BEIJING—In a chapter from his essay collection China in Ten Words, Yu Hua, an acclaimed Chinese writer, recounts the following anecdote from his childhood: In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, Western classic novels, previously denounced as “poisonous weed,” started to reappear in the remote village where he lived. Because of the shortage in supply, however, villagers had to purchase these books with ration tickets issued by the local bookstore. On the day the tickets were distributed, Yu arrived at the bookstore at dawn. A line was already snaking out from the entrance, formed by hundreds of villagers who had waited all night long. At 8 a.m., the bookstore owner announced that only 50 ration tickets were available. Yu remembered feeling as if “someone had poured a bucket of icy water over his head in the dead of winter.” The 51st person in line, staring at people ahead of him leaving with brand new copies of Anna Karenina and David Copperfield, looked so crushed that the number “51” soon became a village slang for bad luck.
For book readers in today’s China, this episode feels as outdated as the yellowed pages of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. More than three decades into China’s economic reform period, the Chinese market is awash in books: The country now boasts the world’s largest publishing industry by volume, with 8.1 billion books printed in 2012, up from 7.7 billion the year before. Strolling down the aisles in China’s numerous “book cities,” customers are greeted by a wide selection ranging from classical Chinese poetry to the top titles on Amazon’s best-sellers list. At every other street corner, vendors stand by carts of pirated copies of new releases, hawking titles such as Steve Jobs’ biography and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Yet the scene described in Yu’s book is distant to today’s Chinese people for another reason: While the supply of books has exploded in China in recent decades, people’s interest in them has not kept up. According to a survey result published by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication in April, Chinese people read 4.39 books per capita in the past year, a figure that trails far behind major developed countries; for example, the average American read 7, the average French and Japanese person 8.4, and the average South Korean 11. And, on average, Chinese people allocated just over 15 minutes a day to reading, compared to almost 100 to watching television and over 45 for using the Internet. While parents duly chant the old Chinese adage “a book holds a house of gold” to their children, the financial value Chinese consumers place on books doesn’t reflect the same conviction; according to the survey, the average price a Chinese person is willing to pay for a 200-page paperback is 13.67 RMB, just slightly over two dollars. That is half the price of a cup of an iced latte at Starbucks, or one-third the average price of a movie ticket.
In a society with one of the longest literary traditions in the world, where people’s avidity for reading drove the invention of paper and movable type, the current state of the book market is surprising, especially given the strides China has made in recent decades in erasing illiteracy and expanding higher education: Government education campaigns reduced the illiterate population from 230 million in 1985 to 50 million in 2011, while the number of college graduates has quadrupled in the past decade. Throughout the world, such progress in education and literacy is usually accompanied by a significant rise in recreational reading, a process that took place in the U.S. and the U.K. following the Industrial Revolution, and throughout the early and mid- 20th century. But in China, the book-reading rate actually dropped over the past 13 years: from 60.4 percent in 2000 to 54.9 percent in 2012.
Why are the Chinese turning away from reading books? The question has prompted soul-searching among the country’s intellectuals, many of whom, like Yu Hua, lament how things have changed since the relatively liberal 1980s. Zhang Lijia, a freelance writer based in Beijing, who wrote a memoir of coming of age during the initial years of the reform period, reminisced fondly about people’s passion for reading: “I often had get-togethers with friends where we talked about politics and discussed the books we were reading ,” she recalled. “There was such a strong spirit of inquiry.” That spirit was decimataed, Zhang says, by China’s single-minded pursuit for economic prosperity, which has left its people with little regard for anything else. “People are too restless, too utilitarian,” she reflected. “You need some peace in mind in order to be able to sit down with a book.”
Zhang’s opinion is echoed by a number of longtime professionals in the book industry, who, since the early days of the industry’s market-driven reform, have kept close watch of the public’s changing preference in books. Some of them point out that in addition to turning away from books, Chinese people have also abandoned more serious and intellectually enriching stories in favor of easy reads. “In the last decade, best-sellers in China have less intellectual content and have become increasingly practical,” said He Xiongfei, a well-known publisher of popular books since the early 1990s. Best sellers in China today, He says, consist mainly of “child-rearing manuals, cookbooks, health and fitness guides, test-preparation books, thrillers, and romance novels.”
Such genres are also popular in the West, but in China, they have pushed more intellectual enriching books into a tight market space that is shrinking by the day. In the 1990s, over 1,500 independent bookstores sprung up in major Chinese cities, selling books about politics and social sciences that rode the public’s intense post-Tiananmen Square interest in such topics. But today, just one of the major independent bookstores—All Sages Bookstore, run by Tiananmen veteran Liu Suli—remains open in Beijing. “When people talk about the rise of China’s middle class, they measure it in terms of their income,” said Liu in an interview with Urumqi Evening News in May. “Some of them buy books, but this is just for the purpose of killing time or for test preparation. They are looking for things they think are useful to them. They are not reading.”
