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Yu Qiuyu: why book reading is a waste

Scholar and essayist Yu Qiuyu

On his blog over the weekend, Yu Qiuyu answered four pressing questions that he has encountered recently during lectures and in the press. He discussed the recent decision by actress Chen Xiaoxu to enter a convent, celebrity legislators like Gong Li and Zhang Yimou ("I believe that not all actors and directors are well-suited to be representatives, but from an organizational standpoint, they are all better-suited than government officials"), and suggestions for a return to the Han style of dress ("Of course I disagree. This, rejecting Christmas, and kicking out Starbucks are all of a piece").

But it was his answer to the fourth question that caught the most flak. At the recent national legislative sessions there was a proposal put forth to institute a "National Reading Day" (国家阅读日). The national reading rate averages just five books a year.

Yu wrote "Of course I object" to the proposal, and he offered the following three reasons:

1. There is already an "International Reading Day," on 23 April [aka. World Book and Copyright Day]. This is the day that both Cervantes and Shakespeare passed away, and coincidentally is also Shakespeare's birthday. It was Spain that first suggested naming that day as an international reading day, and the world community agreed. With "International Labor Day" on 1 May, we have no need for another "China Labor Day"; with the "International Women's Day" on 8 March, we have no need for another "China Women's Day";

2. Living in today's explosion of information, if we include online reading (as of course we must), then reading is no longer a deficiency, but rather a catastrophe. Some may say, it is precisely for this reason that the guidance of a "Reading Day" is even more necessary. The problem is: what sort of guidance? Who will be the guide? What will be guided? An even greater problem: is this an age that will accept guidance? So it is not at all clear what a reading day will accomplish;

3. Unlike the yearnings of literati of old, I do not believe that reading is an important affair. Investigation, travel, experience, and creativity are more important for cultural insight. Reading can enlighten lives, but it even more is a waste of life. Why are Confucius, Laozi, Mozi, and Zhuangzi all greater than us? Because they read not even one-ten-thousandth of what we read. Our modern minds are already crammed with cultural garbage. Even if everything in there is the cream of the crop, it will inevitably cause traffic jams and death by over-nourishment. Bill Gates once said that he had read the most fundamental of books, and from then on he would never read again. I can understand this, for things are too busy now: front-line creative workers have no time to write books, and writing books will no longer be at the forefront.

Literature is somewhat different, but the American author Singer said that one sign of a mature writer is that he no longer reads books. For the highest plane of writing is consulting one's own soul and facing the silence of nature.

Writers today endorse instituting a "Reading Day" perhaps to get readers to read more literature. I would like to deliberate with them on this point: the spread of literature must rely on literature's intrinsic power. Today, information about publishing has been expedited and books flow freely; a good book will never be buried, so why must we use governmental legislation to call the attention of the populace to our own duty? If a "National Reading Day" is set up, then it is entirely reasonable for other people to demand a "National Painting Day," or "National Music Day" - what then?

Today, "cultural festivals" across the country are carried on to excess, and there is no lack of good ones. Many cities have annual "top book collectors" activities, "top book recommendation" events, and Shenzhen even holds a "Book Reading Month" every year. Bestseller lists are issued monthly for local regions and for the entire country, and there are many book programs both online and on television. Bookstores have readers' associations and book clubs. In short, there is far too much clamor about reading. I ask everyone to help out and not add a "National Reading Day."

In asking for help, I am reminded of many years ago when, in order to revitalize Peking Opera, some literati put Peking Opera scripts into high school language textbooks. This displeased the Kunju people, who said Kunju had more literary merit and thus deserved to be in the textbook. Then crosstalk and storytelling came up - they felt that as long as high school students liked it, their art form had a future. At the time I wrote a paper asking everyone to help out and not continue the uproar. High school is busy and pathetic enough - give the kids a break.

It is the same here. In an age when the populace values culture, culture should be self-aware; it should not seek too much publicity. True culture is a naturally-existing spiritual value, a way of life, a collective personality. It is not a specific tool in the hands of the literati. Please don't place so much stock in the tools in your own hands that you upset the natural lives of common people.

