Zhu Yongxin in conversation with the iRead Foundation

On 4th May 2020, Zhu Yongxin was awarded the first IBBY-iRead Outstanding Reading Promoter Award. During the award press conference, jury president Ahmad Redza Khairuddin said, “His dedication in pursuing a multipronged approach to children’s reading has yielded significant results at all levels, from the children to parents, to teachers, from the rural areas and villages to the cities and up to policies at national level. He continues to be the driving force for reading promotion for children in his country.”

Without doubt, in the past near thirty years, from in-depth theoretical research to solid on-the-ground actions and explorations, Zhu Yongxin’s efforts in reading promotion and education development have born fruitful results. And the best manifestation of these achievements is that more and more children could have the opportunity to reach their full potentials through having “a happy and all-round educational life”.

As the national reading ambassador in China, Zhu tirelessly promoted reading like a messenger. At all kinds of reading activities and conferences -- big or small, online or in-person, in big cities or remote rural areas -- we could all find the smiley Zhu enthusiastically talking about the importance of reading. And as a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, for 18 consecutive years, he has submitted proposals about reading promotion at the national level.

During this interview, Zhu told me that someone once said that there are two most difficult things in the world. The first one is to put other people’s money into your own pocket.  The second one is to put your thoughts into other people’s minds. For many years, Zhu has taken the challenge of doing this second most difficult thing. His effort is rather effective. For example, 18 years ago, Zhu put forward the idea of “creating a campus full of the fragrance of books”. At the time, this was still a foreign idea to most people in China. Whereas in China today, almost everyone working to promote children’s reading talks about “creating a campus full of the fragrance of books”.

What is the driving force behind Zhu’s years’ dedication in reading promotion? Fundamentally, it is his understanding of reading and education. For Zhu, reading is the foundation of any kind of learning, the cornerstone of education, the cheapest yet most effective way for advancing social equity and it should be adopted as a national strategy.

Importantly, Zhu’s views on reading are based on years of extensive research and personal experience with reading. In 1978, Zhu started his study at the Department of Political History of Jiangsu Normal College, and from then on, he began to consciously read copious amount of educational works. Since then, his research on different educators’ thoughts and theories has never stopped.  On top of his research, he formed his own ideas. At the personal level, Zhu enjoyed reading from a young age and at each stage of his life, he said he gained strength and nourishment from books.

Zhu is not only a thinker and researcher, but also an actor. In 2000, Zhu launched the New Education Experiment. After 20 years’ development, more than 5200 schools have joined this deeply influential non-governmental educational experiment. Many of these schools are in remote rural areas.  The New Education Experiment has put forward 10 major actions, and the first of these 10 actions is to “create a campus full of the fragrance of books.”

If we follow Zhu's own words and measure his achievements by the yardstick of "whether you can change people's lives", he has already made great achievements. Born in 1958, Zhu is 62 years old this year. He still continues to offer future-oriented and forward-looking ideas and actions on reading and education.


Books Guide Us Like the Sun and the Moon

iRead: Congratulations on winning the IBBY-iRead Outstanding Reading Promoter Award. What were you doing and how did you feel when you received the call from the jury president?

Zhu: I saw a foreign phone call at noon that day, but I thought someone called by mistake so I didn’t answer it. In the afternoon, the same number from Malaysia called again. After answering it, I realized that it was the jury president calling. I was having dinner with my mother and sister at the time, so I shared the good news with them.

At 8:30 P. M, I punctually started watching the virtual press conference. Although I knew the results in advance, when the jury president announced the winners, I was still quite excited because it was the first time the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) established an award for individual reading promoters, and this award is also sponsored by a Chinese foundation. I felt that the efforts of myself and the team for more than 20 years have been recognized and I have won honor for the Chinese people.

iRead: For almost 30 years, you have done a lot of research and drove the development of reading and education in action. What do you think is the driving force for you to continually work in this field?

Zhu: This is based on my understanding of reading and education. I believe reading is the foundation and cornerstone of education. We can understand this idea from three perspectives.

