Reading to fill the hours in lockdown: So what captures our fancy?

Lu Feiran
History ranks high, along with Confucius and Latin American novelist García Márquez. And many of us still prefer books in hand to digital versions.
Lu Feiran
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The coronavirus lockdown in Shanghai may have motivated people to do more reading, but we won't know for some months whether the latest wave of the pandemic influenced what they read or how they read.

A report by video-sharing platform Bilibili may shed some light on their preferences from thousands of uploads discussing literary works.

In a report on 2021 reading-themed videos appearing on its site, the platform said it seems people were more interested in the past than in the present or future.

And among the "stars" of that trend was the ancient sage Confucius. View counts of videos about him surged 585 percent from a year earlier.

Bilibili said uploaders of the videos tried to interpret the great philosopher, who lived more than 2,500 years ago, in new ways that diverged from standard textbooks.

The most popular video on Confucius is entitled "You know nothing about Confucius," uploaded by a netizen using the screen name "A Test."

In contrast to the textbook Confucius, who is portrayed as tranquil and contemplative, the video introduced a strong, somewhat adventurous man, adept at archery and fond of racing.

"He could drive (ancient wood vehicles) at the age of 60, and his running speed was equivalent to that of rabbits," the uploader said in his video. "No one would think that such a physical man would want to be a teacher."

The video attracted nearly 640,000 clicks and 1,000 comments, with some people sharing their own impressions of Confucius from different books they have read.

Reading to fill the hours in lockdown: So what captures our fancy?

Young people are absorbed in reading at a bookshop in the city of Liuzhou in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. A recent survey found that most people in China still prefer to hold a book in hand over digital reading.

Bilibili also said 72 percent of users aged between 18 and 30 favored classic Chinese literature, such as "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," "A Dream of Red Mansions" and "Classic of Mountains and Seas." The former two are sagas of ancient times; the latter a compilation of mythic geography and beasts.

Videos interpreting these books were the most popular on the platform last year. Take "A Dream of Red Mansions," for example. Bilibili has more than 140,000 hours of videos discussing the book. It would take about 16 years of constant watching to go through all of them.

Social observers said they aren't surprised by the Bilibili findings because "vintage" has made a comeback in the popular culture of music, fashion and video games.

"When traditional cultural elements are blended into pop culture, people's interests are naturally piqued and they want to learn more about the root culture itself," said historian and journalist Zhu Buchong.

Among the most popular foreign literary works discussed by young people on the platform is the 1967 novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez.

The book, written in the style of mystical realism and full of symbolism and metaphors, follows seven generations of a family in a fictitious South American town.

Videos related to the book vary widely. The most popular is "Interpreting the story of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' – I prepared the video for a month." A related recommendation is "Explaining 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' in five minutes: What does Márquez want to tell his readers?"

Márquez's magnum opus, which has been translated into 46 languages and sold 50 million copies, is considered one of the most significant works in world literature. It has long been a reader favorite in China, where a translation in simplified Chinese has sold more than 10 million volumes.

The novel, according to writer and professor Ge Fei, has inspired many young Chinese writers to undertake a journey.

"It is a journey where you start out to see the world, to see different cultures, to blend in different civilizations, and then finally you go back to your own culture, to the starting point," Ge said.

Maybe it is a similar journey for Chinese where traditional Chinese culture is concerned.

Reading to fill the hours in lockdown: So what captures our fancy?

A boy reads a comic book about Chinese history at a bookstore in the Hebei Province city of Dingzhou. A Bilibili report on 2021 reading themed videos found that people are generally more interested in the past than in the present or future.

In a separate survey on reading, the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication reported that paperbacks are still public favorites.

According to the survey, Chinese adults read, on average, nearly five paperback books and about three e-books last year.

About 45 percent of the interviewees said they preferred to "hold a book physically in hand" when reading, a rise of 2.2 percentage points from 2020. Others said they read on smartphones, e-readers, computers and by listening to audio books.

"I think reading on electronic gadgets is more for fragments of time, such as during the commute to work or while waiting for someone," said Yu Rongrong, a white-collar worker who has been working from home since early last month.

"Now under lockdown," he said, "I need to work only in the morning and have plenty of time to myself. I finally have time for books that have been on my bookshelf for a while. I still find reading a paperback more enjoyable than reading on smartphones, not to mention that it is also more eye-friendly."

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