Modes of public transportation in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai are ideal places to observe readers. Most commuters on buses and subway trains — at least 60% to 70% — have their eyes fixed on their phones and pads, while less than 10% are reading print books. Should this phenomenon inspire optimism or pessimism?
Technically speaking, half of those commuters looking at their phones or pads are reading. They are reading feeds on WeChat, Weibo or digital books, which are supposed to be no different from print newspapers, magazines or books. Looking at it that way, there’s good reason to be optimistic. Mobile devices like smartphones have made reading more convenient. As recent as just ten years ago, when such devices were not yet as common, these same passengers were probably not reading anything at all.
However, things may not be as bright as they appear. Half of the commuters with phones and pads are chatting with friends on WeChat, playing games, or watching soap operas. The other half of the screen-swiping passengers is scanning comic books and fantasy stories. Even those who have their noses buried between pages are reading mostly how-to books, inspirational chicken soup stories, health tips etc. Novels are such a rarity. It is not very likely you will bump into someone carrying a book on a topic similar to the one you are reading. If you ever do, make sure you smile and ask for their number.
Some of the above-mentioned books only known to a certain audience are used as “codes” or encrypted texts for some readers to find kindred spirits. The popular “code books” in China now include The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, A Song of Ice and Fire by George Martin, the Duku series edited by Zhang Lixian, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware, and Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (known as GEB) by Douglas Hofstadter. Once you find other bookworms of your kind, you squirm together. I know a few who have exchanged vows as soul mates with their hands on these books.
These “code books” are not necessarily limited to small audiences. But compared with China’s huge population, such readers never amount to significant numbers. On Beijing’s crowded streets, it is almost impossible for two fans of The Three-Body Problem or A Song of Ice and Fire to bump into each other. On this month’s bestsellers list on Amazon.com in China, The Three-Body Problem ranked number 37 while A Song of Ice and Fire came in at number 406. Last year’s bestseller was undoubtedly Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Book by Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford. Over 3 million copies of this 264-word coloring book were sold in Mainland China in 2015; taking into account the pirated copies, the sales could have easily tripled. The only other book that has done such a phenomenal volume in China is Insight (Kanjian) by one of China’s top journalists and TV hosts, Chai Jing, back in 2013. No other books have been able to reach the same level of popularity.
The popularity of Secret Garden waxed and waned in no time. None of the pirated copies or even its authorized sequels could revive the phenomenon.
The top 10 bestsellers on Amazon.cn so far this year are The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (Literature & Fiction), Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel (Politics & Government), Be Good, Tap on the Head (Guai, momotou) by Dabing (Teens & Young Adults), and Look and Find Series by Disney Storybook Artists (Children’s Books).
They are followed by such classics such as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which are still on the list — indeed the timeless Top 100. By the way, A Preparation Guidebook to the National Civil Servants Exami-nation is also on the list, coming in behind The Little Prince but beating out A Brief History of Time. That is what we call “reading with Chinese characteristics.”
Should we be optimistic or pessimistic? Given the bestsellers lists, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the overall trends of Chinese readers. It can also be misleading to use information from just Beijing and Shanghai and draw conclusions about mainstream reading habits in other areas of China. We might as well change the viewing angle and take a look at the publishing industry and bookstores in Mainland China.
Two new trends are grabbing the attention of Chinese publishers. One is the emergence of the Little Duku children’s books, which set the standard on well-defined age segmentation and high-quality materials; the series has since become an exemplary model for children’s books published in Mainland China. The other is the emergence of graphic novels of both literary and artistic value that are becoming popular among Chinese readers. Examples include the above-mentioned Jimmy Corrigan; Maus by Art Spiegelman; and Les Cités Obscures by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters. These have all been translated and published in Chinese. At the same time, “Internet+” is also being attached to popular keywords among many publishers in China, where the new media are playing an increasingly influential role in the selection and marketing of new books. Occasionally, some commercial investors, with cultural sentiments and spare cash, follow such internet+ traces and give out funds, to the benefit of only a handful of publishers, despite the fact that there is very low chance to see a return on their investment.
Since 2015, bookstores have started to see better days after years and years of struggling. Both state-owned and privately-run bookstores have found ways to survive in the short term. Two years ago, Sanlian Taofen Bookstore in Beijing started running 24 hours a day. At night, desks by the windows and staircases leading to the basement are filled with hard-working students, tourists, and homeless people. Business isn’t great, but Premier Li Ke-Qiang has praised the operation in a letter, and therefore the store possibly would have to stay open 24–7. Meanwhile, bookstore chains such as Eslite, Page One and Fang Suo are all sprouting up in first-tier cities in China. Gold Coast Library and Li Yuan Library are located in remote areas of the country, attracting a cult following of readers eager to make a pilgrimage to “the most beautiful” or “the most solitary” libraries in China. In another encouraging sign, bookstores are becoming a regular feature of high-end commercial developments and buildings. This seems like a promising turning point for the survival of bookstores, an issue that has troubled many people for years. But the bookstores in upscale neighborhoods might not be quite like those that haunt our memories.
Is the outlook optimistic or pessimistic? There are mountains and oceans apart between such bestsellers as the web serial novels All About the Ming Dynasty (Mingchao naxie shier) and the scholarly work 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline (Wanli shiwu nian). Likewise, there are many differences be-tween a street-side bookstand and the Beijing independent bookstore One-Way Street. The internet talk show Lo-gic Thoughts (Luoji siwei) and the book review collection Green Tea’s Book Affairs (Lücha shuching) are similarly vastly different from one another.
Over 30 years ago, the first edition of any book published in China launched with a run of at least 100,000 copies. Today, sales of 20,000 copies of a book could place it on a bestsellers list. Last year, the 4K re-mastered version of Once Upon a Time in America was screened during the Beijing International Film Festival, and the theater was fully packed by enthusiastic movie fans at all three screenings. It was so popu-lar that the organizer decided to hold extra screening sessions, but none of the three special screenings that followed were sold out like the previous ones. My friends and I tried to estimate how many people are fans of Once Upon a Time in America. We realized that — at its best and most generous estimate — the number would not exceed 100,000 people. Popular phenomena are one thing, while the market reality might be quite another. This example could also serve as a good reference for the book market in China. As the publisher of an internationally acclaimed book, whose translation and introduction to China has taken three years, I can say that the quality of the book and its sales have done quite well. The current sales figures, however, come in at fewer than 10,000 copies. I would be delighted if the number eventually reaches 30,000 — this optimistic estimate means that the reading population of China comes down to one out of every 20,000 people. If we compare that number to China’s total population, it shows the contrast between phenomena and reality.
Does that sound pessimistic? My conclusion may prove otherwise. A good book that casts a feeble dim light — reaching 30,000 individuals out of a vast sea of people — is still accompanying many souls through endless dark nights.
Now I call that true optimism.
Text by Shouzuwucuo, Editor-in-Chief of a literary magaizne, Publisher at Small Audience Publishing, Copyeditor of Duku; English translation by Tom Wang and Lin Yuting