Firstly, reading is vital for one’s spiritual growth. I’ve written a book called My Views on Reading. In this book, I put forward the idea that one’s spiritual development history is reflected in one’s reading history, and a nation’s spiritual state depends to a large extent on the nation’s reading level.

We believe books are one of the windows for us to understand history and the world. Only through books can we preserve and pass down the human wisdom and civilization. Books are the fruits of human experience and lessons, invaluable spiritual treasure of the mankind and an inexhaustible mine. No one can experience everything that has happened in history and in real life, 90% of our knowledge comes from reading. That’s why I say reading facilitates the growth of our mind.

Secondly, level of reading competency is the indicator of education level. That’s to say, a person’s education level is largely reflected by their reading competency. Throughout all the test evaluation in the world, we will find that reading skill is always the most basic element to evaluate personal education level and learning ability.

In the New Education Experiment founded by me, the first of our ten actions is to create a campus full of the fragrance of books. Reading can also help improve students’ academic performance. In the New Education Experiment’s more than 5000 schools, many of which are in rural areas. We have plenty of cases that show rural schools outperformed city schools through reading.

Thirdly, I believe reading equity is the basis of education equity. It is the most effective, inexpensive, direct and convenient way to promote social equity.

iRead: Have you always enjoyed reading yourself? What influence did your parents have on you?

Zhu: My father is a teacher. At first, he taught in a village school, and then he became the headmaster. He worked very hard and has won the National Excellent Teacher Award.

The most important gift my father gave me was the habit of getting up early. From the first grade of primary school, my father asked me to do something everyday that I hated: 5:30 in the morning, without delay he dragged me out of bed to practice calligraphy. In hot summers and freezing winters, I had to copy Liu Gongquan’s calligraphy work.

I did not become a calligrapher, but it helped me develop a good habit. Until now, every morning at about five o'clock, when people are still fast asleep, I have already started my morning reading. When people get up to wash up, I have been working for more than two hours.

My mother gave me another gift. Because my mother worked in a government guesthouse, when we were young, my brother, sister and I all lived in the guesthouse where she worked. Mother is not only the director, but also the receptionist, accountant, cashier and cleaner. We three were her special assistants.

Mother was warm and sincere to people, guests from all over the country were well treated, and they were particularly good to me and my brother and sister. In this guesthouse, we could often taste different flavors of local food from the guests, and read all kinds of books they carried with them.

It is precisely because of this experience that I have trained a new skill: fast reading. Guests with books were willing to lend me books to read, but because they might need to leave the next day, I must finish the book overnight. Reading, especially fast reading, has become my specialty and a precious gift from my mother.

iRead: I’ve heard that after you entered Jiangsu Normal College, you immersed yourself in the school library, which greatly impacted you. Could you share with us your own reading history?

Zhu: Like many rural children, I did not read much before school, and there were no books at home. After going to primary school, I knew more words and began to look for books to read. I can't remember how old I was when I suddenly fell in love with reading. From the beginning, unlike many friends who liked comic strips, I was fascinated by thick books. At that time, books were very scarce, and in remote villages, most of the books we could find were incomplete without covers and endings, but I read them with relish all the same. Although I didn't know the book titles, the plots of the books still attracted me. When I was grown up, I found out those books were classics like How the Steel was Tempered, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin and so on.

At the same time, as I mentioned just now, because of my mother's job, I read quality books that guests from all over the country carried with them.

After entering middle school, I read most of the Selected Works of Mao Zedong and Mao Zedong's Poems, and began to read some literary magazines and poems that I could find. I had a natural interest in poetry. At that time, like many teenagers, I did not know any limits and began to dream about becoming a writer, writing poems with a classmate, and writing novels under the pseudonyms of "Crossing the River" and "Crossing the Sea".

My more serious reading began in college. The year I was admitted to the Department of Political History of Jiangsu Normal College was the first year Chinese National Examination had been resumed after the Cultural Revolution. The natural career path for me at the time would be a middle school politics or history teacher after graduation.

