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August 29, 2011

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Readers put their hearts into clubs

THE conventional wisdom is that busy Chinese young people don't do much serious reading these days, but Yao Minji finds that book clubs are increasingly popular with people who want to slow down or get ahead.

Every Saturday afternoon, 31-year-old biochemist Liu Xun takes his notes on The Zuo Zhuan, or the Commentary of Zuo, to an elegant four-story villa on downtown Shanghai's Changle Road for his Chinese classic texts reading club.

The warmly lighted study is decorated with ancient-style Chinese furniture and filled with the fragrance of incense and Chinese tea, evoking the studies of scholars described in ancient texts. When the gate to the building closes, Liu and his fellows feel far away from stressful urban life. This is their sanctuary.

This gathering, around 18 months old, is among the earliest of Shanghai's many reading clubs, now getting popular among young professionals under age 35.

Liu's group has around 15 participants, including a couple of university students and a couple of senior CEOs, the rest young professionals like himself. Liu has a PhD in biochemistry from Oxford and now works at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Much has been made about busy Chinese young people not reading "serious" books or not reading at all, except out of necessity, because they have so many other things to do.

But a recent city survey suggests that reading is increasingly important, both for business and pleasure.

The Shanghai Press and Publication Bureau studied 2,540 questionnaires from interviewees and said 66.8 percent of respondents said reading was increasingly important in their lives.

But 61 percent said they spend less on traditional reading than in the past, citing lack of time as the main reason - 43.3 percent said they don't have time to read, and 23.6 percent read mostly online, also partly because of time constraints.

"This is such a fast-paced era and everybody cares so much about efficiency, but some people want to slow down from making money and enjoy reading books like The Zuo Zhuan, which you cannot appreciate in haste. You have to read slow and think," Liu tells Shanghai Daily.

The Zuo Zhuan is among the earliest Chinese works of narrative history and covers the Spring and Autumn Period from 770-476 BC - its politics, cities, economy, religion, culture, military affairs and daily life. It's not what one would call practical, more like food for the soul. A more experienced member may lead the group in reading and discussing particular ideas or how to pronounce unusual Chinese characters that are no longer used.

There are few Chinese clubs for people who read novels at home and then discuss them at meetings, which is popular in the West.

A big reason for the increased popularity of reading clubs is the desire to slow down, especially for stressed professionals like Zhang Yiling, a 28-year-old financial consultant who works at least until 10am on weekdays. Since graduation, she has made career advancement her priority.

"I really miss the time back in university, when I could read for at least three hours every day. When I first started working four years ago, I tried to read a few pages every day. It just didn't work out. It couldn't work out because I was often so tired that I wouldn't even be able to recognize the characters," she says.

Zhang was introduced to her reading club through a colleague, who faces the same time pressures. They meet twice a month at a cafe or a member's apartment, each bringing a book from an assigned list to share with others. Then they can form small discussion groups or just to read on their own. Members often take turns reading aloud.

"I am still really occupied by work and don't have much time to read. But joining the reading club sort of forces me to read at least every two weeks," Zhang says.

"It is also very motivating to read with other members on a warm afternoon, rather than trying to read alone after tiring work in my dark and cold room."

The same motivation is evident in Liu's Chinese classics reading club, which started in January 2010. Many people have come and gone, but many of those who left suddenly show up again. They had been too busy to attend, but always missed the atmosphere and reading, so as soon as they got time, they would come again.

"We get a lot of calls and e-mails from those who read The Zuo Zhuan outside of Shanghai and want to start similar gatherings in their own cities," says Xu Yuan, who organized the club.

Unlike Zhang or Liu, 25-year-old real estate researcher Johnny Wang joined a club reading foreign standard texts on management and finance. It meets once or twice a month and the purpose is clear - to learn as much as possible on management and career planning and take advantage of the information to help them advance in their companies.

"It's also great to get together with people with similar ambitions. It is clear that we share similar ideas and values, so it's great to meet and share with them," Wang says.

"On the other hand, I also believe that people like us, who study so eagerly, will all be big names in the future, so this club is also a worthwhile personal networking opportunity."

Liu, the biochemist reading classics, also says that making friends is another reason book clubs are popular.

Some readers also practice calligraphy after reading sessions.

He and his friends spend three hours every Saturday, starting with a shared reading aloud of the texts and then using logical assumptions to get as close as possible to the social, cultural, economic and political contexts of the time. Then they discuss issues in depth and seek historical parallels and contrasts.

Outside the club, readers often get together to continue their discussions. They have made four visits to the Shanghai Museum, led by a member who works in the department of bronze relics, and they related their readings to the objects on display.


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