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For better government, read fewer books

Today is World Book and Copyright Day, and during the run-up to this solemn occasion, schools have been holding book fairs, major bookstores have been running discount promotions, and the Chinese press has been lamenting the decline in book reading among the general population. A survey published at the end of 2004 estimated that only 50% of people have at least one book-reading session per month, and that number has continued to fall. (In Beijing, incidentally, non-readership stood at 55% in that survey, while in Shanghai it was only 24%.)

Science fiction author and journalist Han Song writes that China's governing class should actually be reading fewer books. Here's a translation of a recent blog post:

Leaders and officials neither read books nor practice judo

by Han Song

On this World Book Day, according to newspaper reports, the book reading rate of China's populace has declined for the last six years to below 50% for the first time. I think that this is a natural event, and no cause for surprise; we shouldn't blame the people. This is just a result of those below following the behavior of those above.

I've interacted with a few leaders and officials, and I feel they have little learning. Maybe they've read a few books, but those books and the rest of the heritage of human civilization are really two different things. They've spoken with Russian visitors, saying how great How Steel is Tempered is, and how great The Story of Zoya and Shura is, and how they've read them both. But they don't know about Tolstoy or Pushkin. This is a serious problem for a nation's image.

But as leaders, they still do an outstanding job. So being a leader doesn't require one to read those books that are commonly regarded as quality. Where is there time to read books along the road for leaders and officials from the very lowest levels on up? Where is there interest to read books? They have to read lots of documents, and in general the topic of a document isn't remembered very clearly even as another document arrives with a new topic to memorize.

Leaders and officials have one other duty, which is to sit in their office and spend lots of time working on people. This is reality in China, since there are 1.3 billion people who need administration. In the past, Mao Zedong could talk philosophy with Americans and Japanese, and he could even talk about physics and cosmology. Today, officials are more adept at the administrative sciences, particularly the "Water Margin" and "Three Kingdoms" type of "administration." In bookstores, the hottest-sellers are these types of "Mount Liang Politics - How to be a Leader" books.

So the result is that society sees one slogan after another talking about "enacting justice on behalf of heaven," the result of not having read books yet wanting to display a grasp of theory. It was said in the past that with half of the Analects one could govern the earth, yet today I'd guess that there aren't many leaders and officials who've read the Analects, even though they all trumpet things about reviving outstanding traditional culture. Not to mention the Marx and Lenin that they've canonized. I've long questioned the way we govern the country, because they truthfully have no learning - I'm not talking about schooling or knowledge. They have no big picture. Talking with them about somewhat complicated issues, you get a strange feeling that there is no possibility for dialogue.

But there's a problem in using Peking University professors to govern today's China - there's no doubt that things would go wrong. People who read books actually have less of a grasp on things than those who don't read. They always mess things up to the point of being unsalvageable. For this reason, in the end I still believe that for China to improve, it's better to read fewer books, and it's best to be like Putin and practice judo. But the problem is that today's leaders and officials neither read books nor practice judo.

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There are currently 8 Comments for For better government, read fewer books.

Comments on For better government, read fewer books

I can already see the "Be more like Putin" campaign on the posters -- maybe they could show him flipping a book. Anyway, they could show him in various poses not reading.

If the people running a country haven't experienced what the population enjoy - the 'culture' - perhaps they won't understand its value?

Look at how rock and roll was thought unsuitable when it became popular, but that passed when the generation who had appreciated rock and roll came into power. The same thing is happening with games now.

But perhaps it doesn't matter, the people in Singapore seem happy enough…

I would have thought Mr Putin's leadership skills owe more to his years as a secret policeman than his time on the mat.

Anyone read Han Song's fiction? Is he any good?

chris: in my opinion he's one of the better Chinese SF writers. He tends to write more social SF than the hard, gadgets and theories type stuff. Some of his stuff bears a resemblance to the playing with reality that shows up in PK Dick's stuff.

His short story 长城 is whimsical as well as presenting an interesting social commentary, as is his novel 2066年之西向漫记 about a Chinese traveler in the midst of an America in the throes of a cultural revolution. 逃出忧山 is also a nicely-done short story of the head-trip variety.

My father was a college English literature professor. He always used to tell me to thank god that professors never get elected to office because he felt they would make terrible leaders. Book smart, but no common sense. That seems to me all that Han Song is saying here.

But, the problem in China is that there are government leaders who are very proud of the fact that they have never read a book, other than the Little Red Book, because nothing else would be as pure. That is a whole 'nother issue.

China Law

I would say that Chinese read more than they did before as a result of accessiblity to internet.

As a literature teacher at a first tier university in Beijing I can say that the numbers might even be higher than 50%. The number of students I have that have only watched a movie or tv play and try to talk about the book is quite high.

Keep in mind, in China we teach/learn literature without ever even opening the books. Teachers are made to tell the plots and themes while the students are never expected to actually read the works.


China is and will remain a farmer-like nation for years to come. Publications like Duzhe and blogs will never replace real literature.

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