At the beginning, I had no clear reading goal, I often just saw what books my classmates read and borrowed those. In the first year, I mostly read Selected Poems of Chinese Dynasties, as well as poems by Pushkin, Shelley and Tagore, and tried to recite some ancient and modern poems.

The second year is a year when I read more consciously. I had a deskmate Liu Xiaodong, his father had served vice minister of Ministry of Education, and was the deputy secretary of the provincial Party Committee at the time. He told me that there is much more to learn from books than from teachers. Together, we really entered the sea of books.

First, it took me several months to read historical books, such as Glory and Dream, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, General History of the World and General History of China. Later, I read the series of translations of Western classics by the Commercial Press, from Rousseau's Emil to Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, from Yuji Fukuzawa's An Encouragement of Learning to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, although I did not fully understand many of the works, after all, that was a time of spiritual fulfillment.  

While reading these great books, biographies of famous people such as Lincoln, Napoleon, Roosevelt, Madame Curie, Marx, Helen Keller became a necessity on my desk. I drew the spiritual power from all these people. To this day, I still often read biographies of famous people.

Considering that I will be a teacher in the future, I have consciously read many works of pedagogy and psychology since the second semester of my sophomore year. At that time, this included all the textbooks of the Soviet Union, from Kairov's Pedagogy to Lenin's wife Krupskaya's Educational Anthology. What I read the most was Makarenko's Educational Poems, and made a lot of notes. As a result, these notes played a role in the College's selection of some students to study Pedagogy and Psychology in Shanghai Normal University. The General Secretary of the department believed that I really love Pedagogy and Psychology.

It was two years in Shanghai that I really read Pedagogy and Psychology systematically. The teachers who taught us were all prestigious scholars. In these two years, I have also systematically read ancient Chinese classics. This laid the foundation for my book Research on Chinese Educational Thought which was completed in 1990 with nearly one million Chinese characters.

At the end of 1997, I left my work in the university and became Deputy Mayor of Suzhou in charge of education and culture. At this time, my scope of study became more extensive. I subscribed to different newspapers and journals related to the fields I was in charge of, and began to read some books on Management and Economics, such as Effective Managers, History of Western Management Thoughts, One Minute Manager.

In 2002, the New Education Experiment was officially launched. Part of my reading was closely related to the progress of the Experiment. Reading From Good to Great, I wrote more than 10,000 words of reading notes for the teachers. Reading How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, I said to the teachers of the New Education Experiment: "We can also change the world".

In the same year, Dr. Li Zhenxi and I also founded an online education website. After that, reading online posts from the teachers became a major part of my daily life. Every morning, I went on the website to communicate with the teachers for almost an hour. This gave me the opportunity to understand the joys, sorrows, and thoughts of the teachers. Many of my proposals to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and the National People's Congress came from the stories and suggestions of the teachers.

At the end of 2007, I was transferred to the Central Committee of China Association for Promoting Democracy to serve as a full-time vice chairman. The change of role required me to adjust my reading life accordingly, so I have read a large number of political theory books, such as The Tragedy of Great Powers,The Closing of the American Mind, Currency Wars and The Rise of Great Powers.

Choosing books that could help us grow based on our own career path and interest is something we should all learn to do. At different stages of life, there are always books accompanying us, these books, like the sun and the moon, give us the courage to keep moving forward.

iRead: You have read a lot of educational books. In your own books, you also often refer to their ideas. Which educators have the most influence on you?

Zhu: It should be Sukhomlinski. Of course, there are also Dewey, Tao Xingzhi, Ye Shengtao and Montessori. The reasons are probably as follows:

First, both Sukhomlinski and the New Education Experiment attach great importance to reading, believing that reading is an important basis for people's spiritual growth and the most important thing in school education.

Secondly, both Sukhomlinski and the New Education Experiment attach great importance to teachers' reading, and think that reading is the premise of teachers' professional development.

Thirdly, both Sukhomlinski and the New Education Experiment attach great importance to students' reading, which is the main way for students’ intellectual development and moral education.

