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The Politics of Reading in the People’s Republic of China

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - READCHINA (The Politics of Reading in the People’s Republic of China)

Reporting period: 2019-12-01 to 2021-05-31

READCHINA is the first broad investigation into the politics and practices of reading in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), their interpretation and their impact on social and intellectual change. The main objective of the study is a reinvestigation of literary history and cultural policy of the PRC from the perspective of the ordinary reader. This grassroots approach is innovative in the writing of Chinese literary history as it means turning away from the established focus on authors and the political context. Instead, READCHINA will investigate the social conditions under which texts were read, what influences this had on the lives of individuals, on social, intellectual and literary change in China, and on the modes of production, distribution and consumption of literature. READCHINA considers the reading of literature as part of a wider web of reading materials, including different media and non-fictional texts. Primary sources will consist among others of archival material, field work interviews, autobiographies, marketing materials, statements by fans in online forums, and literary texts. Combining literary analysis with historical and ethnographical inquiry, as well as methods from the digital humanities, READCHINA will contribute to the fields of literary history and literary sociology. Moreover, in combining close readings of texts with distant reading methods, READCHINA will also foster our understanding of the meaning and impact of popular literature in China and of literary theories on reading. READCHINA will thus bring 20th and 21st century China into the global history of reading – especially so, as practices of reading in China have been shaped by different institutions than in the ‘West’: a Socialist State eager to reform its citizens by means of cultural policies, a centralized bureaucratic system regulating distribution and access to reading matters, and a highly efficient system of media control.
WP-2, 3 and 4 undertook first exploratory fieldwork / archival research trips in China. The second and longer fieldwork had to be postponed on account of the current pandemic. All projects have produced first chapter drafts or paper drafts; WP-1, 2, 3 and 4 all have first results published or accepted for publication in forms of individual papers. In particular, Lena Henningsen’s “Poaching World Literature in China’s Long 1970s”, published in the Asian Journal of African Studies is worth pointing out (http://ajasthejournal.org/ebook/?wr_id=19&no=5). For lack of ISSN number of this Korean publication, it could not be added to the publications list in the ERC system.
Also, the database in which we record reading acts is up and running now and is updated regularly (https://readchina.github.io/readact.html).
Our conceptualization of reading and reading acts is core to READCHINA: our research demonstrates that reading is best conceptualized as a broad category involving different activities including borrowing or buying books, reciting texts from memory, or even adapting it into new circumstances. Reading thus turns from solitary contemplation into a social experience. This can be captured by what we define as reading acts. We define a reading act not as an abstract category as the acts of reading (Iser) in literary theory, but as concrete actions of real, imagined or fictional readers or textual artefacts which have impact on the social realities that they live in. As a consequence, we are thus also very attentive to material conditions of the textual artefacts, be they second hand books, hand-copied manuscripts or digital representations of books.

READCHINA has conceptualized a database to record reading acts (https://readchina.github.io/readact.html) that captures these dimensions and allows for both quantitative and qualitative analysis of the data.

We expect to publish further results of our research in academic journals, contribute to existing dissemination outputs like the MCLC resource center, input more data into the database and work on the monographs that WP1-5 are linked to.