An observation (by Chris)

It wasn’t long before I noticed that you almost never see any Chinese people reading.  This is all the more notable because we are living on campus at a major university.  There must be a bookstore on campus, but I haven’t seen it.  Occasionally one sees students carrying books around, but I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve seen a Chinese person (with foreigners it’s different) so much as reading a newspaper, let alone a magazine or a book, even on public transport, where they sit staring straight ahead.  It’s even hard to find a newsstand.  Just off campus there are two bookstores.  One has recently shut down for lack of business.  The other, apparently a chain store, is hardly bustling.  Half its floorspace is devoted to economics and business books.  The only section that always has people in it is the one selling exam booklets and books on how to cram for exams (a national obsession).


This is doubly surprising because the one thing I always heard about Russia under Communism was that it was a nation of voracious readers.  The Moscow subway was crammed with people reading books and newspapers, and if you stopped someone on the street you had a good chance of being able to start up a conversation about Pushkin or Dostoyevsky.  Even if all people could get was Pravda and a heavily filtered selection of books, people read what they could.


So why is China different?—China, which brags of an unbroken literary tradition going back millennia?  Well (and here I’m guessing), in Russia, Leninism saw itself as the product of a long tradition of philosophers and essayists.  Tolstoy was already a folk hero in 1918, not least because he championed the common man.  A Leninist ideal was that every Soviet citizen would be both a worker and an intellectual (even if the authorities insisted that all intellectuals should come to the same conclusions).  The Kremlin felt that it could not suppress Russians’ love of literature, so they chose instead to celebrate it but try to co-opt and divert it.  In China, by contrast, in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, anyone who read books, much less wrote them, was either shipped off to a labor camp or thrown against the wall and shot.  No one talks about that, but everyone remembers it.



About The neurodiversifier

I am an ADHD poet/professor from a neurodiverse family.
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8 Responses to An observation (by Chris)

  1. sorbyroths says:

    Mind you, this observation is based on a very limited sample. Curious if others who have been to China noticed the same thing.

    • Caroline (a friend of your dad) says:

      dunno about china, but friends from the bay area often remark on how many people read on the train in new york, since it’s not something you see quite as many people doing on BART.

      i would expect practices in xiamen to track with other chinese cities and cities that have a strong chinese presence rather than with russia. other factors may include reverence for printed material, which is common in a lot of east and southeast asia. in thailand, for example, you would never put books on the floor or rest your drink on a book.

  2. sorbyroths says:

    My students do cite the cultural revolution as a factor in the decline of reading. Also, people here still seem to be in “survival mode,” despite the prosperity: they are pragmatic because they expect (with good reason, if you think historically) disaster to strike any minute. Many, if not most, Chinese are worried about 2012, for instance.

  3. Caroline says:

    whoops. chris, i’m pretty sure i’ve never met your dad. auto-fill from when i commented on frankie’s post. hahaha

  4. Jon Jab says:

    I have to disagree. In the book section of Carrefour and WalMart there are typically hoards of people sitting on the floor and leaning up against the displays in the book aisles. Sometimes they have a picnic! When I was in Beijing in 2007, two local bookstores were constantly jam-packed with readers. Not shoppers mind you. Readers.

    Perhaps it’s the coastal zone. Everyone may be too mellowed out from all that tropical paradise you are enjoying (Jon says still traumatized from the cold snap before he figured out the air conditioners also make hot air).

  5. janet sorby says:

    Interesting observation! I have never heard of anyone talk of that before, but you are probably correct. I wonder how music survived and where they got all of those pianos they talk about in Xiamen. You are certainly in a land of contradictions.

  6. sorbyroths says:

    Ha! @ Jon: We suffered from that same cold air before we noticed the difference between “sun and “snowflake” on the console.

  7. sorbyroths says:

    Jon: I’m delighted to hear it’s not that way all over China—seriously. Take my description as a small local sample. It can’t be the climate, though, that stops Xiamen natives from reading because they seem bound and determined to avoid enjoying the climate at all costs.

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