Fourth, Sukhomlinski's educational thought is one of the ideological sources of the New Educational Experiment’s view on reading, but the New Educational Experiment pays more attention to the macro value of reading, emphasizing the significance of reading for the nation and the country. To a certain extent, it enriches and develops Sukhomlinski's view on reading.

Launching the New Education Experiment

iRead: The New Education Experiment can be seen as your transition from a researcher and scholar to someone taking on-the-ground actions to reform education in China, what were the reasons and opportunities for your transition?

Zhu: In 1999, I started to read books about Management, and The World According to Peter Drucker wasone of them. It turned out to be life changing for me. I was struck by a story from the book. One day, Drucker, accompanied by his father, went to visit his teacher Mr. Schumpeter, another master of management. Schumpeter said to the Druckers that, “In my age, I know that to have my name remembered by future generations, my books and theories alone are insufficient. They are of no significance unless they can change people’s life.” It suddenly dawned to me that despite all the books I had written, I didn’t actually get involved in the life of education, not to mention affect or change teachers’ life. So I decided to change the way I talk, the way I do things, to truly get involved with the teachers and the life of education.

But it’s easier said than done, to get down from the ivory tower and dive into the real life. I needed an intermediary. I needed to change not only how I think, how I feel, but also how I work. While my mind was absorbed in it, that summer, Jiangsu Education News Press convened a conference on innovation education in Suzhou and asked me to share my view on what an ideal teacher should be with the rest delegates. Through that speech, I found the way to express my thoughts on education and the way to relate to teachers and the life of education. After the speech, I was invited to share my education ideal with young teachers at Hutangqiao Central Primary School. The headmaster of the school really resonated with my views and took holistic actions in her school. After a few years’ work, the school has undergone tremendous change.

iRead: Against what background was the New Education Experiment launched at the time?

Zhu: Since the late 1980s, “educational crisis” has become a key word in world education. In June 1987, the World Council for Comparative Education Societies was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with the theme of “Education, Crisis and Change”.

In China, the reform and opening up has brought about the rapid development of education, but also caused problems such as excessive emphasis on exam results and other social dissatisfaction with education. In 1999, Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council promulgated the “decision on deepening educational reform and comprehensively promoting quality education”. At the same time, various educational reform explorations have emerged.

After entering the 21st century, future-oriented educational innovation was surging in the world. Taking the United States as an example, there was the Higher Education reform represented by Minerva University, which tried to break the traditional university curriculum system and teaching methods. There was the American High Tech High School (HTH)’s project-based learning exploration. There was Acton College that tried to break the traditional grade system of teaching according to age, and the new education platform represented by Khan College and Stanford Online High School.

In China, the educational reform in the new century was also on the rise. For example, there were classroom reforms represented by Dulangkou Middle School, curriculum reforms represented by Beijing No.11 School, as well as explorations by Montessori, Waldorf and other schools.

Among all these exploratory practices, the New Education Experiment has taken on a unique path and stood out among others.

iRead: The core idea of the New Education Experiment is living a happy, all-round educational life. What does this mean? Could you explain a bit more to us?

Zhu: Living a happy, all-round educational life is a core idea put forward by the New Education Experiment six years after its foundation. We define the New Education Experiment as an educational experiment that proceeds from teachers’ growth, features ten major actions including creating a campus full of the fragrance of books, and aims to help teachers and students (everyone involved in the New Education Experiment) live a happy and all-round educational life.

We hold that education should of course be future-oriented, but also relevant to now. Education reflects the way we live, the way we behave. As a path towards a good life, education should be enjoyable and enable all participants to live a happy, complete life.

The idea "living a happy, all-round educational life" reflects the New Education Experiment’s understanding of education and happiness and life.

