China—a country with an uninterrupted history of 5,000 years—has one of the longest literary traditions in the world. Since ancient times, written scripts have become an identical tradition in Chinese civilization. The nation is the birthplace of bamboo scriptures, ink brushes, and paper. The Chinese people used to cherish written scripts so much that reading became one of their most important habits. China’s renowned scholar Confucius once said, “You must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.” In the past, the importance of reading was taught in Chinese primary school textbooks like the “Three Character Classic.”

However, it’s not hard to see Chinese people gluing their eyes onto smartphones in modern China today. The phenomenon became a national concern when photos surfaced online showing a stark contrast between the Chinese and Westerners.

Reading has no longer remained a habit

According to the 2012 statistics published by China Daily, Chinese people only read 4.39 per capita. The state-run news outlet also cited data from other countries, stating, “Koreans read 11 books on average in 2011, French 8.4, Japanese about 8.4, the US citizens 7.” The Atlantic at the time reported that Chinese residents spent only 15 minutes per day on books while their screen time would last up to 45 minutes, plus 100 minutes on TV.

While things were slightly better in 2019, the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication stated that “adult Chinese read on average 4.65 books in print and 2.84 digital books.” Still, the number trails far behind other countries, even Asian ones like South Korea. Korean adults read an annual average of 7.5 books and 1.2 e-books. China Daily’s former deputy editor-in-chief Kang Bing also expressed his concern in a commentary, saying the number was “far fewer than their German and Japan counterparts who read at least twice as many books.”

Hello everyone, I’m Liang Yong’an

Recently I received many letters from my fans

They say they want to read books but don’t know what to read and how to read them

So they often look at other people’s recommendations

But this book, bought it, put it on the shelf, and then not read it, just like a decoration

Always feel a lack of enthusiasm to read

So people are a little frustrated with their reading status

So why are the Chinese turning away from books? Manya Koetse, editor-in-chief of the English website “What’s on Weibo,” cited a 2022 survey, saying that China has the highest smartphone addiction score among other countries. “It’s already an illness,” said a Weibo user nicknamed “Bot9.” According to the South China Morning Post, this user spent about 11 hours daily on his smartphone. Kang Bing from China Daily wrote that young readers tend to spend a longer time reading online. He is concerned that such a habit isn’t healthy since parents cannot ensure that their children are reading or doing something else. Hence, online content is often poorly edited.

But to some intellectuals, the cause of the Chinese moving further away from books might be more profound than internet interference. A few Chinese intellectuals shared their views with the Atlantic. Liu Suli, a Beijing bookstore owner and a Tiananmen veteran, told the news outlet that the Chinese today don’t really care for books. Liu said, “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.” After Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and opening up,” the Chinese became preoccupied with worldly interests. Saying that the Chinese people nowadays can’t seem to have enough patience for a book, Zhang Lijia, a Beijing-based freelance writer, called them “too restless, too utilitarian.” 

The problem worsened after the Tiananmen Square Massacre as the Chinese Communist Party increased censorship of publications. Since then, book selections have been narrowed, and literary works can no longer reflect the real China under a communist regime. Some famous banned books are “Tombstone,” a detailed recall of the Great Famine by Yang Jisheng; “China’s Best Actor: Wen Jiabao,” a political criticism by Yu Jie; and “Beijing Coma” by Ma Jian.
Along with censorship, Chinese people’s book preferences started to change. He Xiongfei, a famous publisher of popular books in the 90s, said, “In the last decade, best-sellers in China have less intellectual content and have become increasingly practical.” The publisher was right when he said so in 2013, and the trend still reflects today in China’s book industry. In 2020, the top book genres published were culture, sport, education, and science.

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