The Reading Booth

Article by Shane Cai

From March 10th to the 13th, a cultural
phenomenon landed in a few places throughout Xi’an,
in the form of “reading pavillions.” People come to these booths to do recitations of literary materials that relate to the story of their life. Their stories and readings are then gathered for a TV show on CCTV-3 called Readers ( 朗读者 (lǎng dú zhě) ).

10-1Literary recitation is very different from the reading most people do. It requires a deep understanding of the works being read, and a few techniques if you want it to be presentable. But I was told that techniques are the lesser part of the show; Readers is more about people and their emotions.

Readers became a smash hit after its first episode aired. The theme of the premiere was “Encounters.” In that episode, a now renowned actor told of encountering the doctor who cured his crippled leg when he was a kid, before going on stage and reading a similar story by famous Chinese playwright and novelist, LǎoShě (老舍). Onstage with him were people like participants of Doctors Without Border sthat had been to Afghanistan and helped deliver about 40 newborns each day; the CEO of Lenovo who read his toast at his son’s wedding; a couple who still read each other love letter every day after over 20 years of marriage; a former Miss World who just became a mother; and a 96-year-old prize-winning translator that was inspired by a crush to make his first translation. The amazing part of the show is that they had the storytellers read the literary works instead of professionals. Their stories and emotions elevated the works they read and brought the words to life.

Personal expression is not a strong suit for many Chinese people, but the tear-filled show has inspired people not only to read more, but also to tell their stories. By turning recitation into a kind of performance art, those with inspirational stories are able to tell them more vividly.

I went to the reading booth at the Shaanxi Provincial Library, with the plan of reading something myself and interacting with other participants. When I arrived, the queue was sadly too long for me to read before it closed, but I was still able to interview a few people.

The person managing the event at the library was very friendly. She told me that five cities were chosen in the preparation process of the show, and Xi’an was chosen for its rich history and culture. I didn’t go into details with her on the whole making and preparation of the show, because I was rather curious about how she felt about the show and the “reading” phenomenon. She was frank, saying that she initially thought it would be no more than another job on a new TV program, and people would just take it as an opportunity to make an appearance on national television. However, after a few cities, she was blown away by the stories she encountered and the influence the readings had on people. She met couples who wanted to express their love to each other, young people who found discouragement in life and, most memorable of all to her, an old lady who went to read for her deceased soulmate. She said the lady and the person for whom she was reading were never actually together, but the genuine feeling of that lady and her tearful reading were very heartwarming.

I was told that there were not many stories among the people who showed up to read, most of whom were people who shared an enthusiasm for recitation—a girl who wrote a poem herself, a couple of friends who just happen to pass by and decided to stay longer, an old couple who were in a recitation group together, a mom who took her child there and decided she also wanted to read something. There were actually a few parents who were there because their kids wanted to read in the booth. One mom held a book call Life (人生), by the author LùYáo (路遥). She said her kid, who was in junior high, loved the book and wanted to read an excerpt from it.

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At the end of the line, I came across a kid who was waiting for his turn. His mom was somewhere in the line, maybe even one of the parents I interviewed. I asked him, “Do you have a lot of supplementary classes?” He said yes. “Do they take up all your spare time?” “Yes.” “So, you like to come out and participate events like recitation?” “Yes.” He was going to read something from his text book, a poem called “Share Spring with Us”. He wanted to read it because it was about how wars were destroying the world and he wanted people to love peace.

In an era filled with cheesy distractions, the popularity of Readers shows a calling for more cultured and humane entertainment in China. The expressiveness of the show is not only the result of China’s economic and social development, but also the education elevation of its people, and their need to express themselves more actively.

Shane Cai is a translator/interpreter/whatever-else-life-requires-him-to-be. He is the kind who acts out of passion. That’s probably why he doesn’t seem so passionate most of the time.