Two students check their cellphones in a university canteen in Taipei, Taiwan. (Photo: IC)
Yang Shu gets up promptly at seven in the morning, finishes her breakfast and grabs her mobile phone before heading off to work. On the 40-minute subway trip, she indulges in the highlight of her day: reading.
The 26-year-old white-collar worker in Shanghai logs into the social network app WeChat, quickly scrolls down vocabulary lists, reads a chapter of the novel "The Magician's Nephew," and then answers questions based on her reading.
As their workloads pile up, Chinese urbanites find little time to read.
Mint Reading, a well-known reading platform that provides content on WeChat, helps users like Yang finish reading English books over 10-minute periods each day.
The platform pushes 1,000-word reading materials each day to users based on their vocabulary, with explanations of words and allusions. After a 100-day period, users can usually finish reading three to four English classics.
"The thick volumes have been divided into fragments, which only take a few dozen minutes to finish every day. This suits modern lifestyles and thinking habits," Yang said.
She paid 149 yuan (about $23) for one reading session last month and finished reading "The Little Prince."
"I shared my accomplishment as a 'WeChat Moment' the day I finished the book. Although I was a little shy, I still felt very proud," she said.
According to a recent report by iResearch, a consulting firm, the number of China's mobile reading users reached 340 million last year, an increase of 13.2 percent year on year.
A survey published Wednesday by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication found a similar trend - digital reading has been growing in the country, with 73 percent of adults reading online and with mobile devices in 2017, up 4.8 percent year on year.
With more and more young people spending time on digital reading, apps and services are deploying more incentives to encourage persistent reading.
On WeChat Reading, another book reading app, the time you spend on reading can be exchanged for "book coins." Five hours can be converted into 10 book coins, which are worth 10 yuan and can be used to buy new digital books.
Mint Reading gives you a free printed version of the book you complete when you finish a 100-day reading session and share your reading schedule on WeChat everyday.
However, reading apps often have strict and rigid rules to stoke a sense of urgency, as most mobile phone users tend to browse aimlessly, jumping from app to app.
On Mint Reading, if you don't finish your reading tasks within 100 days, you will not be able to check any of the reading materials again even if you have paid for them. Snail Reading by NetEase provides only one hour of free reading time everyday to encourage users to take the time to focus.
While some people hate such rules, others regard them as useful incentives to overcome inertia and complete their assigned tasks.
Psychologist Ren Li believes that paid-for online reading creates a more concrete goal for users: to finish reading one book. The fragmented, everyday task is not very difficult and users enjoy a sense of achievement.
The debate over the value of fragmented reading has been heated.
On Zhihu, China's biggest online Q&A community, over one hundred users answered the question, "How do you evaluate reading apps?" It received millions of views.
Some wrote of their benefits, while skeptics criticized the concept of fragmented reading, saying it encourages over-simplification and shallow thinking.
"Fragmented reading is an inevitable result of the development of new media and technology. Though it's not a magical way of enriching people's knowledge, it is certainly not a disaster," said Wang Yanling, a mass media professor with Tianjin Normal University.
Wang believes that, with proper coaching, it could serve as an effective introduction to the classics.
Some users consider it more important in the way it changes their mobile phone habits. "I used to check my phone every day and browse aimlessly. Now, I consciously try to read some articles or books, even if it's just a few paragraphs. It's a meaningful change for me," said Liu Xiaoya, a graduate student in Beijing.