Firstly, education is life. “Education is life” is the basic viewpoint of John Dewey's educational thought. He said, "school itself must be a kind of social life, with all the meaning of social life." In China, families and schools often separate education from life, believing that education is for the future, preparing for future work and life. The New Education believes that education itself is life, education is the way of life, and is the way of action. Education, as a means to promote a better life, should be an end in itself and a happy and complete life. While education serves the long-term life and social ideals, teachers and students should also enjoy the present educational life.

Secondly, education is a special kind of life. Education is a kind of life, but it is a special kind of life, which must ensure the full growth of the educated individual life and realize the hope of society for a future citizen. In this sense, it is a special kind of educational life. As Dewey said, "a school must be a simplified society; adult society is huge and complicated, and schools must be well-organized; adult society is intermingled, and schools must be filtered and optimized; adult society contains conflicts and biases, and schools should seek a balance among various influences." Therefore, as a special life, it must have a certain degree of selectivity, transcendence. Moreover, this kind of educational life can not only be equated with the educational life of schools, but also includes the educational life of families and communities, which is a ubiquitous educational life and a lifelong learning life from cradle to grave.

Thirdly, educational life should be happy. Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, once said happiness is the ultimate goal of all our actions. The reason why we do all other things is to obtain happiness in the end. Since education is to strive to promote everyone to live a happy life, it should also be happy. We also know from history and present that people cannot be truly happy from the simple rich material life, inner peace and spiritual enjoyment is the experience of happiness. The mind and morality are the most noble parts of humans, and happiness is the perfection of spirit and morality. Only when people are satisfied spiritually and morally can they have real happiness.

We have noticed that under the background of exam-oriented education, many children's childhood life is full of unsparing competition and constant failure, with no beautiful dreams in their hearts and sparkles in their eyes. The mission of the New Education Experiment is not only the pursuit of ultimate meaning of education, but also providing alternatives to the current deformity in our education.

Fourthly, educational life should be complete and all-rounded. Happiness is the purpose and direction; all-roundedness is the quality measurement. Happiness is more important than success, and growth is more important than exam results. Education is complete only when it can stretch life’s length, width and depth. A man is complete only when he becomes himself. To cultivate a complete human being is the highest pursuit of education.

After all, the New Education Experiment is an education for all-round development in China. Despite all the big talks about education for all-round development over the years, exam-oriented education still prevails in reality. The root cause is that we have too many theories about education for all-round development, but too few actions. Despite all the controversy and disagreement on what education for all-round development is, we believe there are three standards that probably everyone agrees on.

First, education for all-round development should be for all students, coinciding with our idea that the New Education Experiment is for all people. Second, education for all-round development should promote students’ development in all aspects, closely linked to our idea that education is for everything of man as well as our development theory and lofty ideal theory. Third, education for all-round development should be sustainable, echoing our idea that we should teach students things that are helpful in their lifetime. Therefore, the New Education Experiment is an attempt and exploration of education for all-round development.

More importantly, the New Education Experiment is taking concrete actions to lay the foundation for education for all-round development. The most important quality of a person is his ability of spiritual growth and one’s history of spiritual growth can be tracked from their reading history. Hence education for all-round development should start from reading, and reading should be the cornerstone of education for all-round development. We must promote reading so as to translate our huge population into human resources assets. Without reading, there’s no education for all-round development.

iRead: 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of New Education Experiment. Looking back on the New Education Experiment’s past 20 years’ journey, what development do you see? What are some of the important events that you could share with us?

Zhu: Roughly the New Education Experiment has four development phases. The preparation phase (1986 - 1999), the initial phase (1999-2002), the deepening phase (2002-2013) and the completion phase (2013 - 2020).

The conception of the New Education Experiment can be traced back to the late 1980s. This period is pre-New Education Experiment period. During this time, I extensively and systematically researched educational theories both by Chinese and international authors. This preparation phase paved the way for launching the New Education Experiment later on, however, this preparation was unconscious.

After I read The World According to Peter Drucker, I gradually transitioned from a scholar to an actor. On the New Year’s Day of 2000, I completed My Ideal on Education, which included my lectures in Suzhou and Hutangqiao Central Primary School. I wrote a poem for the preface, which said, “I believe that the ideal of education will be a new movement of the Chinese nation, I believe that the ideal of education will bear new fruits of the Chinese civilization."

