Reading in Beijing

Improved Access to Books Benefits Young and Old

reading-in-beijing
The first night at the Beijing Sanlian Taofen Bookstore since it began operating 24 hours a day on April 8, 2014.

By Xu Shuo

Nestled in a traditional quadrangle courtyard adjacent to South Xisi Street in Beijing lies an 800-year-old brick structure known as the Pagoda of Monk Wansong. Due to its proximity to the pagoda, a nearby hutong (a narrow alley commonly associated with Beijing) is called Zhuanta, literally “Brick Pagoda”. As one of the oldest lanes in the capital and the only one whose name has remained unchanged since written records began in the late 13th century, Zhuanta Hutong is reputed to be the “root of Beijing’s hutongs”.

Lying at the foot of the pagoda, the Zhengyang Bookstore has emerged as a popular reading space free to the public, thanks to the efforts of Beijing’s Xicheng District government. Readers come here to flip the pages of various volumes on Beijing’s culture while feeling the unique vibe of the ancient city. Since the Cultural Committee of the Xicheng District provided the pagoda courtyard rent-free to Zhengyang Bookstore in April 2014, the place’s popularity among local residents as an optimal destination for nostalgic experience and leisure reading has grown.

Library Hidden in a Park

Entering an antique riverside building hidden deep inside Jinzhongdu Park, one is immediately captivated by a floor-to-ceiling wall of books. This is the Xuanyang Book Station. According to Fang Shengli, a volunteer with the establishment, despite its identity as the “second study” beyond traditional public libraries, Xuanyang provides excellent service. Fang and his fellow volunteers use a sterilizer set in a corner of the room to sterilize each of the returned books before putting them back on the shelf for others to check out.

Several round tables, surrounded by chairs, are found on the balcony of the building. To ensure a comfortable reading environment, volunteers also prepare parasols for those who prefer to read outdoors during the spring and early summer when the sun is dazzlingly bright.

Fang clearly remembers a man in his 70s who likes to sit silently in one corner of the bookstore, focusing intently on the book in his hands. The old man once told Fang that he felt lucky to have found such a pristine nook hidden in the bustling mega-city of Beijing, in which he can enjoy reading in calm serenity away from the hectic pace of urban life. His words greatly encouraged Fang and boosted his hopes that reading could eventually become a lifestyle that everyone indulges in.

Books for All

A common sight during Beijing’s frigid winter nights is that of pedestrians in heavy coats hurrying down the city’s sidewalks, braving the piercing wind. This forms a contrast with readers at the Sanlian Taofen Bookstore: while some read quietly under lamplight, others relax over a cup of coffee on the second floor.

It’s already past 10 p.m., but the reading zone on the bookstore’s first floor is still fully occupied. Occasionally, the bookstore hosts salons and lectures for readers to exchange views. The café on the second floor is simply decorated yet with a modern touch. It elegantly accentuates the bookstore’s literary atmosphere.

On the central square of the Yutaoyuan Community of Beijing’s Xicheng District, there is an inconspicuous yellow building which occupies a space of a mere 30 square meters. Upon arrival, this author was overwhelmed by a scene of warmth: several children concentrated on painting with their bodies spread across the reading table, while adults sat quietly drinking tea or browsing books. This is the Yutaoyuan Book Station, one of the community libraries funded by the government of Xicheng District.

Intended to be a new-type cultural space for the benefit of all, the book station has so far collected more than 5,000 volumes of books, mostly donated by community residents and avid readers. Compared with large public libraries, this place lends a more casual, lighthearted and intimate atmosphere. Ms. Zhang, a local resident, told this author that the book station not only provides a cozy public reading space, but more importantly, it has improved the relationships among neighbors. It remains open until 9 p.m. daily, so many young white-collar workers come to browse a book after finishing work.

Beijing has established a diversity of public reading spaces in recent years. Some of these are funded by the government but adopt the mode of enterprise management. Some are based on facilities provided by nongovernmental organizations and operate for social welfare purposes, as exemplified by the Yutaoyuan Book Station.

Nurturing the Soul of Children

On the first floor of the teaching building of Beacon Primary School in Tongzi County of Zunyi City, Guizhou Province, there is a 50-square-meter space designated as a reading zone for young girls. Thanks to an initiative focusing on improving the reading skills of young girls launched at the end of 2016 by the Beijing Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (BAPPRFT), kids at this school deep in southwestern China are now able to borrow and read books during class breaks and after school.

With books and schoolbags donated by philanthropists and organizations in Beijing, and through a series of aid campaigns, organizers of the initiative aim to benefit every corner of the country, thus allowing the society at large to help more girls grow healthily with access to their fair share of books.

Statistics show that there are some 60 million children living in China’s rural areas, more than half of whom are female.

“Children’s reading is fundamental to ‘nationwide reading’, a basis for building a literary society, and female children’s reading is the top priority,” said Hu Dong, vice president of the BAPPRFT. “We hope that this initiative will create favorable reading conditions for kids in underdeveloped areas and border regions, allowing books to nurture their young hearts.”

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