By Sofia Jesus

We need democracy” in the way we encourage children to read, Mainland China’s famous children’s books author Zheng Yuanjie said on Tuesday, March 8, in Macau.

Speaking at a session of The Script Road – Macau Literary Festival, Mr Zheng said he was not keen on recommending books. “Everyone is different” and “you cannot force children to read” something they don’t want.

Born in 1955, Mr Zheng was home-schooled by his father. “The Cultural Revolution [a sociopolitical movement that took place in the People’s Republic of China from 1966 until 1976] was bloody, but I benefited from it for having stayed at home with a tailored education,” Mr Zheng said.

It was in “a very small place” he called home that Mr Zheng fell in love with books. “I was heavily influenced by my father.”

The writer said he believed that if he had gone to primary school, like all the other kids, he may never have had “the ability to write fairy tales”. “I was free.”

Mr Zheng said he would only read the books that appealed to him. And that included forbidden books. “At that time [in China], all the good books were banned,” he said, recalling how one could still find a way to get to a university library and catch a censored book.

Growing up as an avid reader, Mr Zheng gradually started to write. “I’m a great beneficiary of reading,” he said, adding his parents “were a great inspiration”.

It is rather important that parents set an example for children” and show them how, through reading, they can “connect with writers from many years ago” and “observe the world through different angles”, the author said.

Also speaking in the session, Macau-based writer Joe Tang argued an effective way to turn your child in an avid reader would be “to be a passionate reader yourself”. Mr Tang said he grew up reading Mr Zheng’s books and still remembers how he was impressed to see “peanuts as weapons” in one of his stories.

The King of Fairy Tales

For 31 years, Mr Zheng was the sole writer of monthly children’s literature magazine King of Fairy Tales. He asked his parents whether they agreed to stay alive as long as he kept writing – his father is now 80 years old.

Mr Zheng started writing fairy tales in 1978. Pipi Lu, Lu Xixi, Luoke, Shuke and Beita are some of the characters he created. His books have been read by tens of millions of children in China, according to the Chinese press.

Mr Zheng is now a best seller, wealthy writer, and a famous blogger in Mainland China. “He has been raising awareness” in the Internet about several social issues, Mr Tang said.

Mr Zheng said he currently works for his son. The author added that he has once signed a make-believe agreement with his family pledging to live 50 years more. “And I think I will fulfil my promise.”

During the Macau Literary Festival’s session, Mr Zheng’s ability to tell stories soon took him away from the topic of literature. In a humoured talk, he gave advices on health — how to control your blood pressure without pills —, on exercise — he jogs for around half an hour everyday —, and even on how to lose weight — skip dinner; avoid noodles. Some people in the audience may have been a little surprised by the change of topic, while others may have felt hungry for more advices.

In the question and answer part of the session, a soon-to-be-graduate student told Mr Zheng she had grown up reading his books since she was two years old – but instead of asking him about a certain character he created or about his source of inspiration, she asked him for advice on entrepreneurship. And he gave it to her. For free.