Beijing bookworms: Images of reading subway riders hit a chord

Zhu Liwei, 36, is just one of many commuters during rush hour in Beijing, but she stands out as she focuses her lens on like-minded readers on the notoriously overcrowded subway.

Zhu Liwei, 36, is just one of many commuters during rush hour in Beijing, but she stands out as she focuses her lens on like-minded readers on the notoriously overcrowded subway.

Her photo album “Readers on the Beijing Subway” contains more than 1,600 images captured during the book editor’s hourlong daily commute from her home in the suburbs to her workplace, a publishing house in downtown Beijing.

The album, compiled over the last three years, has drawn 156,000 hits since she first shared it on the social media platform Douban.

Being stuck on the Beijing subway may well be the worst part of the day for many. But on a winter morning in 2018, Zhu, who is happy to open a book amid the hustle and bustle, had her day brightened when she saw a man reading an economics book and holding a pen.

To her surprise, she has found people reading books on the subway almost every day since. This has challenged her stereotype of subway commuters, who she used to think did nothing but stare at their phones.

Since that first sighting, she has been fishing out her phone whenever she sees someone reading a book (including e-books) on her daily commute.

Some portraits are amusing — a studious man unfolding a bench amid the noisy crowd and sitting down to digest a science book; a spectacled, gray-haired man reading an English teaching magazine; and a woman with colorful nails and painted red lips digging into “War and Peace.”

She never thought her work could attract a big audience, but her photos went viral and the hashtag #ReadingOnSubway became a trending topic online. She also gained fame when she appeared on a well-known state media TV show in 2018. Several documentary series featuring Zhu were released last year on video-sharing platforms, drawing millions of hits.

Some viewers said that she had made the subway an underground library; some said that reading her posts was just like “following a fascinating TV series.” Others commented that they felt “warmed” and “inspired to begin reading on their commute.” One netizen even recognized himself in one of her pictures.

Work efficiency

Many of her followers are avid readers themselves. “I seem to see myself commuting every day,” said one netizen.

“I take the subway just to use the commute to read, forcing me to improve my work efficiency and develop the habit of reading books,” said another.

“Some of the messages seem to be self-affirming. They tell themselves not to give up reading at any time,” said Zhu.

As an editor, she gains a sense of professional satisfaction. “When almost everyone is overwhelmed by a mess of fragmented information on their screens, the book readers on the subway are quietly rewarding bookmakers,” said Zhu.

Even last year, when the COVID-19 epidemic was at its worst, there were still many people reading on the subway.

“Reading during a commute may be a way for these subway riders to gain mental immunity. Wearing masks and gloves, they still reached for their books to sharpen their minds.”

Zhu seldom talks to her subjects for fear of disturbing them. She is also careful about the privacy of readers, capturing just their backs, the sides of their faces, or close-ups of the books in their hands.

Though her pictures offer limited information — nothing more than slender fingers, gray hair, a bulging belly, a red scarf or jeans riddled with holes — the photographer always derives pleasure from the books and the people behind them.

Many people are now imitating her by taking photographs of people reading on the subway, but some are critical and say she is pursuing fame. Zhu ignores these voices and continues capturing her images.

“The purpose of my photography is very simple: to record beautiful reading moments.”

Zhu was born in a village in the city of Qufu, Shandong Province — the birthplace of Confucius. Locals respect teachers and value reading. However, growing up in an ordinary family, Zhu had limited access to books. That led her to digest textbooks with enthusiasm, and she can still recite from the articles she read in school three decades ago.

After graduating from college, she chose to become a book editor. It is not a lucrative job but she enjoys it just as much as capturing subway readers.

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