In some way, this poem can be seen as the declaration of the birth of the New Education Experiment.

My Ideal on Education systematically put forth some goals of ideal education. The book kindled the passion for education among numerous teachers. But some dismissed it as an ideal that would never come true for the hands of principals and teachers are tied in the exam-oriented education system. But I believed that wisdom of education lied in spotting the potential for greatest development in a limited space. In the same institutional environment, some schools and teachers were doing exceptionally well while most others were dawdling away. The biggest difference is their initiative. By then, I had naturally come up with this idea of founding the New School Experiment and exploring a new path of education for the country.

The initial phase of the Experiment is the process of from unconsciousness to consciousness, from thought and ideal to action and practice. From the birth of the New Educational Experiment, we can see that the power of ideals is indeed very powerful. As the French writer Victor Hugo once said, "An ideal at its time can defeat any powerful army."

In the phase of deepening the Experiment, we focused on developing curriculum, trainings and different projects. In September 2002, Yufeng Experimental School of Kunshan started to practice the New Education Experiment, marking the official launch of the New Education Experiment.

At Yufeng Experimental School, we proposed five actions. 1) Create a campus full of the fragrance of books; 2) Teachers and students write essays together 3) Listen to the voice outside the window; 4) Train eloquent speakers; 5) Build a digital community.

In 2006, we proposed the core value of the New Education Experiment: live a happy and all-round educational life.

In just a few years, the New Education Experiment expanded to involve more than one million students and more than 60,000 teachers in over 500 experimental schools in 14 experimental areas, which were in over 20 provinces and municipalities.

In 2010, Jiangsu Changming Education Foundation, or the New Education Foundation, was founded. The main role of the New Education Foundation is to share good new education stories, reward excellent educational innovation projects, support areas with scarce education resources, and transform achievements of the New Education Experiment to non-profit projects.

In 2012, we added four more actions to the Experiment, which are “One Thing per Month”, “Create the Ideal Classroom”, “Develop Excellent Curriculum”, and “Family-School Cooperation”.

In the completion phase, which started in 2013 and continues to the present, we systematically developed the New Education Curriculum, enriched and improved the theoretical framework.

As of 2019, there are 11 prefecture-level experimental areas, 152 county-level experimental areas and 5215 New Education Experiment schools in China, with more than 5.6 million teachers and students participating in the New Education Experiment.

Twenty years, for a person, is a period of time from the babbling toddler to vigorous youth. For the New Education Experiment, it is a development process from one person's dream to a group of people's dream, and then to a team's ideal; it is a process from the exploration in one school to the having more than 5200 schools joining the Experiment. For an education team that strives to become a century-old shop, we are still very young, and facing many new challenges and puzzles, but we will always be on the road and continue to strive for a better society.

iRead: It’s very impressive that the New Education Experiment has influenced more than 5200 schools. This is a tremendous achievement. How can one school join the New Education Experiment?

Zhu: There are two ways to participate in the New Education Experiment. One way is to act first and formally join later on. Schools that intended to join the New Education Experiment could start their effort through relevant network within the New Education Experiment, record their activities, communicate with other schools and keep close touch with the New Reading Research Institute. Or they could carry out the work first in their schools by themselves and submit relevant information late.

Another way is to apply formally first and then join in and carry out their work. Areas or schools intending to join the New Education Experiment would submit the application form to the New Reading Research Institute. After the Institute has conducted its investigation and examination, the applicants would be admitted and be officially inducted on the New Education Experiment annual conference.

iRead: “Create a campus full of the fragrance of books” is the first of the ten New Education Experiment actions. With the support of the New Education Experiment, how will the schools carry out this action? Could you share with us some good examples?

Zhu: Shortly after the start of the New Education Experiment, we clearly put forward the idea of "creating a campus full of the fragrance of books". At that time, this was still a new concept. Almost 20 years later, it has become a popular idea widely used and accepted by many people.

