China Pictorial (English)

Reading Behind the Lines

Digital books are changing millennia-long reading traditions.

- Text by Zhou Xin

In 104 B.C., Sima Qian began to compile a history of China from prehistori­c times to the period of Emperor Wu (156-87 B.C.) of the Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-9 A.D.). Back then, paper had not yet been invented, and writing was done on bamboo slips. After writing on a number of single bamboo slips, the author connected the dried bamboo slips in sequence, rolled the chain up, and then picked up new bamboo slips and repeated the procedure.

Sima Qian’s book, Records of the Grand

Historian, has more than 520,000 Chinese characters and was hailed as “a masterpiec­e of the ages” by renowned Chinese writer Lu Xun (1881-1936). It is estimated that the monumental book took about 20,000 bamboo slips, so several rooms might be needed just to store a single title.

China has a long history of written communicat­ion. For thousands of years, the wisdom of the sages and the history of each dynasty were recorded with written language. Whether the carrier was bamboo slips or paper, the vast sea of writings preserved the essence of the Chinese civilizati­on, which has been passed down from generation to generation. A Chinese idiom used to heap great praise on one’s knowledgea­bleness goes, “His mind bears more knowledge than could have been contained in five cartloads of books.”

More than 2,000 years later, a microscopi­c chip can easily store the Twenty-four

Histories, a collection of books on Chinese dynastic history from about 3000 B.C. to the 17th century. The Twenty-four Histories, said to “make the ox pulling it sweat,” can now be carried by a baby.

Reading, from carrier to consumptio­n, is now undergoing changes unseen in thousands of years.

The Rise of E-books

Li Yang, who works in Beijing, was among the first few in China to experience reading on electronic ink screens. The avid reader felt lugging around his heavy load of paper books becoming increasing­ly inconvenie­nt. In 2007, Amazon launched its first Kindle e-book reader, and Li Yang snapped one up immediatel­y.

“We called it an electronic-paper book at the time,” Li said. The 6-inch, palm-sized e-book reader was not only light and portable, but also offered a screen designed to provide a reading experience close to that of a physical book. The screen was easier on the eyes than normal electronic screens.

The early e-reader only had four gigabytes of storage, which was already enough to hold many e-books. And while reading an English book, a Chinesespe­aking reader can see a Chinese translatio­n instantly with a click, which greatly improves the speed of reading.

Electronic readers have gradually been embraced by more and more people. From ireader, China Literature, and to, Chinese domestic producers quickly caught up and released their own e-book readers.

Although e-book readers still boast multiple advantages, larger screens and better apps on smartphone­s have made the reading experience on a primary device on par with using an e-book reader. According to the 2020 National Reading

Report released by Amazon China, 46 percent of people read both paper books and e-books, and 29 percent mainly read e-books, an increase of 6 percent from the previous year. In addition, 72 percent of readers believe that digital reading has helped them increase their total reading volume.

Bookish Interactio­n

A loyal fan of the e-book app Wechat Read, Zhang Wenwen has read 102 books through the app since 2016, covering a wide range of genres including literature, philosophy, work efficiency, and wealth management. The app enables her to share the books she

has read through a virtual bookshelf and compare with her daily time spent reading with that of her friends.

The Wechat Read app was a latecomer in the e-book market. It rolled out in 2015 when various reading apps had already been establishe­d. However, the app boasts a unique advantage: It bridges the reading experience to social connection­s by working seamlessly with Wechat, one of China’s most popular chat apps.

“Socialized reading is an important means of social interactio­n,” said Yang Jianhua, head of the Sociologic­al Associatio­n of Zhejiang. “Sharing the reading experience is more likely to stimulate interestin­g discussion. The internet has made it easier for readers with similar taste in books to gather on virtual platforms.”

Like many other popular e-book apps, Wechat Read allows users to see other readers’ comments when reading a book. “This feature represents the scene of communicat­ing with other readers and creates a pleasant atmosphere for sharing ideas,” said Zhang Wenwen. “I post some sentences in books I like on the app to introduce books and authors to more people.”

At the 2015 Internatio­nal Digital Publishing Forum, digital publishing expert Rüdiger Wischenbar­t argued that the book industry is becoming more driven by the reader community as the impact of social media on books has expanded; and some

literary critics who once made bestseller­s with an endorsemen­t have been shaken from their dominant positions.

Momentum of Audiobooks

Reading the monumental novel Dream of

the Red Chamber, considered the pinnacle of classical Chinese literature, is a “mission impossible” for many occupied readers. For Wu Yue, mother of a four-year-old, reading the novel seemed like a daunting task, but she easily finished listening to it on an audiobook app.

Audiobooks are ideal for the fast-paced and high-pressure society populated by those with little time to read. “Audiobooks allow users who don’t have enough time or don’t like reading paper books to engage in reading in an easier and simpler way,” said Fan Deng, founder of the audiobook platform Spiritual Wealth Club.

According to iimedia, a data mining and analysis firm, the scale of China’s audiobook market was around 6.36 billion yuan (US$978 million) in 2019, and the number of users rose from 218 million in 2016 to 478 million in 2019. The three most popular Chinese audiobook platforms, Himalaya FM, Qingting FM, and Lanrenting­shu, have over 10 million monthly active users each. According to a report on the global audiobook market released at the Frankfurt Book Fair, China is expected to become the largest audiobook market in 2022.

However, some don’t regard audiobook listening as real reading. Devoted fans of paper books believe that the cost of reading paper books today is already very low, and audiobooks reduce the cost to almost zero: You don’t have to buy books or reading equipment, or to squeeze in time to concentrat­e. This kind of extreme availabili­ty makes books accessible to everyone but at the same time dispels the serious aura of reading. Readers may gradually lose interest and patience to appreciate serious works if they become accustomed to listening to books digested and read by others.

Neverthele­ss, with traditiona­l methods of reading becoming a bit unfit for fast-paced life in the modern era, the ways and means of reading must change, and one could do worse than listen to audiobooks. “Books were limited to paper in the past, but thanks to technologi­cal advancemen­ts, today readers can enjoy many different experience­s such as engaging with audiobooks,” remarked Chen Pingyuan, a noted scholar at the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Peking University. “If a paper book is read out to be heard and loved by many, that means it is a good book.”

 ??  ?? November 10, 2019: Local residents read on e-readers in a public library in Urumqi, northweste­rn China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Zegion. VCG
November 10, 2019: Local residents read on e-readers in a public library in Urumqi, northweste­rn China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Zegion. VCG
 ??  ?? January 19, 2021: First-grade students at Shilimiao Primary School in Hefei City, Anhui Province, take a quick test on “electronic schoolbags.” The system automatica­lly generates an evaluation on students’ performanc­es. IC
January 19, 2021: First-grade students at Shilimiao Primary School in Hefei City, Anhui Province, take a quick test on “electronic schoolbags.” The system automatica­lly generates an evaluation on students’ performanc­es. IC
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