Chinese TV Show Brings Together Country’s Leading Writers to Discuss Kafka, AI
A Chinese television show featuring some of the country’s most celebrated writers has received rave reviews for its celebration of reading and writing.
The second season of the weekly show “I Read Books on an Island,” airing on Toutiao and Jiangsu Television, sees four literary figures — authors Yu Hua and Su Tong, literary editor Cheng Yongxin, and academic Ye Zi — running a bookstore on a resort island off the coast of the southern city of Zhuhai, where they discuss their favorite literature and the art of writing.
The show also includes visits from other celebrated Chinese writers. The major guest for season two, which premiered on June 15, was the Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, a roommate of Yu Hua’s at the Lu Xun School of Literature in the late 1980s.
In one scene, the writers gather around a computer and ask an artificial intelligence system to write a poem with the prompt “To Live,” the title of Yu Hua’s famous novel.
The writers agree the resulting poem is disappointing. Cheng Yongxin, the legendary editor who has worked on “To Live” and Su Tong’s novella “Wives and Concubines,” says it is “average.”
“Human civilization is too complex for machines to provide guidance, as the destiny of an individual usually goes in different directions and different areas,” Yu said. His student, Ye Xinyun, argues that AI will not replace humans in the field of literature because machines do not have feelings.
The writers also remember the difficulties of pursuing their passions when they were younger. Discussing his well-known admiration of Czech writer Franz Kafka, Yu Hua explains the challenge of finding Kafka’s works as a young aspiring writer due to the limited number of copies being sold in China in the 1980s.
Determined to get his hands on a collection of Kafka novels he found in his hometown of Hangzhou, he managed to convince his friend to trade him the collection for Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”
“Books at that time didn’t have a second edition, and I thought I would never get the book if I don’t get it this time," Yu said.
The show has been a surprise hit with viewers since its debut in November 2022, with 38 hashtags relating to the show having trended on microblogging platform Weibo, the show revealed recently.
Several state media outlets have published articles praising the show for its intellectual content. The show’s official Weibo account maintains a list of all the books mentioned in each episode.
On review site Douban, users have praised the show for motivating them to read more. Six episodes into season two, the show is one of the best rated reality shows released this year on the site, with a rating of 9.0 out of 10 from more than 1,200 reviews. The first four episodes of this season have been viewed 150 million times on Jiangsu Television, according to official data.
Yan Xiaoke, the show’s producer, told domestic outlet The Beijing News that the show has successfully appealed to a broad audience beyond dedicated readers, challenging the conventional idea in the television industry that “niche” cultural shows may fail to capture many viewers.
Superficial content can no longer satisfy the needs of the Chinese audience, she added.
The show is the latest cultural television show to gain popularity among Chinese viewers. Other hits in recent years include state broadcaster CCTV’s “National Treasure,” which explores cultural relics in detail. Meanwhile, an animated film based on ancient Chinese poetry is currently storming the domestic box office.
Editor: Vincent Chow.
(Header image: A promotional photo of the TV show. From Douban)