After leaving public relations, writer Wei Xiaohe finds ‘refuge from miseries of life’
Wei Xiaohe chose to become a full-time writer after publishing his first book in 2015 and quitting his job at a public relations firm. Wei, 27, who is based in Shenzhen, has been posting book reviews on his social media account on WeChat for more than four years. He also has 5,200 followers on Douban.com, a book and film rating website in China. Wei spoke to Wendy Wu about his writing and his love for books.
There is a lot of talk that Chinese people don’t read much. A survey in 2014 suggested that more than 40 per cent of Chinese read less than one book a year. What’s your take on this?
Yes, that’s also my observation. Not many people I know are fond of reading. Historically, only a few Chinese people read. It’s a great pity that modernisation and education over so many years have not cultivated the reading habit among people. With the widespread use of the internet, a lot of information can be found quickly online and there’s no need to find a book for reference. Reading is not a matter of how many books are read, but about the spiritual enjoyment they give.
I like what [the writer] W. Somerset Maugham said, “to acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life”. The more you read, the more experience will you gain. On average I read 100 to 200 books each year, but it doesn’t make sense to simply talk about the quantity.
What’s your view of the book-sharing movement in China’s big cities last year, inspired by the actress Emma Watson leaving books on the London metro system for others to read and then pass on?
I have mixed feelings about book sharing activities. The campaign went viral online. It should have been a good thing, but maybe became a celebrity spectacle, deviating from just reading. I don’t think the campaign can be a great help to stimulate a fondness of reading among the whole of society, but maybe it can affect some people to show an interest in reading.
Why are you obsessed with books? There are online debates about whether reading is useful or not. What’s your take on this?
Enjoyment of reading is the biggest temptation for me. It can satisfy my curiosity and dispel my loneliness. While reading stories of others’ lives in books, I can often find echoes and discover a sense of familiarity with their experiences. Reading connects me with the rest of the world, but also broadens my understanding of the world, which cannot be learned from school textbooks. It may not offer direct help in our daily life, nor increase material wealth, but it can broaden horizons, enrich our spiritual world. I’m still fond of wandering in bookstores as there are always unexpected surprises. It’s not a waste of time for me and going there is great fun.
How did you discover your fondness for reading and build it up as a hobby?
I was brought up in a county in Jiangxi province. The rural conditions twenty years ago didn’t give me any real chance to read properly or find an interest an in literature. After I came to town for senior high school, many of my classmates were fascinated with reading and they influenced me. That’s how I started reading. It was quite a natural process. The first books which made a deep impression on me were the Harry Potter series. I first read a lot of popular fiction, but gradually found my interest in the classics. Looking back at that time, I read many rubbish novels, but I’m still grateful for that period of reading.
How do you run your social media book review account and what problems do you face?
I have published two books so far and decided to quit my job at a public relations company and devote myself fully as a book reviewer and writer since 2015. I’ve been running an account on WeChat for over four years, posting my book reviews. They’re not very serious or theoretical, but faithfully reflect my feelings. I am very concerned about whether I can strike a balance between sticking to my own style and meeting the demands of readers. I don’t like to play up to readers to write something sensational or closely tied with popular issues such as marriage and property prices in a bid to catch viewers. I want to be different, writing something purely out of my own interests.
There’s always a conflict and I struggle with it. First and foremost, I love to read or write something for myself, to refresh myself, and then maybe what I write can affect my readers and trigger their interest to read excellent stories.
What is your favourite literature?
I am particularly fond of modern Chinese prose writers such as Zhou Zuoren, Zhang Zhongxing and Wang Zengqi. Prose is the best reflection of the beauty of literature and the beauty of the Chinese language. But a lot of prose on the mainland after the 1990s degenerated into “chicken soup for the soul”, barring some exceptions such as Li Juan and Zou Jingzhi. I find consolation in my heart when reading exquisite prose. The language of authors in Taiwan and Hong Kong bears a different kind of aesthetic perception from the mainland, such as masterpieces by Tang Nuo, Zhang Da-chun and Pai Hsien-yung. On the mainland, there’s a lack excellent urban stories such as The Great Gatsby and Breakfast at Tiffany’s to touch deeply on the sense of wandering, struggle and the rises and falls in urban life in a society undergoing dramatic change.
What are your plans for the coming years?
I tend not to make long-term plans. I’m still young and I don’t want to fix my life so early. Given the current fast-changing society, full of uncertainties, how does one know what exactly one will do after a decade? I’d rather focus on the things I do rather than planning, but the general direction is to keep reading and keep writing.
I have published two books and I will continue to do more. One day when I look back at my life, I hope to say that I have written really good pieces and I’ve always been improving myself. There are no boundaries to get a better understanding of the world.
There are so many self-help motivational books on the mainland, as well as romance and fantasy stories online. Will there be fewer people wanting to read serious literature?
I am a bit pessimistic about this, just like the dominance of Hollywood and the decline of European films. It’s one of the results of commercialisation. Of course, there are really excellent romances or fantasy fiction and such reading can create the illusion of happiness. As long as there is demand, there will be such products. I don’t want to make moral judgements, but I am a bit pessimistic in the short-term. Education is our only hope to improve the ability to appreciate and create beauty.