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What Chinese want to read
By Yao Minji

Summer is the peak season for the book market in China, as students undertake leisure reading and their parents buy books for school in autumn.

July and September are the top months for sales, followed by February when books are commonly given as presents during the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday.

Educators and authors are always worried about the lack of interest in reading books in China in recent years. The latest reading habit survey, conducted by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication, shows the average books read by Chinese in the year of 2011 to be 4.35.

"The average annual reading per person in China is very small, and that number includes utility books and journals. We can say that we are now a country that doesn't read much. Without reading, how can you talk about hope?" says established writer Zhang Wei, who won the prestigious Mao Dun Literary Prize in 2011.

According to a market survey from the same academy, the Chinese book market, which developed much later than markets in the West, has been booming and has yet to face the problems of Western book markets.

In 2011, the country's publishers printed 12.5 percent more titles than the previous year, bringing the number to 370,000.

Forty-eight of these books sold more than one million copies each. And the revenue from publishing, printing and distribution reached 1.46 trillion yuan (US$228.62 billion), up nearly 18 percent from the year before.

'Serious' reading

The questions raised are about the quality of what's being published and read.

A survey by OpenBook, a Chinese publishing industry information and consulting company, finds that textbooks still occupy the largest market share at 22.5 percent, followed by social sciences at 20 percent and children's books at 15.6 percent. Literature only takes up 11 percent and that includes pop fiction and teen fiction, which are generally not considered "serious" reading.

"The hot subjects shift every year, depending on general social trends, but a few genres remain best-sellers, particularly teen fiction. It has been the strongest in the fiction ranking for the past few years," says Yang Wei, marketing director of OpenBook.

Another recent highlight is biography and the genre has performed very well since last year, Yang says. "Readers are increasingly interested in how and why successful people and celebrities become what they are."

The company monitors sales at bookstores in all 31 provinces, autonomous regions and province-level municipalities on the Chinese mainland. It also keeps track of online sales numbers, which are similar to those of the bricks-and-mortar stores.

The No. 1 best-selling fiction in the first six months of the year is a young adult novel, "Lin Jie, Jue Ji" ("Critical"), by 29-year-old Shanghai-based writer Guo Jingming. It is the third installment of the trilogy that made him famous. He is controversial because of his ruthless, superficial and "empty" characters.

The trilogy follows four roommates in a Shanghai university, who graduate into a complicated, competitive society, far different from campus life. They start as interns and struggle to succeed.

Many of Guo's characters are extremely self-centered, cold-blooded, emotionally unstable and hooked on material things and luxury brands. Guo is well known for his descriptions of emptiness and the feeling of "I don't know why I'm not happy," which is shared by many young adults today.

A typical line reads, "My tears pour into the soft grasses down there, I don't know whether a whole grassland of memories and melancholy will grow next year." Another goes, "I stare down at you from heaven, just as you stare at me with melancholy."

His second novel, which sold 600,000 copies in the first month after release, was judged by a court to have violated writer Zhuang Yu's copyright by plagiarism. Guo was ordered to pay compensation and apologize to Zhuang. He paid the money, but refused to apologize or admit plagiarism. He refuses to discuss the case publicly.

Critics and education experts have criticized his books for "poisoning the brains of youngsters and young adults," but he remains popular among young people who make his books best-sellers. Among the top 20 best-selling fictions from January to June, one-third of the titles are Guo's books, new and old.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's classic "One Hundred Years of Solitude" is the only translated works on the list of top 10 best-selling fiction. It was one of the most influential works of foreign literature and opened new vistas for Chinese writers in the 1980s and 1990s. Only the latest translation into Chinese has been authorized. Since it was published last summer, it has remained in the top 10.

The non-fiction list is topped by another translated work, "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson, a demonstration of the popularity of biography. It was one of the few translated works released on the same date as the English version worldwide and has been extremely successful.

The No. 2 on the nonfiction list is the compiled articles of 30-year-old Han Han, one of China's most-read bloggers and writers. He is best known for his sharp and cynical views of many topics and social issues that affect young people.

In one article, he describes the life of a friend from a suburban area of Shanghai, who earns 1,500 yuan a month and barely survives, given inflation and rocketing real estate prices.

Apart from biographies, books about children's education and books for children are very popular.

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