This action is designed to create a reading atmosphere, integrate reading resources, launch rich reading activities, make reading part of the daily life of the teachers and students and eventually create a reading society.

“Creating a campus full of the fragrance of books” plays a fundamental role at any level of education, especially in primary school, which is the most critical period for students to develop their reading interest, skills and habit. I have always believed that school is essentially a place where teachers and students read, explore and seek knowledge together. Without reading, there is no education, and no school.

As for how a primary school can build a reading campus, there are many methods. Whether it is guidance from primary school teachers or read aloud at home, they are all important part of creating a campus full of the fragrance of books. Generally speaking, I think a school needs to do the following.

Firstly, there should be a good library and other reading related facilities that can be easily accessed by all students on campus. The school should carefully select and purchase grade-appropriate books that suit students at different ages and can be used for different school subjects and project-based learning. The school should appoint the teacher that loves reading the most to be the librarian. Library needs to be the center of learning. Moreover, the school should try it best to keep the library open all day long, and allows students to come to the library to look for information and carry out research-based learning. The school can also put some books in class libraries and in each grade’s book corridors, so that students can access books more conveniently.

Creating a reading environment on campus is very important, because students are very sensitive to the environment. Therefore, many schools have built "magical bookstore" on campus, decorated the library with scenes in fairy tales and made the school and class libraries students’ favorite places.

Milky Way Experimental Primary School in Hangzhou has done great work in the creation of a reading campus. The gate of the school is like a scroll unfolding slowly, implying that in Milky Way School, reading is as natural as breathing. The ten main roads on campus are named after ten world classics, which shows the school’s educational idea of "classics nourish souls". At the same time, they put forward the idea of "making the classroom a library". The school library has a collection of 40,000 books, as well as many books used for shared reading in the classrooms.


Furthermore, the School registered every student at the city’s public library and shared the public library’s resources. In doing so, they guided the students to develop the habit of using resources in public libraries.

I would also like to stress the importance of ensuring reading time and including reading sessions in school curriculum. For years, the New Education Experiment has been developing reading courses. We introduced the idea of “reading aloud in the morning, reading at noon and reflection in the evening”, which can be incorporated into the school’s daily schedule. Take Galaxy Primary School as an example, they included reading in the school timetable and allocated the best time to reading. As soon as students arrive in school, it’s 20-minute free voluntary reading time. Two mornings each week are for morning read-aloud. At noon on Wednesdays are shared reading time and Monday afternoons are for watching films.

Finally, it is about organizing reading activities. In the New Education Experiment’s schools, reading activities are organized in a variety of way, which include: campus reading festival on September 28th, reading month on different topics, book sharing activities, book flea market, class reading competition, book making by students, writing book reviews, theater performance and so on. For example, Qingying Foreign Language School in Wujin has organized a Fairy Tale Festival, which involved all the children reading fairy tales, studying about fairy tales and participating in theater plays based on fairy tales.

Start Reading From Reading Quality Books

iRead: You have always stressed the importance of quality books for children’s reading. Over the years, you have dedicated a lot of time and energy in curating a variety of book lists. Why do you think it’s important to curate these book lists?

Zhu: The first issue any reader faces is what to read. Many books are worthless waste paper. Some books are even worse; they are poisons for young people’s souls.  I’ve seen many books unsuited for children and young adults lying in school libraries. Clearly there are many problems in the process of book purchase for primary and middle school libraries.

In China, there are 400,000 books being published every year, 300,000 of which are new books. What kind of books should a school library purchase? What books are suitable for children? For many years, there were very few independent book lists recommending quality books that meet the needs of children and young people.

At the same, we also found that it’s quite common that primary and middle school students rarely read, have little interest in reading and have limited access to quality books. We often say we need a balanced diet and it’s the same for reading, which needs to be balanced and well structured. Therefore, I believe choosing good books is the most critical part of starting a reading life.

iRead: You have established New Reading Research Institute in 2010, an organization that primary focus on developing book lists. What are some of the results the Institute produced?

