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China faces a reading crisis

Teacher Xia Jingjing reads a lecture inside a classroom at the Democracy Elementary and Middle School in Sitong town, Henan province. Photo: Reuters

For much of the last year, intellectuals and officials in China – land of world-beating students and, in a bygone age, the scholar official – have been wringing their hands over the country’s declining interest in reading.

Earlier this week, that anxiety surfaced in the highest of forums: the annual government work report. Delivering the report in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that, in addition to improving government housing and reforming management of outbound investment, the government would also “encourage the people to read.”

It is the first time that a Chinese premier has mentioned reading in his work report, and followed months of panicked stories in the Chinese media about the country’s antipathy for the written word, including a special page devoted to the subject on the Sina news portal under the headline “Why Don’t We Love to Read Anymore?” In a country with a storied literary tradition where people are already writing less, at least with pen and paper, it’s hardly surprising that a fall in reading would generate angst.

It’s not clear, however, that Chinese people actually are reading less.

The source of a much of the anxiety is a study attributed to the United Nation’s Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that found Chinese people read only 4.39 books per year on average, compared with 11 in South Korea, 8.4 in Japan, seven in the U.S. and 64 for “Jews.”  The study’s results began to spread through Chinese media roughly 10 months ago, repeated even by the official Xinhua news agency, which said on the basis of the study that Chinese read less than one book a year outside of text books.

The problem: According to the education department in UNESCO’s Beijing office, the study is a fabrication.

So how do Chinese people compare to the rest of the world when it comes to reading? Unfortunately, there have been few reliable studies of global reading habits in recent years. But one measure based on surveys of the 30,000 people in 30 countries done in 2005, the NOP World Culture Score Index, found Chinese people over the age of 13 devoted an average of eight hours a week to the pursuit, third behind only India (10.7 hours) and Thailand (9.4 hours). (The U.S., at 5 hours and 42 minutes, was No. 22.)

A national Chinese survey, meanwhile, found that frequent readers made up 55% of adults between 18 and 70 years old in 2012, an increase of 1% over the previous year. According to yet another survey by OpenBook, a research company, more than 70% of readers increased spending on books in 2012, especially from internet.

Those numbers are much more in keeping with a country where nearly every student is taught the words of Song Dynasty scholar Liu Yi: “Reading thousands of books is the same as traveling thousands of miles.”
Not that we think Mr. Li is wrong to encourage Chinese people to pick up a book – or e-reader – more often. As one of his predecessors, celebrated former premier Zhou Enlai, once noted, “reading books will help China rise.”

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