Just beyond the Three Gorges Dam, Hubei province
Distance from Shanghai – 1,050 km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,835 km
I knew the China Reading Project stood a chance of becoming something larger than small when our office received a phone call from the Children's Daily asking for an interview. It was a good sign: We had momentum.
The project was born out of my walk across China, because in village after village, I saw kids staring at television screens without a book to be seen anywhere. While the kids can read, the only books they touch tend to be grubby school textbooks. These are invariably paperbacks on science and history told the party's way, handed down from one generation of children to another.
I like books. I read a lot of them, although I gave up the paper versions several years ago. I buy books and have them scanned and converted into text files which I read on my PDA phone.
What I have learned is that the format is not important, and in fact liberating the stories from the paper and glue straitjacket allows the reader to make closer mental contact with the author. The shadow of the publisher is removed from in between. The ability to choose my own font and screen color is empowering. Dozens of books can be stored on one small device, and I am generally reading three or four books at once, moving from one to another at the end of each chapter.
But the killer app of the "electronic book" is that you can read it in the dark, with the lights off. Wonderful.
Whether consumed on paper or pixels, books are important. The world is divided into two groups of people – those who read books, and those who don't. People who read books have a massive advantage in life over those who do not, because their mental horizons are so much wider.
Having talked to thousands of kids in China over the past two years, I have found that those living in rural areas can usually read, but their parents are often illiterate, their teachers mediocre (and sometimes drunk), and their school libraries, where such rooms exist, a joke.
Most of the kids have access to satellite television, and many of them spend most of the day glued to the screen watching awful Chinese TV dramas.
So, last December, I set up the China Reading Project as a registered charity in Hong Kong. It is currently linked to the Xinhua Finance Library Foundation created by Fredy Bush, but will soon be a stand-alone charity. The registration is important because it allows companies to take tax write-offs on donations. And the big bucks flowing into this kind of endeavor come not from individuals but from companies with corporate social responsibility (CSR) budgets.
I am walking from Shanghai to Tibet in stages – I am currently inside the Yangtze Gorges, as loyal readers will know. I have passed through some of the more remote parts of east and central China along the way, notably southern Anhui province and eastern Hubei province. Most of the schools in the mountain areas range from pretty run-down to ridiculous, and I have seen very few books in over a thousand kilometers.
Books paid for by the China Reading Project are now going to around a dozen schools in Anhui, Henan and Hubei. It is working well so far on a small scale, and the plan is to eventually scale it out and get – who knows – maybe millions of books into the hands of kids.
he choice of books to be donated requires care. The basic principles are as follows. Firstly, all books must be bought or be on sale in China. I don't want to get involved in the import or distribution of books that might in any way be considered sensitive, and anything on sale in China is presumably approved.
Secondly, none of the books will have anything to do with politics or modern Chinese history. The Communist Party has its views on politics and on the past few thousand years of national and global history, so it can distribute relevant reading material as it sees fit.
Thirdly, there will be more story books and fewer textbooks. The aim of the project is not to educate, so much as to inspire the habit of reading. The schools want practical books on subjects such as science and geography because they don't have enough of them. But it's also because, in rural areas, reading novels is considered by many people, including many teachers, to be a waste of time. Children, in their view, should focus only on books that will help them pass exams and become engineers.
It is in this way that China Reading Project could be considered to be subversive.
Every school gets kung fu novels, the full set of Harry Potter books, and the great Chinese classic novels like the Dream of the Red Chamber (in modern Chinese – my Chinese colleagues say the classical original is too much for the schools in these remote areas). We provide fairy tales and fables from around the world but, more importantly, ghost stories from China.
I have been told that, in some cases, teachers may stop the kids from getting their hands on the story books. My answer is that all I can do is get the books to the schools. After that, it is up to the books to find a way of surreptitiously arriving in the right hands.
As we endlessly make changes to the book list, we prioritize China books over foreign ones. These are Chinese kids, and for all sorts of reasons including the Cultural Revolution and MTV, they have already lost much of the linkage between themselves and the rich culture of China's past. Books are more effective in reviving that linkage than television.
Donated funds are used only to buy and distribute books, nothing else. The schools request cash for much-needed renovations but no one can do everything, not even Bill Gates.
We are concentrating on areas through which I have walked as a start. But the idea is not to put too much emphasis on any one school or district, but to spread the books out as widely as possible. There is no way of knowing which book presented to which kid will unlock a brain and open up a path to changing the world.
We have two books lists – one for junior high and another for primary schools. The total amount required to lavishly stock a typical remote school library appears to be around US$800 (RMB6,000). The books are shipped to the schools in batches stretching over several months, the aim being to develop a sense of expectation and excitement when the next box of books arrives.
Every book is stamped with a China Reading Project stamp, and a record is kept of which schools get which books. The schools sign a simple agreement saying they will make the books available to students. We plan to do follow-ups to check that the books are still in place.
Already, more than US$30,000 has been donated. At an average of around US$2 per book, that means 15,000 books – admin costs are low, so around 95% of all donations go on books.
The concept seems to strike a chord. My plan is to invite foreign media companies to be major donors to the project. I know quite a lot of people in those organizations, but more to the point, it makes CSR sense for media groups to encourage young Chinese people to read.
You must have reading books in order to guarantee a growing audience for your information products in future years and decades, right? And remember, all donations are tax deductible…