CHINA - The Chinese invented paper and can boast of a written script that goes back thousands of years, but these days, many are apparently not reading and writing enough.
So much so that the authorities are now trying to get people to read more - by using the force of law.
Legislation to promote reading has been drafted by the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and TV and will be finalised by the end of the year, China Daily reported on Wednesday.
Some people are bemused by official interference in something as personal as reading.
"Perhaps the failure to read regularly or to read at all will mean a violation of the law?" mused a netizen named Hainan Shigong on his Twitter-like Sina Weibo account.
The proposed legislation is not about throwing the book at those who do not read, but rather is about ensuring enough funding for things like public libraries in rural areas, said commentators in official newspapers like the People's Daily.
While it is debatable if legislation is the best way to do this, few will dispute that China is not exactly a nation of avid readers.
In Beijing, for instance, it is rare to see people reading books or magazines on trains. They are more likely to be messaging, playing games or watching videos on their phones instead.
The average Chinese, aged 18 to 70, read 4.35 books in 2011 compared with 7 for Americans, 8.4 for Japanese and 11 for South Koreans, according to the 2011 International Publishing Blue Book published in China.
Mr Wang Xiaodong, of the Chinese Booksellers and Publishers Association, said many Chinese are not biting as the books out there lack appeal.
"The quality of our books lags behind those in other countries," he told The Straits Times.
More than half of some 18,000 people polled by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication last year admit they read very little. Literary scholar Bai Ye of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences noted that not only are the Chinese not reading enough, but they are also not reading enough good books.
"They gravitate towards light reading, or things that are entertaining or for recreation," said Mr Bai, citing the example of online romance novels.
This is borne out by the press academy survey which found 31.2 per cent of people spend at least 40 minutes daily reading entertainment-related content on their phones, 3.6 percentage points more than in 2011.
Ms Qin Ping, 39, reads at least one book a month, usually a novel or collection of essays. This makes the clothes-seller a rarity in her circle of friends, most of whom hardly read.
"There are those who are too busy to read. Then there are also those who feel it's pointless to read," she told The Straits Times. Observers say poor reading habits can lead to a decline in a person's writing skills, an issue featured in the popular Sanlian Life Weekly magazine this week.
Many forget how to write Chinese characters because they use computer shorthand such as hanyu pinyin.
Said Mr Bai: "This problem goes back to how a lot of people don't buy or read books. It's a pressing problem that needs to be addressed."
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