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What Chinese want to read

(Shanghai Daily)

16:11, September 12, 2012

China's No. 1 best-selling novel is about four university graduates in a cold-blooded, dog-eat-dog world of luxury brands and spiritual emptiness. Yao Minji looks at reading trends.

Summer is the peak season for the book market in China, as students undertake leisure reading and their parents buy books for school in autumn.

July and September are the top months for sales, followed by February when books are commonly given as presents during the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday.

Educators and authors are always worried about the lack of interest in reading books in China in recent years. The latest reading habit survey, conducted by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication, shows the average books read by Chinese in the year of 2011 to be 4.35.

"The average annual reading per person in China is very small, and that number includes utility books and journals. We can say that we are now a country that doesn't read much. Without reading, how can you talk about hope?" says established writer Zhang Wei, who won the prestigious Mao Dun Literary Prize in 2011.

According to a market survey from the same academy, the Chinese book market, which developed much later than markets in the West, has been booming and has yet to face the problems of Western book markets.

In 2011, the country's publishers printed 12.5 percent more titles than the previous year, bringing the number to 370,000.

Forty-eight of these books sold more than one million copies each. And the revenue from publishing, printing and distribution reached 1.46 trillion yuan (US$228.62 billion), up nearly 18 percent from the year before.

'Serious' reading

The questions raised are about the quality of what's being published and read.

A survey by OpenBook, a Chinese publishing industry information and consulting company, finds that textbooks still occupy the largest market share at 22.5 percent, followed by social sciences at 20 percent and children's books at 15.6 percent. Literature only takes up 11 percent and that includes pop fiction and teen fiction, which are generally not considered "serious" reading.

"The hot subjects shift every year, depending on general social trends, but a few genres remain best-sellers, particularly teen fiction. It has been the strongest in the fiction ranking for the past few years," says Yang Wei, marketing director of OpenBook.

Another recent highlight is biography and the genre has performed very well since last year, Yang says. "Readers are increasingly interested in how and why successful people and celebrities become what they are."

The company monitors sales at bookstores in all 31 provinces, autonomous regions and province-level municipalities on the Chinese mainland. It also keeps track of online sales numbers, which are similar to those of the bricks-and-mortar stores.

The No. 1 best-selling fiction in the first six months of the year is a young adult novel, "Lin Jie, Jue Ji" ("Critical"), by 29-year-old Shanghai-based writer Guo Jingming. It is the third installment of the trilogy that made him famous. He is controversial because of his ruthless, superficial and "empty" characters.

The trilogy follows four roommates in a Shanghai university, who graduate into a complicated, competitive society, far different from campus life. They start as interns and struggle to succeed.

Many of Guo's characters are extremely self-centered, cold-blooded, emotionally unstable and hooked on material things and luxury brands. Guo is well known for his descriptions of emptiness and the feeling of "I don't know why I'm not happy," which is shared by many young adults today.

A typical line reads, "My tears pour into the soft grasses down there, I don't know whether a whole grassland of memories and melancholy will grow next year." Another goes, "I stare down at you from heaven, just as you stare at me with melancholy."

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