habit either. The western middle-class culture where people discuss new novels doesn’t really exist. It is there for films, however, which explains why going to the cinema, much less strenuous than reading, has become popular.

The lack of bookishness originates in the Chinese education system for language and literature. Young pupils are certainly encouraged to read, going through hundreds of short essays and novel excerpts in their textbooks, including contemporary masters such as Lu Xun, ancient poets like Li Bai and even French novelist Alphonse Daudet. And yet it’s a wide, shallow net. Students rarely get the chance to study a whole book, or discuss one in depth. Children are not pushed to read with an independent mind, or to form their own opinions.

“Reading in China is directly linked to passing exams,” says Gao Lizhi. “The process becomes very results-oriented, like much else in China these days.” The same applies to the teaching of writing: much of what I was taught in Chinese class had a moral or political undertone. By year two of primary school, I’d already mastered the art of interpreting text in a way that scored highly: I parroted whatever they said.

For many Chinese people, reading stirs the question “what’s the point for me?” The rewards for getting into a book the slow way are too oblique.

In a quick results culture, explains Gao, people “only want to read books that tell them how to get rich, and fast.”