Influential book club celebrates 5th birthday
One of the city’s biggest book clubs celebrated its fifth anniversary with a discussion on why Chinese classics should be read and studied today, a topic more complex and historically rooted than it first appears.
Sinan Book Club started as an extension of Shanghai’s annual book fair and rapidly expanded, thanks to its weekly events, bazaars, bi-monthly literature journals, temporary “flash” bookshops and finally a permanent bookshop under the same name.
The club has invited writers, publishers and scholars around the world to meet readers, chat about their books and reflect on literary and philosophical trends. Many international bestsellers have also made the club their first stop in China.
Its rapid expansion in popularity and influence is one drop into the incremental yet firm improvement of the city’s reading scenarios.
Bookstores have risen from the dead, from what they were five or six years ago, with more specialized and stylized business models.
More young people are reading again, says an annual reading survey. Shanghai residents are reading around seven books a year on average, while those between 7 to 18 years old read one more text.
The latest national reading survey, by e-commerce giant Alibaba, also lists Shanghai top in terms of readership in the country, while those born in 1980s and 1990s are the most prolific readers.
Novels, history books and texts on finance and the economy have always been the best-sellers. Culturally themed books and TV shows are also on the rise, especially those regarding Chinese classics, while podcasts explaining classics record millions of clicks across various platforms.
“When I started learning Chinese classics at university in early 1980s, many of these texts were ignored for years. There were worries whether one day traditional culture as a whole would be lost,” said Fu Jie, Chinese studies professor at Fudan University.
Fu’s podcasts about Confucius’s “Analects,” priced about US$30 on Ximalaya FM, has gained more than 5 million clicks.
“I started teaching ‘Analects’ in 1987, shortly after I got my master’s degree, but I could never imagine it would become as popular as today,” Fu added.
In the foreword to his podcast, Fu says there is no need to worship Confucius or take “Analects” as a guideline to a contemporary Chinese life. But he says it is worth reading and learning about the philosopher and his words, because these texts, from more than 2,000 years ago, are still reflected in every corner in China, from its system to its culture, still influencing how Chinese people think and speak.
Traditional Chinese culture has grown across the nation over the past 10 years or so and its popularity is still on the rise, with many people curious to discover their heritage.
“I became interested in college, but I didn’t know where to look,” said Stephen Huang, a corporate finance lawyer in his late 20s.
“Best-selling authors or scholars from 10 years ago are sometimes deemed wrong or a fraud today, while it is just too difficult for non-classic-Chinese majors like me to read the original texts from 1,000 or 2,000 years ago and understand what they are talking about.”
Huang has attended several hobby groups on Chinese classics, feeling enlightened and confused at the same time.
His feelings are shared by Zeng Qian, a mother of two who has struggled to find a good weekend school for her two kids to learn some Chinese classics.
“They go to international schools during the week and I want them to learn some of the basics of our own traditional culture,” Zeng said.
“But there are just so many classes and it’s hard to tell which one is good. Some of these schools ask kids to dress like in ancient times, and recite the texts moving their heads like an old man you see in those epic dramas. Personally I find that silly.”
As guoxue, or Chinese classics, continues to heat up, many guoxue schools have also become popular.
Only a few weeks ago, Chinese pop singer Sun Nan and his wife attracted lots of criticism on the Internet when they revealed that they sent their children to a private guoxue school instead of a full-curriculum regular one.
The singer’s family moved from Beijing to Xuzhou, a small city in Jiangsu Province, so their children could go to a traditional school.
They would not follow the national curriculum. Instead they focused on classic texts, tea ceremonies, sewing and embroidery. This means Sun’s children will not get a legitimate Chinese degree.
Many netizens were suspicious of the school’s curriculum and wondered whether one has to adopt all that’s ancient or traditional. To most people, respecting the classics doesn’t mean one has to live by all ancient codes.
“It’s only natural that more Chinese are increasingly interested in our classics like Confucius’ ‘Analects,’ traditional poems or Taoist texts, as they were under severe criticism for a long time since late 19th century,” Chen Yinchi, professor of Chinese studies at Fudan University, said.
Chen was a young student of Chinese classics back in 1980s, when most people were overjoyed with the influx of foreign classics and movies.
He added that Chinese intellectuals were in the process of self-criticism and introspection for around 100 years, comparing and debating between ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign.
As the country suffered social, cultural and economic turbulence through wars in the early 20th century, many also blamed its failure to its culture, thinking something rooted in the culture led to such turbulence.
They thought modernity was better than ancient and foreign better than Chinese.
“Many of these intellectuals revisited their criticism years later and thought they may have been over-critical because they were so anxious about the country’s fate,” Chen explained.
“They were incredible masters, but those were unusual times. Those most critical of traditional culture at the time are also the ones really familiar with Chinese classics, and they continued to study it despite their harsh comments.”
According to Chen, it wasn’t until the 1990s that many people started to acknowledge, study or revise traditional Chinese culture and rediscover the classics that are valuable and relevant today.
“Many countries and civilizations trace back to their roots and classics. And many have realized there is more than one way to the future, same for us,” Chen added.
“For each of us, there is no need to differentiate or debate which one is better or worse — ancient, contemporary, Chinese, foreign — but just to pick from the diversified multicultural elements those you feel culturally identified with.”