Being stuck on the Beijing subway may well be the worst part of the day for many people. But Zhu Liwei had her day brightened when one winter morning she saw a man reading.
by Xinhua writer Yuan Quan
Stockholm, April 23 (ChinaEuropeNet) -- Zhu Liwei, 36, is just one of many commuters during rush hour in Beijing, but she stands out as she focuses her lens on like-minded readers on the notoriously overcrowded subway.Her photo album "Readers on the Beijing Subway" contains more than 1,600 images captured during the book editor's hourlong daily commute from her home in the suburbs to her workplace, a publishing house in downtown Beijing. The album, compiled over the last three years, has drawn 156,000 hits since she first shared it on the social media platform Douban.Being stuck on the Beijing subway may well be the worst part of the day for many people. But on a winter morning in 2018, Zhu, who is happy to open a book amid the hustle and bustle, had her day brightened when she saw a man reading an economics book and holding a pen.To her surprise, she has found people reading books on the subway almost every day since. This has challenged her stereotype of subway commuters, who she used to think did nothing but stare at their phones.Since that first sighting, she has been fishing out her cell phone whenever she sees someone reading a book (including e-books) on her daily commute.In this photo taken by Zhu Liwei, a man is sitting on a bench in the crowd and reading a book. (Provided to Xinhua)Some portraits are amusing -- a studious man unfolding a bench amid the noisy crowd and sitting down to digest a science book; a spectacled, gray-haired man reading an English teaching magazine; and a woman with colorful nails and painted red lips digging into "War and Peace."She never thought her work could attract a big audience, but her photos went viral and the hashtag #ReadingOnSubway became a trending topic online. She also gained fame when she appeared on a well-known state media TV show in 2018. Several documentary series featuring Zhu were released last year on video-sharing platforms, drawing tens of millions of hits.Some viewers said that she had made the subway an underground library; Some said that reading her posts was just like "following a fascinating TV series." Others commented that they felt "warmed" and "inspired to begin reading on their commute." One netizen even recognized himself in one of her pictures.Many of her followers are avid readers themselves. "I seem to see myself commuting every day," said one netizen."I take the subway just to use the commute to read, forcing me to improve my work efficiency and develop the habit of reading books," said another."Some of the messages seem to be self-affirming. They tell themselves not to give up reading at any time," said Zhu.Combo photo taken by Zhu Liwei on the subway (Photo provided to Xinhua)As an editor, she gains a sense of professional satisfaction. "When almost everyone is overwhelmed by a mess of fragmented information on their screens, the book readers on the subway are quietly rewarding bookmakers," said Zhu.Even last year, when the COVID-19 epidemic was at its worst, there were still many people reading on the subway."Reading during a commute may be a way for these subway riders to gain mental immunity," said Zhu. "Wearing masks and gloves, they still reached for their books to sharpen their minds."Zhu seldom talks to her subjects for fear of disturbing them. She is also careful about the privacy of readers, capturing just their backs, the sides of their faces, or close-ups of the books in their hands.Though her pictures offer limited information -- nothing more than slender fingers, gray hair, a bulging belly, a red scarf or jeans riddled with holes -- the photographer always derives pleasure from the books and the people behind them.
Combo photo by Zhu Liwei shows passengers reading on the Beijing subway. (Photo provided to Xinhua)She once marveled at a couple leaning against one another while reading one book. "They were so in tune that they were able to turn the page at the same pace," said Zhu.A restless boy once became quiet after noticing a martial arts novel held by a lady sitting next to him. "I saw that he was deeply attracted to the book and read it along the journey without saying a word," Zhu said, recalling the moment.On another occasion, Zhu summoned the courage to ask a middle-aged man why he was reading "A Dream of Red Mansions," a Chinese classic but a tough novel to read. The man said his daughter, who was in high school, was reading the book and he wanted to read it together with her.Many people are now imitating her by taking photographs of people reading on the subway, but some are critical and say she is pursuing fame. Zhu ignores these voices and continues capturing her images."The purpose of my photography is very simple: to record beautiful reading moments."In this photo by Zhu Liwei, a couple are reading one book on their subway seats. (Photo provided to Xinhua)She made a list of over 750 books and magazines that she has spotted on her commute over the past three years. The largest category is classical literature. Books about China and international relations are also becoming more popular.Guide books for vocational qualification exams, such as those for certified public accountant, civil servant and foreign language proficiency exams, have also appeared frequently on the list.She thinks these books not only reflect the fierce competition in the metropolis, but also imply that "more people are striving to become better versions of themselves."Zhu Liwei (Photo provided to Xinhua)Zhu was born in a village in the city of Qufu, Shandong Province -- the birthplace of Confucius. Locals respect teachers and value reading. However, growing up in an ordinary family, Zhu had limited access to books. That led her to digest textbooks with enthusiasm, and she can still recite from the articles she read in school three decades ago.After graduating from college, she chose to become a book editor. It is not a lucrative job but she enjoys it very much.In 2019, Zhu received an award from The Beijing News in recognition of her subway reading photography. The newspaper commented, "At a time when mobile phones dominate people's spiritual lives, the crowded subway might be the worst reading place. But Zhu's work reminds us that reading books is not a luxury but accessible and a daily necessity.""I don't photograph subway readers to urge people to read books on the move, but to show that we can open a book anytime and anywhere, to feel the joy of reading," said Zhu. ■
Editor Xuefei Chen Axelsson
Xuefei Chen Axelsson is an independent media person. She has been a journalist for 30 years. She studied English, International politics, and sustainable development. She has been to Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and America, Canada, France, Germany, Spain and all the nordic countries including Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Britain. She is good at talking with all kinds of people and exchange ideas and serves as a bridge between China and the world.