Point 3 in particular met substantial resistance from other writers and critics: Yu's arguments about online reading ignore the realities of life for hundreds of millions of Chinese; he's an elitist; he's just trying to drum up publicity for his new book. Yu's position atop the dubious royalties list was frequently cited as proof that he is greedy or out of touch.

Not that he didn't have his defenders. In an op-ed for the Sanqin Daily, commentator Wang Shichuan cited similar anti-reading sentiments throughout Chinese history, and brought up the unimpeachable Lu Xun to Yu's defense:

Literary giant Lu Xun has several well-known lines about reading. First, "The heart of the problem does not lie in whether to read, but rather in how to read." Second, "Reading exclusively also has its disadvantages, so there must be contact with society to bring those books to life." Third, "Use your own eyes to read the living book of the world."* Evaluating Mr. Yu's "reading theory" according to Lu Xun's experience, we find that their viewpoints are suprisingly similar. For example, Yu Qiuyu emphasizes "the greater importance of investigation, travel, experience, and creativity," while Lu Xun says "there must be contact with society" and "read the living book of the world" - great minds think alike.

Note: Quotes are taken from a lecture Lu Xun presented to high school students in 1927. Published transcript.

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There are currently 6 Comments for Yu Qiuyu: why book reading is a waste.

Comments on Yu Qiuyu: why book reading is a waste

I agree whole heartedly and from the pit of my soul with mr. yu. our society (the world) is bombarded on all sides by information and words. the more languages you speak the more access you have to this vast expanse. the time it takes to swim through search results for any given subject could easily be used to come up with one good idea for something useful.

although i think the main point is not that reading is worthless. it is that one must choose wisely what to read. for example to understand western though a little shakespeare and of course the bible would give a huge insight. a majority of other works are useless wastes of a day at best. mr. yu gets my vote.

I also think that what Mr Yu says makes a lot of sense, especially when there is a lot of crap books out there.

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This is why Chinese are so great (as in nice to have, not as a superior or highly-cultivated people), there is a cultural strain of Buddha-killing one has difficulty finding elsewhere in East Asia. I'm aware of a certain Japanese prince, but what else?

Man, I ought to get that printed onto a T-shirt or something, you know, the Zen exhortation to kill the Buddha you meet on the road.

Oh dear I'm going to be sick--when did Bill Gates become a cultural icon worthy of our adoration and emulation?

Much as I idolise Mr. Yu for his essays and lterary accomplishments, this is one of those moments wherein his romantic sides took over his better judgement, clouds his mind, sending him straight to some dreamy word where opinions can be harshly generalised, and there he goes, waffling on about his romanticised views in extremes. Now surely, from a logical perspective, there are many words one can use to describe reading, and "waste" simply shoots far off the mark.

I wouldn't think of him as an elitist sleazebag or that he was simply trying to drum up publicity for his new book (you do that by criticising the act of reading? Hardly make any snse to me ...). He does make a point where online reading is concerned: now the literary world is bombarded with texts of questionable (misleading,even) content and warped language, that reading may not ensure that one surely climbs up the cultural ladder just so long as he reads. Still, the benefits of reading abound and should never be slighted: having a brand new perspective into old issues; improving writing skills; expand creativity ... just to name a few.

Plus, whoever said reading merely serves the purpose of transferring information? One reason people love literature is that they appreciate the art of literature, not so much as to stuff their brains wih said "cultural garbage" -- and who is he to deem the works of others as such? Be him Shakespeare or Cao Xueqin, there is only that far one can go in his comments before, in the eyes of others, he becomes somebody nothing more than an egotistical being never failing to boast his superiority over others (I don't believe Mr. Yu is one though, just that he ought to be careful with the words he use).

I guess the whole issue boils down to what constitutes effective reading, and as I gather, that is what Lu Xun was trying to put across. Just so long as you have that critcal mindset with you all the time, it doesn't matter what kinds of book you are in contact with -- for reading will then be a rewarding experience as you hone your thinking skills and broaden your horizons (should the books be of good quality, that is). Pitiably, however, Mr. Yu is indeed right in saying that guiding one in having the ability to perform critical rading is not an easy feat, and for that, the idea of a "National Readin Day" falls flat as chances are that its objectives will not be met.

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