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Why does China want its people to read more?

Moves to boost literacy are met with suspicion by bloggers

  • Feng Zhen, Shenzhen
  • China
  • August 15, 2013
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A recent article by an Indian expat about what she says has been a decline in the reading habits of Chinese people has aroused debate across the country.

Sharmistha Mohapatra who lives in Shanghai observed on a flight from Frankfurt to China that most Chinese passengers played electronic games while most German passengers read paperbacks.

The author said she felt sad to see that Chinese people were losing a tradition of respecting knowledge and worried that the younger generation was too obsessed with social media instead of serious reading.

Some people, as expected, attacked Monapatra’s opinion. But there is evidence to support her observations.

In April, a national survey on reading habits showed that only 54.9 percent of adults aged 18-70 said they liked reading books, and had read an average 6.7 electronic or printed books in 2012.

In June, the Normal University in southern Guangxi province released a survey of 3,000 readers in which they were asked which book would make them want to “die rather than read.”

The result showed that four great classic novels were on the list. Top the list was the Dream of the Red Chamber, a Chinese literary masterpiece written in the middle of the 18th century.

The novel is about the rise and fall of a wealthy and aristocratic clan.

Some respondents in the survey said they thought the classics were too long while others thought they had no use or meaning in the modern world.

A friend of mine said she would rather watch a TV soap opera.

Kou Hongguang, editor of Carrier Pigeon, a Tangshan diocese publication, observed that the desire to learn in China has waned and “even shallow reading is weakening.”

In the meantime, the Chinese government is reportedly considering promoting reading through legislation, partly prompted by the national survey on reading habits.

According to official statistics, China published more than 400,000 books in 2012, a 14.4 percent increase on 2011.

However, the average number of books that Chinese people read increased only by one book over the same period of time.

This is deemed rather low even for a developing country, and China is one of the world’s biggest book-publication centers.

Naturally the very mention of a new law or regulation was questioned and ridiculed by bloggers, with many asking if they would be sentenced to jail time for not reading enough.

Officials, however, claim any law would not impose on personal choice but focus on the allocation of resources and budgets to encourage reading.

Following the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the Reform and Open policy in the late 1970s put an end to China’s isolation from the world.

Many people had a thirst for reading. One reason was because there were few forms of entertainment then. Another reason was their desire to know more about the real world.

There are many reasons why people do not read or are reading too few books today. One is possibly the strict censorship on publications.

However, we should bear in mind that the Cultural Revolution was a horrendous crime on Chinese culture and morals.

The younger generation should read and learn, especially about their history, in order to learn right from wrong.

It was also during the Cultural Revolution that people were forced to read and recite Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.

While political observers like to compare new Chinese President Xi Jinping with Mao because of his seemingly leftist speeches, I just hope any proposed legislation is not intended to create a brainwashing tool to turn ordinary people into docile subjects of the state.

Voluntary reading should instead be a conscience building process that raises standards for all people in China.

Feng Zhen is a Catholic blogger in China

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