A nationwide survey found that 51.8 per cent of Chinese people who can read do not read any books at all. And this percentage has been increasing for the past five years.
Although this fact does not necessarily mean that they do not read other media forms newspapers and the Internet, for instance the finding is still a cause for dismay.
Reading books used to be regarded as a noble practice in China's cultural tradition. In ancient times, book lovers would "wash hands and burn incense" before opening a newly obtained book. Contemporary people no longer worship books that much, but they have still kept a respectful love for them until fairly recently.
In the past decade or so, however, people have become less and less interested in reading books. They no longer regard reading as a way to elevate the soul and sharpen their insight. Instead, they have developed a pragmatic attitude towards reading. Books are merely seen as a tool to acquire the knowledge that might help the reader enrol in university, acquire some skills, find a good job, get promoted in their career or prevail in market competition.
Neither do they find pleasure in reading books. The fast-food style of reading on the Internet or the consumption of mass media and audio and video products are more appealing to them. This is especially so for young people. They are more interested in gossiping about stars or the hit parade of "supergirls." Should anyone talk about fostering insightful thoughts through reading, they would be jeered at for being "old fashioned."
Although there are no figures available as to the percentage of the nation's population made up by these people, it is an indisputable fact that pragmatism and hedonism have become a trend in a fairly large part of our society, especially for the younger generation. Many people's sense of responsibility to society and duty to the nation's revitalization has weakened.
This is lamentable and worrisome. People seem to no longer have any religious or political beliefs.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Chinese people believed in Communism and had a strong sense of duty to the nation. But that was at the cost of sacrificing individual freedom. The reform drive launched in the 1980s greatly emancipated people's minds and stimulated continual economic growth. People began getting more concerned about their personal interests and rights. "Developing personal values" came into vogue among the public, giving rise to the prevalent pursuit of personal gain. Everybody seemed to have developed the mindset of seeking quick success and instant benefits.
That was the backlash of human nature pursuing the personal happiness and freedom that had been suppressed during three decades of collectivism after the founding of New China in 1949. The backlash, however, has lasted too long and gone too far.
Insightful observers have been warning in recent years of the "crisis in belief," meaning citizens' caring for nothing except material gain, and calling for a remedy.
It is not an easy job, however, to remedy a phenomenon that has become a social trend. A social practice that has been developed over years may need the same number of years to change again. Nurturing beliefs and social ethics is a process of subtle, imperceptible influence.
Reading books is just such a way to receive subtle and imperceptible influence for the cultivation of lofty ideas on life. The recent campaign initiated by the Party's Central Department of Publicity and 10 other departments to urge the public to develop a habit of reading is a good start. The mass media should also be obliged to do something in this regard, at least to reduce the publication of stories that are in vulgar taste.
(China Daily 04/26/2006 page4)