on the decline of reading

In early September, publishers from all corners of the world descended in Beijing for the International Book Fair which has been gaining prominence in recent years. For the occasion, bookworm, the English language bookstore, library and the center of the reading world among the expats, threw a party on its roof top, where I met quite a few of them. Eyeing at China’s massive potential, the publishers all asked me about the reading habit of the Chinese. I felt a little embarrassed to tell them that today’s Chinese don’t read much. And we are reading less and less, though more books than ever, domestically produced, imported and translated, are on offer.

According to one survey, only 5% of the Chinese have the habit of reading. And on average, each Chinese reads 4.5 books a year comparing to 50 books for an American, 55 for a Russian and 65 for a Jew. Those being surveyed blame the lack of time for not reading while others admit that they don’t have the habit of reading.

Of course, the digital world has taken away some readers. But that’s the challenge faced by the world.

And if the Chinese read anything, it’ll be likely practical books that will help them to go far in life, books related to their account degree, MBA, or books such as how to become a millionaire, how to lose weight, how to deal with relationships or how to find a rich husband.

If they read fiction, it’ll be likely cheap thrillers, tomb raiders, predictable romance, strange ghost stories or such.

The Chinese seem to be too restless to read, to restless to read serious books.

The ancient Chinese wise men told us: “Read ten thousand books and walk ten thousand miles” – the best way to broaden one’s horizon and enrich one’s life. At the speech of 4.5 per year, how many life times we need to reach ten thousand?

Books have played an important role in my life. I turned to books after I was taken out of school at 16 and put to work at a rocket factory. I read avidly because I was consciously of my lack of education; because I had time at my hand and there were few distractions; and because people spent a lot of time reading back then. In the 80’s, people were so thirsty for knowledge after being deprived of knowledge and books for so many years. Heavy books by Freudian and Nietzsche were sold like hotcakes. I was a factory worker yet I was busy reading Misty Poems, like a lot of my fellow workers.

My own children are pretty good readers. But I often have to push them, push them to read and to read classics and varied books, not just popular books such as New Moon their friends are reading.

Our government often poses itself as benevolent parent who oversees all aspects of its citizens. Aware of the decline in reading, it has launched various campaigns – a little half-heartedly – to promote book reading. If they apply the same vigor as deployed in promoting the singing of ‘red songs’, the outcome might be more effective?

Books can change the fate of a person as well as a nation. China is developing rapidly economically and its position in the world is rising steadily. But without a sizable reading middle class, China will never become a true super power.

So for yourself and your country, please read.

6 thoughts on “on the decline of reading

  1. Look at it from another angle:

    Total number of books read in a year:

    Chinese = 10 billion
    American = 15 billion
    Russian = 8 billion
    Jew = 0.4 billion

  2. Actually i think Chinese people (and many other readers across the world) migrated from book to mobile support. Wherever i am in the subway, in the bus, or in the elevator, … i see many Chinese reading stuff on their phone.

    So the question is more about what do they read ? is this book and literature ? or just quick post tailored for mobile and for instant read ?

  3. Dear Lijia,

    I was wondering if you think the relatively low rate of reading has anything to do with the nature of the Chinese language. Is it hard to maintain literacy in a language that requires so much memorization, making reading just more work?


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