Zhu: Since 2010, we have curated a series of book lists for children aged 0 - 18 years, as well as book lists for teachers, parents, entrepreneurs, civil servants and so on. In 2016, I have started developing the first subject based book list in China named Primary School Subject Book List.

iRead: I know one of the book lists you published is China Primary School Library Core Book List. Could you use this book list as an example and share with us the ideas, guidelines and procedure for developing a book list at New Reading Research Institute?

Zhu: China Primary School Library Core Book List consists of 100 books, which include 30 essential books and 70 recommended books. During the research and development process, after a lot of discussions within the team, we have formed some basic guidelines.

Firstly, we pay attention to the books’ core values. We believe truthfulness, goodness and kindness are the most basic and generally accepted values. Works in literature, science and humanities are all effective ways to show truthfulness, goodness and kindness.

Secondly, we not only respect children’s interest, but also emphasize the guidance from books. We take a children centered stance, thoroughly considering if the books will be enjoyed and understood by children. We believe, only when we fully respect children’s interest, children will read independently. However, we also think it’s important to not just please children but give children necessary guidance, and connect them to truly valuable books.

Thirdly, we are not only mindful of market forces, but also pay attention to the work’s timelessness. During the book curation process, we have reached the consensus that we should pay attention to best-selling books, but should not use sales volume as the sole judging criteria. If there are some published quality books that were not well received by the market, we should use the book list as a good way to recommend them.

Fourthly, we not only highlight the books’ delightfulness, but also engage readers’ thinking. When choosing a book, we try to consider those reflecting children’s real life, so that children do not feel too distant from the book. But at the same time, we hope these books can give children a higher sense of meaning and reflection. All the great children’s books are not just telling a simple story, normally behind these stories, there are important timeless topics about humanity that every kid can think about.

Fifthly, we not only value our traditional culture, but also emphasize global perspectives. As this is a book list for Chinese children, it’s important to bring out China’s thousands of years’ traditions and include local Chinese authors’ books. At the same time, classics from other countries are also valuable spiritual wealth that should be shared by all the children in the world.

The research and selection process for China Primary School Library Book List is very rigorous. The Selection Committee comprised of scholars and experts in different fields. From September 2010 to April 2011, we convened a work meeting every month. We have also done extensive survey both online and offline, including organizing trial reading in 10 schools and collecting thousands of questionnaires from students, teachers and parents.

iRead: As a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, you have submitted many proposals related to reading. Could you tell us more about this?

Zhu: From 2003 to 2020, I have submitted around 30 proposals related to reading at each year’s Two Sessions. Some of the proposals included establishing a national reading festival, adopting “reading for all” as a national strategy, promoting reading as a way to advance social equity and so on.

For 18 consecutive years, I have submitted the proposal on establishing a national reading festival, which has yet to be passed. Many people asked me why I am so persistent. My answer is this. The national reading festival proposal is still about reading and I believe reading is the most effective education, and the best way to improve people’s livelihood and the most convenient way to improve equity in education.

iRead: What changes do you think your advocacy has brought?

Zhu: Children’s reading is now a beautiful sight in the entire society in China. Many authors have realized the importance of children’s reading and because of this, a lot of authors for adult books have also started writing children’s books.

More than 20 years ago, many families were not aware of the importance of children’s reading, a lot of parents would even confiscate any non-textbooks, thinking reading books would negatively affect school performance.

In the past 30 years, I have seen more and more original children’s literature written by Chinese authors as well as more quality works. When I just started researching for book lists, it was difficult for us to balance the quality of selected books and the proportion of books by Chinese authors. Sometimes it was extremely difficult to find excellent original Chinese titles. This situation has changed a lot today. For example, in the 2019 Children’s Book List published by New Reading Research Institute, 76% of the books were original books and the biggest prize was given to One Big River, an amazing original children’s book.

Zhu Yongxin in conversation with the iRead Foundation
Winner of the 2020 IBBY-iRead Outstanding Reading Promoter Award