Posted by Joel Martinsen on Tuesday, March 27, 2007 at 10:50 AM
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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