Where reading is a national pastime. In China, the focus on reading and writing is steeped in Confucian tradition. It's also a must. Chinese characters are so complex and subtle that people must practice constantly to sustain their literacy.

Chinese take the printed word seriously. The nuances and traditions surrounding one Chinese character or another can provoke deep thought in the reader and often require his full attention.

Perhaps it's the Confucian tradition, which holds that man can build a harmonious society only when he is properly instructed as well as free from physical want. That instruction came from books, and - until the 20th century - memorizing the content of the classics was the very definition of education.

Few Chinese would quarrel with Confucius' teaching, though in the 1980s their reading matter is less elitist and more varied, and includes a vast popular press. Books are still precious, and China has an unusually large number of literary magazines filled with contemporary short stories and poetry.

Popular reading material has expanded rapidly in the past few years, as publishing houses aim to make a profit. Best-selling books and periodicals feature detective stories and romances or focus on popular topics such as sports, movies, and the martial arts.

It requires no small effort to learn to read. Memorizing the appearance, sound, and meaning of a Chinese character takes more concentration than learning the phonetic alphabets and vocabularies of Western languages.

Writing is an even more advanced skill than recognizing the printed character.

The complexity of written Chinese and the subtleties that differentiate the language's more than 40,000 characters require a large investment of time and constant practice with the pen to acquire and maintain literacy. A working literacy level for newspapers requires knowing at least 2,000 characters, though university-educated people may know more than five times that number.

With mass education, China's literacy rate is about 75 percent, but peasants and manual laborers may be less literate than their schooling suggests. Those who learn to read and write in secondary schools can lose those skills unless they are exercised regularly.

Mao Tse-tung's actions and his more radical policies - especially during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) - dealt modern Chinese education a major setback.

Although well read himself, he scorned those who believed expertise came only from books and criticized intellectuals ``who studied behind closed doors.''

Mao's successors, however, have a higher regard for book learning. Under senior leader Deng Xiaoping, the publishing business is booming, and translations of books and articles from the Western press are more widely available than ever.

Reading is key to helping China catch up with the West.

It's also a pleasant way to pass the time.

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