He Xiongfei, the publisher, attributes the public’s indifference towards serious books to their preoccupation with materialistic goals, as well as the shifting political environment, which he says is choking off Chinese society’s space for free-flowing intellectual discourse. “In the decade after the Tiananmen movement, Chinese intellectuals were basically silent. Then, in late 1990s, there was a small renaissance of intellectual debate,” He recalled. During that time, he established his reputation in the publishing industry by introducing books by Yu Jie, Qin Hui and Qian Liqun—all prominent social critics—to Chinese readers. But then, the atmosphere changed again. “It would be impossible to get Yu published in today’s China, not even under a pseudonym,” he said. “As such books are getting harder to publish, fewer people are reading them.” Yu, a dissident writer, was banned from publishing inside China after briefly seeing his works flourish domestically in the late 1990s. He has since been detained, tortured, and put under house arrest for his criticism toward the Chinese leadership, and eventually chose to seek exile in the United States last year.
Partly as a result of the government’s draconian censorship rules, and partly because of the public’s changing taste in books, Chinese people have flocked to the Web for more light-hearted fare. According to a 2012 report from the China Internet Network Information Center, almost 200 million Chinese read online literature, although the term lacks a clear definition. A survey by the Chinese research firm iResearch shows that the ten most popular Chinese literature websites receive a total of 12.2 million visitors on an average day. These websites run the gamut of genres, from romance and horror to science fiction and fantasy, and reader interest helps carve them into more specific niches, like military fantasy novels, “officialdom” literature, and stories about time travel. Some websites require readers to pay a small fee, usually less than 5 RMB (80 cents), to access the most popular serialized novels.
But due to a lack of editorial oversight, the online books vary in quality. Biting social satires, deemed too sensitive for print, mix with martial arts fan fiction from nouveau writers. Distinguished novelists, such as Murong Xuecun, one of China’s most prominent social critics, have emerged from the Internet. But the vast majority of the content “belongs to the genre of popular entertainment for the masses,” explained Shao Yanjun, a professor at Peking University specializing in online Chinese literature, “whose main goal is to cater themselves to readers’ desires,” instead of offering literary experiences and knowledge that enrich readers’ minds and souls. “The change in the public’s preference for the medium of reading reflects a transformation in their taste,” said Shao. “Reading is increasingly becoming a purely recreational activity.”
In the U.S., readers who used to buy physical books now flock to digital stores to find content. China’s online readers, however, are choosing e-books for precisely what print books lack: critical and realistic depictions of society, and, more often, a cheap form of escape that, not unlike video games and television, offers them a refuge from the complications and concerns of the real world. The average price Chinese readers are willing to pay for an online book is 3.27 RMB, according to the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication survey, or slightly more than 50 cents.
But these approaches prompt the question: Has China left its golden age of reading forever behind?
Today’s China is far different from the closed society in the 1980s, then convalescing from decades of devastating political movements and hungry for intellectual nourishment. It is difficult to imagine that the reading renaissance during that period, kindled by this hunger, would return today. Amid the grim outlook of China’s book industry, however, a curious case has emerged: Last December, the Chinese version of the first part of James Joyce’s 1939 novel Finnegan’s Wake was published after an English professor in a Shanghai university spent eight grueling years translating it. The book became an unexpected hit, with its first run of 8,000 copies sold out in a month.
What explains its popularity? Some observers attribute it to the publishing house’s extravagant marketing campaign, which featured giant billboards in downtown areas in major cities across China; as readers’ interests in books dwindle, publishers say, the market performances of books have become increasingly dependent on such campaigns. But others argued that readers are drawn to the book precisely because of the challenges it poses: Its cryptic language, elusive plot, and the literary prestige of the author make the book an intellectual status symbol for the Louis Vuitton-clutching Chinese middle class.
Still, the translator, Dai Congrong, thinks there are other reasons too.
“You have to admit that there is a group of people who bought the book out of curiosity and vanity,” said Dai, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in March. “But there is also a large group of people who bought the book because they really want to appreciate it.”
Dai said she was pleasantly surprised by the market success of the book. After all, in a country where translations of internationally renowned literature routinely sell less than 1,000 copies, 8,000 copies constitutes a phenomenon. But in a country of 1.3 billion, that isn’t saying much.
Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.