Bookstores and publishers feel the pulse of contemporary Chinese readership reflecting nation’s cultured, open attitude
Spiritual watchtowers
Published: Dec 01, 2022 11:07 PM Updated: Dec 01, 2022 10:55 PM
People read in a library in Southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality on September 30, 2022. Photo: Xinhua

People read in a library in Southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality on September 30, 2022. Photo: Xinhua

What I talk about when I talk about reading?

For Wu Yanping, managing partner of One Way Space, a niche yet popular bookstore brand in China, this is a question to which he can provide countless answers.

Having worked into the book industry for 14 years, Wu has witnessed countless encounters between people and books.

"Books are the carriers of culture, bookstores are the home of these cultural carriers and the habitat of the souls of people. Countless bookstores make up the cultural symbol of a country's soft power and degree of civilization," this is his answer to the question above, and probably also the voice of other book industry practitioners.

Reading is the way people observe the world, while bookstores are the watchtowers from which Wu and book industry practitioners observe the public. In recent years, according to their perception, books on humanities and social sciences have gained wider popularity in China, reflecting the progress of Chinese economic and social development and the desire of more Chinese people to understand their motherland and the world in the process of more enthusiastic exchanges between China and the world. At the same time, the Chinese book publishing business is gradually expanding in breadth and depth to meet the diverse needs of an increasingly confident and vibrant Chinese readership.

Multifaceted echoes

From his beginning as a part-time bookstore clerk when he was a student to becoming manager of a bookstore chain, Wu's happiest moments are still when he welcomes new books to the store as a book selection editor.

"In earlier years, the books were still bundled with ropes, dozens of bundles piled up in the store, and I needed to register them one by one into the computer system, sort them out and evaluate - which ones to put on the main recommended new book counter, and which ones would be big sellers," Wu recalled.

The books that make their way to the store are selected by book editors from a large number of book newsletters from publishers.

Wu knew that every keystroke he made in the process of registering the books and every time he stretched out his hand to put them in place would reverberate in the future. Currently, the "echoes" from publishers - the upstream "content suppliers" of bookstores - and from the readers downstream have become more diverse and clear.

On Chinese e-commerce giant JD's annual bestseller list released in July, humanistic books took the top three spots, while other books showcasing outstanding traditional culture home and abroad were also popular.

Classical Chinese literature A Dream of Red Mansions, popular novel introducing a pre-modern China Those Things in Ming Dynasty, and landmark world literature One Hundred Years of Solitude all ranked high.

With the improvement of life quality, Chinese people's pursuit of spiritual fulfillment is increasing day by day, driving them to learn about ancestry and the world via wider reading.

"In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of books on cultural themes, including archaeology, history and relics that can help the popularization of traditional Chinese culture," Huang Yujie, editor of the Hangzhou-based Zhejiang Guji Press (Zhejiang Ancient Books Press), told the Global Times, adding that the publishing industry insiders have increasing confidence in producing books about traditional culture.

Pang Ding, an employee of CS-Booky, a publishing company based in Central China's Hunan Province, pointed out that as the quality education is improving in China, the public has been more interested in traditional and classic culture such as Chinese ancient and modern history.

She told the Global Times that as parents have become more concerned about enlightening children on traditional culture and history, her company has focused on releasing some books about tracing the origins of Chinese civilization and introducing China's great mountains and rivers.

According to Wu and another bookstore management trainer A Wei, at present, Chinese readers are also more eager to present their cultural identity while integrating with the rest of the world and to get involved in the trend of globalization from a Chinese perspective.

One Way Space's main group of readers are young people aged between 20 and 35 and for a long time foreign copyrighted books have been popular among them, Wu said.

"In recent years, books that are in line with international trends, such as environmental protection, have been increasingly popular among Chinese readers," A Wei told the Global Times. This reflects a growing awareness among Chinese people on environmental improvement and topics such as gender equality in recent years, A Wei said.

"China's enhanced influence in the world and extended Belt and Road Initiative caused such a desire. For example, Chinese leader's recent visit to Central Asian countries to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit ignites my curiosity about the cultural and social development of our neighboring countries. I hope to realize spiritual connectivity with the world through reading," said a Tianjin-based book lover surnamed Yang.

Yang said that more people around her are interested in books about the environment. "It seems to increasingly become a fashionable part of urban middle-class life, under the government's focus on improving the environment and carbon reduction targets of recent years. Such books can help us better understand the progress of the green energy sector, China's macro policy goals and some of the roles that ordinary people can play in it," said Yang.

Enhanced breadth and depth

A view of a One Way Space bookstore in Shanghai. Photo: VCG

A view of a One Way Space bookstore in Shanghai. Photo: VCG

The COVID-19 pandemic is about to enter its fourth year. But Wu still feels touched that only a few months into 2020, after the first wave of the outbreak, bookstores were among the many industries that took the lead in resuming work in Beijing.

In the complicated and sometimes perplexing global context, Chinese people insist on "reading the world" and Chinese bookstores and the publishing industry are doing their best to broaden the breadth and depth of the publishing and sales business - often with the help of the government.

The Beijing municipal government has in recent years been subsidizing brick and mortar bookstores in the city in order to increase their numbers and benefit residents. In 2022 alone, it was announced that Beijing would give policy support to 317 bookstores and 1,454 reading and cultural activities. By the end of 2021, the number of brick and mortar bookstores in Beijing reached 2,042, an increase of 2.4 percent over 2020.

Ancient literature collation, for example, is usually a task with huge amounts of works as it needs professional talents, but with China's emphasis on soft power and the increase of funds year by year, the work has had its own system and scale around the country, Huang said.

Publishers and bookstores are also promoting the publication and sale of practical and easy-to-read popular science books, Wu said.

In recent years, the Chinese government has increased its investment in scientific research, so that science and technology books that follow the development of China's science and technology hotspots have come into the public eye despite their relative obscurity for the general public, creating a social atmosphere in which people have a greater respect for scientific knowledge, Li Ming (pseudonym) a staff member of China Science Publishing and Media Ltd. (CSPM) told the Global Times.

Li also pointed out that China attaches more importance to exchanges with the world in the field of culture, science and technology. "Now the cultural departments have also been vigorously introducing Chinese publications into the world," he said.

In 2019, CSPM completed the acquisition of an international academic publisher Edition Diffusion Press Sciences SA (EDP Sciences). Co-founded by eminent scientists including Marie Curie and Paul Langevin in 1920, the EDP Sciences publishes 75 scientific and technical journals annually, including 58 in English and 17 in French.

Statistics show that in 2020, China's publishing industry exported more than 400 copyrights of books on epidemic prevention and control, contributing to global epidemic prevention knowledge.

More copyrights on various topics have been exported to foreign countries over the past years. Most remarkably, the first volume of Xi Jinping: The Governance of China has been translated into over 30 languages and published in more than 160 countries and regions for a total of over 20 million copies by the end of 2021, China Publishing Today reported.

To adapt to the trend of the publishing market, and create a better social atmosphere and reading environment, the press has been using more popular methods to promote these books such as introducing publications via live streaming and working with some cultural academicians known to the public, Pang said.

In terms of bookstore operation, Wu said that during the pandemic, the government has given practical policy assistance, such as rent subsidies and tax subsidies to help bookstores to tide over difficulties, and at the same time it also provided incentives for bookstores to hold cultural events like lectures by the authors and art exhibitions. In turn, more bookstores are now exerting more private initiatives to share the excellent "spiritual food" in this era, Wu noted.

"When we talk about reading, we see publishers, bookstores and readers illuminating and reflecting on each other," he said.